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PREVIEW: Behind the Story – Before Out of the Box Opera’s Suor Angelica

The interior of the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, MN, which will host Out of the Box Opera’s production of Puccini’s opera Suor Angelica.

In the spring of 1904, the composer Giacomo Puccini was at an impasse. To the public eye, his life and career were flying high: he had married in January, the new version of his opera Madama Butterfly in Breschia was a hit, and his earlier operas Tosca and La bohème continued to dominate stages around the world. (In some senses, none of that has changed after more than a century.) But the composer was hunting, desperately, for the next story to set as an opera.

During sleepless nights, Puccini wrote letters to poets, novelists, and playwrights across Europe, trying to find a new collaborator and a new subject that would capture both his and the public’s eye. “My soul [has] gone astray],” he wrote in a letter to the playwright Valentino Soldani. “My mind is in flames.” And might the playwright be willing to adapt his new play Margherita da Cortona, about a 13th-century Tuscan woman who had become a Franciscan nun and experienced numerous mystic visions after giving birth to an illegitimate child, as an opera libretto?

In 1920, Puccini wrote his friend Sybil Seligman to claim about producers wanting to make substitutions related to his operas, including Suor Angelica.

Soldani and Puccini worked for 15 months before Puccini called the collaboration quits. The pair’s correspondence shows the composer repeatedly requesting more mysticism and action, only to be dissatisfied with the new drafts that arrived by mail. Still, the idea lingered on, simmering in the background.

It was in 1914, amidst the opening stages of what would become the First World War, that Puccini met an up-and-coming opera singer-turned-journalist named Giovacchino Forzano. The composer approached Forzano with his idea of writing a trio of 1-act operas, each loosely aligned with one of the three books of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Puccini already had a detailed story sketch for the first opera, which became Il tabarro, so Forzano declined to write its libretto. For the other two operas, however, Forzano proposed a original stories that caught the composer’s imagination. For the treatment of Heaven, Forzano sketched out what would become Gianni Schicchi. For the treatment of Purgatorio, Forzano proposed a melodramatic, mystical fable involving a nun hiding from the baggage of an illegitimate birth. That idea – similar in concept, but considerably faster-paced than Soldani’s sketches – would become Suor Angelica.

In Out of the Box Opera’s production of Suor Angelica, which opens Wednesday at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, the action unfolds in three different spaces across the historic building. In 1918, however, Puccini was looking for a more lavish, traditional staging. Wartime budget cuts (and the drafting of performers) were continuing to take their toll at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome (now the Teatro Reale dell’Opera di Roma), and Puccini decided to accept an offer from across the ocean. The world premiere of Suor Angelica (and its fellow 1-act operas) took place at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on December 14, 1918.

The plot of Suor Angelica begins as a sort of slice-of-life in a 17th-century Italian convent. Far from being strict, dour penitents, however, the nuns gossip, none the least about their respective desires for worldly pleasures. But past sins have trailed Sister Angelica (“suor” is Italian for “sister”) – before joining the convent, she gave birth to an illegitimate son, and was sent to the convent in disgrace. A full 20 years later, that history boils up again, thrust back into the spotlight by the complexities of inheritance.

If you’ve seen, well, any Puccini opera ever, you probably know what’s coming up next. Beset by grief and longstanding guilt, Sister Angelica dies – but not without first giving voice to some of Puccini’s most heart-aching music for the voice. In Out of the Box Opera’s

“We are incredibly honored to partner with The Basilica of Saint Mary to bring audiences this absolutely singular immersive operatic experience,” said David Lefkowich, Out of the Box Opera’s Artistic Director and the show director. “The Basilica itself has so much theatrical beauty that just setting foot inside transports you.”

An original poster for the Metropolitan Opera’s world premiere presentation of Il Trittico in 1918. Suor Angelica was first premiered at the Metropolitan Opera as part of a collection of three short operas by Puccini, and has frequently been staged with these other two operas since. However, its religious content led the opera to be banned in the Soviet Union, and it did not appear on a Russian stage for more than a decade after the USSR dissolved.

The overlapping creative team for Suor Angelica includes:

  • Stephen Hargreaves, music director and conductor;
  • Johan Van Parys, the Basilica’s director of liturgy and sacred arts;
  • Patrick Schneider, the Basilica’s director of music;
  • Carson Rose-Schneider, chorus master for Out of the Box Opera; and
  • Christopher Verdosci, stylist for the production.

The principal cast includes: Alexandra Loutsian as Suor Angelica, Lucy Thrasher as La Badessa (the Abbess), Alice Chung as La Zia Principessa, Jennifer Eckes as La Zelatrice (the Monitor), and Natalia Harrison as Suor Genovieffa.  They are joined by chorus members Natalia Harrison, Lucy Thrasher, Alyssa Burdick, Eryn Tvete, Corissa Bussian, Emily Cottam, Sarah Kuhlmann, Justine Scarbrough, Amy Wolf, Anna Beth Baker, Kristina Dudley, and Victoria Erickson.

Thirty-one members of the Basilica of St. Mary’s Cathedral Choir and 22 players from the STRINGenius orchestra are also part of the musical ensemble.

Suor Angelica runs at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis from June 26-29, 2024.

Basil Considine