Do you love opera? A lot of people say it’s an acquired taste, and that may be. After all, the perceived wisdom decrees that you often have to sit there from one to any number of hours listening to a lot of sung exposition while waiting for the arias you recognize from NPR. And that’s so wrong. I love the ones I’ve seen so far– not only has the staging been beautifully done in all cases, but the voices were superb. I must commend the Orlando Opera for always giving its level best.
We experienced two here in Orlano very recently– Giacomo Puccini’s Suor Angelica, and Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana.
First, a side note about Puccini. My grandmother had a best friend named Iolanda “my doctor and lawyer sons have mansions on Long Island” Puccini, who lived in Brooklyn. The apartment house she called home featured a tiled lobby floor featuring swastikas in the design. I saw them myself, though everyone knew they were patterned after the ancient American Indian symbol whose four arms point in a direction opposite those in the Nazi version. Iolanda also worked in a wholesale bakery, and she would often bring us boxes of vanilla and chocolate butter cookies. (Lois? Tony? Gina? Do you remember?) One day when I was about three, the phone rang in my grandmother Giorgia’s kitchen, and I scrambled up onto a chair and answered; it was Iolanda. As soon as I recognized her mellifluous voice, I asked “are you going to bring us cookies?” Then, out of nowhere, a hand appeared and connected with my mouth. I fell off the chair as Giorgia admonished “you never ask anyone for ANYTHING!!!” To this day, I have trouble asking for anything; as a result, I am very independent and can tie my own shoes without help.
Back to the opera. We attended opening night of a three-night run, and it was a Friday evening with no job to go to in the morning, so I dressed up. (See picture.) All that red had me blending into the theatre’s plush, red seats, so all you could see were the whites of my eyes in the dark. Don’t shoot!! Yet, I was upstaged by the furs and the hats and the gowns and the sequins, but no matter– nobody was taking my picture anyway.
Puccini’s Suor Angelica is an hour-long opera, one third of his Il Trittico. You probably know one of the other thirds thanks to its famous aria– Gianni Schicchi features the gorgeous O mio babbino caro, which any number of divas have sung or recorded over the years; it is also the musical centerpiece of that fabulous movie set in Florence, A Room With A View. And the lyrics are simple, in keeping with opera’s roots as entertainment for the common people: “Oh dear daddy, I want that guy… I love him, and he’s going downtown to buy me a ring. If you don’t let me marry him, I’ll throw myself into the River Arno!”
Suor Angelica is simple too– young Sister Angelica is a resident of a convent, and it turns out that she was put there by her family because, at a very young age, Angelica bore a child out of wedlock. Scandalosa!! The story opens with a group of sisters singing about their day, giving voice to what they’d indulge in if they weren’t behind the walls: fruit… favorite foods… that sort of thing. Angelica denies any such wishes, and the other nuns chide her: LIAR !!! Of course you long for something… you long for news from your family ! Angelica demurs– as the apothecary nun for the convent, skilled at brewing cures from herbs and flowers, she’s not about to belittle her position by admitting any weaknesses.
So. Sister Angelica receives a visitor one day– an aged, imperious aunt who has come to announce that Angelica’s younger sister, Anna Viola, is getting married. Angelica is told by her aunt to sign away her rights to a family inheritance inheritance, figuring that she’s going to be walled up inside a convent for the rest of her life. (The parents are both dead.) Sister Angelica is appalled– how can her aunt be so cold?? Has she no compassion? And what about my baby… the baby I gave birth to seven years ago, that was ripped from my arms as I was sent to this convent… the Virgin Mary will damn you to eternity for being such a bitch! (Or words to that effect.) The aunt finally admits it: your baby boy died two years ago. The news hits her like a brick, and Angelica falls to the ground in grief; she is made to sign the paper, and the aunt goes offstage, with not one word of sympathy for her niece.
Then we get the famous aria: Senza mamma o bimbo, tu sei morto! Le tue labbra, senza i baci miei, scoloron fredde, fredde! E chiudesti, bimbo, gli occhi belli! Without a mother, my baby, you died! Your lips without my kisses grew pale and cold! And you closed, my baby, your beautiful eyes! By now the audience is practically prostrate with grief. I know I was– when I first heard the recording, starring the great Renata Scotto, I cried my eyes out. Picture it: Hattiesburg, Mississippi, 1985. I’m hanging out with Sammy Polk and his music major friends, and they play a recording that turns out to be Scotto’s Suor Angelica. Tears… I’m splashing tears all over the place as they translate the lyrics for me, right there in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, the home of the Cat Lady and the Drive-In Funeral Parlor. .
Okay. We next see Sister Angelica as she mixes a potion of herbs and flowers which promise to be lethal– she has decided to end her own life so that she can join her baby in Heaven. Oy !! There she is with her mortar and pestle, grinding away at life as she prepares for death. We wait and wonder as she sings happily about soon being able to meet her son. And she does it– she prepares and drinks her potion, and sinks to the ground again in ecstatic pain. (There’s a lot of sinking to the ground in Italian grand opera, as well as ecstatic pain. These people are raised as Roman Catholics, which means there’s no room in their lives for phrases like “Samantha, may I have a word with you in the other room?”
