Brought up in the music of the cathedral in his hometown of Lucca, the religious melodramma Suor Angelica saw Puccini returning to his roots. Its lachrymose tale of the young nun who learns of her illegitimate child’s death is straight out of a Victorian genre painting. Yet Puccini paints with a generous brush, breathing life into an otherwise cloying tale. If the title character is all sincerity and light, La Zia Principessa is perhaps the cruellest demon in all drama.
Like Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites, which would followed thirty years later, Suor Angelica is a series of episodes detailing the passing of time in convent life. Dramatically static in comparison to the outer flanks of Il trittico, this cloistered work is a haven of calm in the course of the evening. It is only the arrival of the Princess, Angelica’s aunt, that disturbs its contemplative stillness.
Puccini describes her arrival with an abrupt and harsh motif. What ensues is a clear delineations between good and evil. Confronted by this horror – reminding the listener of Cio Cio San's plight in Madama Butterfly – Suor Angelica’s goodness cannot endure. But Puccini, taking on the morality of the world of his opera, creates a glorious musical miracle as Mary, the Mother of God, comes down and leads Suor Angelica to meet her child in Paradise.
Many have carped that Puccini was unable to create the whirl of transcendental bliss that Wagner had been able to summon in more mythological circumstances. But seen as the musical exultation of a born and bred Catholic Mediterranean, it would be hard not to be moved by the enormous commotion that Puccini heralds from his forces. At a time when a young generation of Italians were being sent to early deaths in the war, many felt in deep need of such a miracle. Fashion and distrust for the religious and overly sincere, however, have forced Suor Angelica out of her central position in the triptych.
Like those medieval three-panelled paintings to which the umbrella title of Puccini’s tripartite masterpiece refers, Suor Angelica is the serene image positioned between two more earthly characters. But Puccini was keen to stress that it was its message not its milieu that was truly important in the piece. ‘The story is really one of passion, and it’s only the environment which is religious’. Suor Angelica remained his favourite of the operas and for that reason alone it should remain at the centre of any performance of Il trittico.