“Short” is not a word you see modifying “opera” very often, but when it comes to Gianni Schicchi and Suor Angelica, the two one-acts by Giacomo Puccini that Opera Santa Barbara will present at the Granada Theatre this weekend, that’s less and less the case, and with good reason. These decidedly short operas were originally two-thirds of Il trittico, a trilogy Puccini composed for The Met in New York, where all three operas premiered on December 14, 1918. For the most part since then, the trio has been broken up into double features. Although it has gone through periods of ascendancy, Il tabarro, a gruesome story of jealous murder and revenge, would appear to be the least common of the three in opera houses today. This pairing, of Gianni Schicchi, a farce with dark undertones, and Suor Angelica, a tragedy with an all-female cast and a supernatural twist, tends to be the one that most companies perform now.
The combination makes for a great night in the theater. Schicchi, with its sight gags, vocal impersonations, and relentless comic pacing, is the kind of madcap joyride that sends audiences home amazed and laughing. Suor Angelica, on the other hand, contains some of the most hauntingly beautiful and wrenchingly emotional music that Puccini, creator of La bohème and Madama Butterfly, ever composed. Angelica is the disgraced daughter of a wealthy family. Sent to a convent after having a child out of wedlock, she has become an expert at crafting remedies from herbs. When a fancy coach pulls up outside the gates, the nuns all rush to see who the aristocratic visitor might be. Angelica’s aunt, the Principessa, emerges for a heart-to-heart with her niece.
Angelica receives a double blow from her imperious relative. The Principessa has come to request that Angelica relinquish her claim to the family fortune so that her sister may get married. She also bears the only news that truly matters to Angelica, which is about the fate of her son. It takes some persuading to get the Principessa to talk, but finally Angelica learns the truth: He’s dead, having passed away two years before.
What follows is one of opera’s most demanding scenes, including an aria known as “Senza Mamma” in which Angelica mourns the loss of her only child and makes the grave decision to take her own life by way of a special potion she concocts out of her garden laboratory.
For Maria Kanyova, the distinguished soprano who will portray Sister Angelica, the part is a familiar one, albeit filled with challenges. When she first appeared in the role at New York City Opera, she had just become a mother herself, and her son was only two months old. Although many friends advised her against it, she took the part, and used the powerful emotions of her own experience to plumb the depths of Angelica’s agony.
“It’s a matter of treading that fine line where you give everything but without suffering too much from the emotions,” she told me. “Puccini writes so ingeniously for the high soprano voice,” she went on, “and this role is unusual in that the performer must go from giving the most she can give to sounding febrile.”
In the closing moments, Sister Angelica is blessed with a vision of the Virgin Mary and her lost son. It will be exciting to see just how Opera Santa Barbara stages this ecstatic, and sometimes controversial, ending.
Opera Santa Barbara presents Giacomo Puccini’s Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) on Friday, April 22, and Sunday, April 24. For tickets and more information, visit operasb.org or call (805) 898-3890.