But wait… the violas scurry tremulously as Angelica realizes something terrible– suicide is a mortal sin !! Not only is she not going to see her son, but she’s going straight to Hell! Major turmoil… drama… and shrieking! By now the audience is wet with despair, as gowns and sequins become irreperably ruined by tears and running mascara. Angelica is wailing, the angelic choir is chanting in Latin, and it’s all so Italian that you wonder how it will end– Angelica is beseeching the heavens on high and she begins begging the Virgin Mary to save her as an offstage angelic choir accompanies her: Ahhh, son dannata! …O Madonna, salvami! Una madre ti prega, una madre t’implora… Ahhh, I am damned! …Madonna, save me! A mother prays, a mother implores! The choir’s sung Latin underscores this– O gloriosa virginum sublimis inter sedera, qui te creavit parvelum lactente nutris ubere… Oh most glorious of virgins, sublime among the stars, who created and nursed you as a baby, with milk laden breasts… Just when you think the top of your head is going to pop off, the doors to the convent chapel open slowly to swollen crescendoes, revealing a glowing, beatific Virgin Mary gently coaxing a tiny and golden boy child to toddle over to his dying mother. Angelica sees him, sighs a full octave, and dies forgiven, finally and ultimately united with her little boy.
Talk amongst yourselves for a minute.
The audience, awash with unleashed sentimentality and grief, rose from its seats and headed to the bar for an intermision cocktail. Granted, the Orlando production used a slightly different ending– there was no Virgin and little boy; Angelica imagined it all and production star Melody Moore performed a touchingly intimate yet virtuoso gathering of an unseen baby into her arms, caressing him as she crumpled slowly to the ground. A bit French and symbolic, yes, because we were expecting the no-holds-barred original Italianate ending, but it was still wonderful to finally see this rarely-mounted, exquisite jewel of an opera performed. And the set was beautiful!
Cavalleria Rusticana, featuring a damned woman named Santuzza, seemed like a picnic after Angelica’s trials. Set in Sicily, you just know that it’s going to be dramatic and over the top, and this production did not disappoint. You could practically smell the garlic!
Let’s see. Turiddu has come back from serving in the military, only to discover that his fiancee Lola (just by the name you know she’s a tramp) has instead married Alfio. More scandalosa! To assuage his wounded pride, Turiddu seduces young Santuzza, a village virgin. Hearing of this, the married puttana Lola enters into an adulterous affair with Turridu, just to get strong on Santuzza. Madonna mia! It gets worse. Santuzza is pregnant with Turiddu’s baby, and this is explained onstage via subtly dramatic abdominal caressing.
Santuzza eventually tells everything to Lucia, Turiddu’s mother– about the seduction, the pregnancy, and his cheating with Lola. The pregnant Santuzza cannot enter the church to join in the glorious Easter celebration that’s going on inside, but she begs Lucia to go inside and pray for her. Orlando Opera staged a glorious Easter procession, by the way: a bishop, priests, altar boys, nuns, young girl communicants, villagers of all stripes… it was great! And they all managed to pile into the offstage church interior with dignity and professionalism. Bravi !
Then Santuzza meets Turiddu in front of the filled church as he arrives to go to the Easter service. Santuzza upbraids, yells, admonishes, and clings, all to no avail– Turiddu is intent upon attending Mass with his secret lover, Lola. Puttana! And, perhaps, puttano?? Why should the guys always get away with things?? They shouldn’t but, as in much of Italian opera, the woman is the catalyst, the cunning Eve who moves the Earth upon its axis every time she raises an eyebrow. Turiddu enters the church, leaving the square wide open for Santuzza’s next move. Lola’s husband Alfio appears, and the distraught and spurned Santuzza tells him everything. Now that everyone is updated on the plot machinations, the square is emptied of principals so that the orchestra can play the beautiful Interlude— and beautiful it is! Bravo, Orlando!
Mass finally lets out. The Interlude is cannily performed at the right point, because you know that Easter Mass is a long Mass– there are a lot of people in there for communion, and you might not be seeing them again for a year. Turiddu appears, happy to have been near Lola, and pleased to see that Santuzza is gone. Everyone gets wonderfully drunk (Turiddu’s mother Lucia owns a wine shop), except for Lola’s husband Alfio. OH OH !! Words are exchanged, and Alfio challenges Turiddu to a duel as the women leave the stage. It will be a duel to the death! Alfio goes off to the dueling spot and Turiddu stays behind and calls upon his mother, telling her, in effect, that he may never see her again: act as a mother to poor Santuzza, he asks Lucia. And he bids her farewell.
Lucia is weeping as Santuzza appears again; they embrace, and soon the square fills with villagers: Turiddu has been killed… he is dead!! Santuzza realizes the horrible result of her obsession and sinks to the ground as the opera ends. Ahhh, the irony!
All in all, it was an emotional night heightened, for me, by a $6.50 Manhattan ($10.00 with tip). The release was good– at times my throat formed sobs, which I duly swallowed– after all, this is Orlando, and I was most likely surrounded by Episcopalians. But wait! Everyone’s faces were wet at the evening’s close, proving the reach and effectiveness of the Orlando Opera. It was Italian. It was even Sicilian! It was grand… and we’ll do it again next year: Puccini’s La Boheme is coming to town, along with Georges Bizet’s Carmen and Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata. ! By the way, the company needs our support in these thin economic times, so feel free to contact them with a pledge. They can be reached at www.orlandoopera.org. We’ve had hours of enjoyment thanks to their wonderful productions, so I hope you locals will avail yourselves of their upcoming offerings. And then I will holler bravi to you !