Saturday, 8 October 2011

Suor Angelica, Fulham Opera

There is inherent drama in a group of nuns (any closed clerical order, perhaps). The austerity of an existence of service and humility will at one time or another be either too claustrophobic for some or an attractive retreat for others. Consequently, the drama within such a group depends both upon the outside world and upon the background of the characters within. The films The Sound Of Music (1965) and Black Narcissus (1947) deal in changing political realities tipping only marginally suitable women of the cloth into danger. This is also the case in probably the purest example, Carl Dreyer's The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (1928) - Maria Falconetti's Joan isn't battling to defend or escape the walls of a building but her own body. The modern political reality (of the Inquisition) is outside in the courtroom whilst the battle she ultimately wins is with her faith in God, a conflict sealed up inside her head.

I mention this as Puccini's Suor Angelica concerns an young woman with a complicated backstory, who is tipped into tragedy following outside intervention; her eleventh hour re-assertion of faith and consequent redemption is dramatised as if projected from her posthumous conscience. It is a straightforward tale which Puccini renders in an hour of relative composure (i.e. without the dramatic punch of Il Tabarro or the comic tumble of Gianni Schicci, the other two operas that bookend Suor Angelica in Il Trittico) and which Fulham Opera have produced for a pair of performances with minimal fuss.

Puccini's music moves with a certain homophony, and melody in parallel intervals, rather like the lines of nuns processing in and out of the space in twos. Rendered on the piano, this music takes on a carillon-like identity, the bell-like tones being perfectly apposite for piece and space alike. Ben Woodward plays without intrusion.

Elizabeth Capener sings Angelica, a sizeable soprano voice which comes into its own in the high-lying climaxes of passion. Joining her in the decisive central sequence, Sara Gonzalez plays the Zia Principessa as a version of Verdi's Grand Inquisitor, worldly, omnipotent with a sound to match it. It's a powerful, almost choking section of the production, with Angelica subjugated on her knees downstage.

This climate of hauteur is propagated across those in clerical garments. Director Zoƫ South, as La Badessa, delivers with her eyes on stage what she delivers with a cane off it. Melanie Lodge sings the severe sister Zelatrice, a sort of bad cop to good cop Cathy Bell's compassionate La Maestra, high and low mezzo-sopranos from whom I wish Puccini had allowed us to hear more. In the ensemble of junior nuns there were also a smattering of well-taken ariosi, most notably Nuria Luterbacher's plangent Nurse.

Again Fulham Opera provide surtitles projected onto the back wall of the church, a welcome addition to the production, sung in Italian. However, they do fight with the immutable altar in the centre of the staging area in St John's Church: the action is necessarily off-centre or sequestered in the gloom behind it. I would also question putting so much of the action sitting or kneeling. It can be difficult to see what's going on, even from the third or fourth row. I didn't catch anything of the supernatural coda to the drama, seeing the boy for the first time only at the curtain call. Not to worry - this performance rung with good singing, not least in the final 'off-stage' chorus, a terrific peal of devotional ardour.

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