Two Operatic Women Up Against It

May 9, 2013

United StatesUnited States Poulenc, La Voix humaine; Puccini, Suor Angelica: Seattle Opera, McCaw Hall, Seattle, 4.5.2013 (BJ)

Casts:
La Voix humaine:

Elle: Nuccia Focile

Suor Angelica:

Suor Angelica: Maria Gavrilova
Monitor: Robin Follman
First Lay Sister: Jennifer Bromagen
Mistress of the Novices: Karen Early Evans
Second Lay Sister: Sarah Mattox
Suor Osmina: Kim Giordano
Suor Genovieffa: Dana Pundt
First Novice: Melissa Plagemann
Suor Dolcina: Mary McLaughlin
Second Novice: Lucy Weber
Nursing Sister: Deborah Nansteel
First Almoner Sister: Sarah Larsen
Second Almoner Sister: Linda Mattos
Abbess: Susan Salas
Princess: Rosalind Plowright
Gary Thor Wedow (conductor)

Production:
Bernard Uzan (director)
Pier Paolo Bisleri (set designer; costume designer, Suor Angelica)
Melanie Taylor Burgess (costume designer, La Voix humaine)
Connie Yun (lighting designer)
Joyce Degenfelder (hair and makeup designer)
Beth Kirchhoff (chorusmaster)
Philip A. Kelsey and
David McDade (musical preparation)
Bernard Uzan (supertitles, La Voix humaine)
Jonathan Dean (supertitles, Suor Angelica)

 

In the crucial, and chilling, central scene of Suor Angelica, the second of the one-act operas that make up Puccini’s Il trittico, the Seattle Opera stage was dominated by not just one but two Sister Angelicas. Fresh from triumphs at the Met and elsewhere, the Russian soprano Maria Gavrilova was making her Seattle debut in the title role. And her antagonist was Rosalind Plowright, who back in her soprano days was herself a distinguished Suor Angelica, but, now a mezzo-soprano, appeared as “La Zia Principessa”—“the aunt-princess.”

It would be hard to imagine two artists capable of rivaling this formidable pair in realizing the excruciating drama of the scene. Here, as throughout the evening, Gavrilova revealed a phenomenal combination of vocal intensity and dramatic force, vividly evoking both Angelica’s vulnerability and her human decency. As for the Princess, she is usually played, Plowright observed in an interview in the program book, “as the cold, hard aunt out for one thing, her niece’s signature [to give up any claim to family money].” Plowright sees in her “a much more terrified and vulnerable woman, dreading this encounter, knowing that she will have to tell her niece what happened to her son. There is much humanity in this part of the role and a real sense of regret and sadness.” And it was Plowright’s signal achievement, along with her superb singing, and without the slightest diminution of regal dignity, to bring that more nuanced view of the Princess compellingly to life.

Not that the lady becomes a completely sympathetic character—that would run counter to the course of the scene—but it was good to be able to see some redeeming good in her, against a background of the cruel oppression of women in the supposed name of Catholic morality. The evening’s other opera, Poulenc’s magisterial setting of Jean Cocteau’s La Voix humaine, recounts another tale of female woe. In this case, however, it would be a mistake to see it in terms of any kind of generalized or institutionalized oppression: the burden of the story is simply the familiar heartache of one particular woman abandoned, after a five-year affair, but one particular man, whom she is desperately trying to hold on to through forty minutes of anguished telephone conversation. And this performance too was anchored by a wonderfully sensitive vocal and dramatic portrayal of the protagonist, “Elle,” by company stalwart Nuccia Focile.

The rest of the Suor Angelica cast was uniformly excellent, Dana Pundt, in particular, providing some light relief from the prevailingly sorrowful atmosphere with her charming turn as Suor Genovieffa, the former shepherdess who longs to cuddle a lamb again. Such moments help to separate the work from the more oppressive, indeed morbid, genre of operas focusing on the female religious, such as Penderecki’s Devils of Loudun, John Tavener’s Thérèse—and Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. Gary Thor Wedow led a convincingly paced and sumptuously played account of the two composers’ widely differing scores.

Bernard Uzan’s direction of La Voix humaine was admirably supple and natural. In Suor Angelica, without weakening the dramatic impact of the story, he underplayed the more picturesque effects called for by the stage directions: at the concluding “miracle,” for example, instead of the Virgin Mary and a bevy of angels, we were shown just a simple—and simply touching—appearance by a blond child to appease Angelica’s longing for her son and alleviate her fear of damnation. Pier Paolo Bisleri’s sets were equally simple and effective (with a nice touch in the momentary insertion of a Cocteau-esque drawing on the back wall), as were his costumes in the Puccini and Melanie Taylor Burgess’s in the Poulenc. Connie Yun lit the two works with a telling contrast between the cool indoor restraint of La Voix humaine and a more outgoing, sunlit, and varied palette for Suor Angelica. Altogether, the double bill received a presentation without weak links, and made the best possible case for both works.

Bernard Jacobson

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