Puccini’s one-act tragedy “Suor Angelica” ascends (or doesn’t, as the case might be) on the power of its leading lady. For the final third of the opera, its title character is almost entirely alone on stage with her reality fractured by grief. She is swept by a brutal tempest of emotion from despair to ecstasy, and she must sweep the audience along with her. Thursday evening with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and music director Andris Nelsons, soprano Kristine Opolais was resplendent in this way, channeling divine passion into the climactic scene.
Even among the tragedies and trials that befall so many of Puccini’s women, Angelica’s fate stands out as especially cruel. She’s already lost all contact with her family, and her aunt (the Principessa) arrives and coldly informs her that her son — whose out-of-wedlock conception landed her in the convent — has died.
Opolais, who recently performed the role at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, revealed in a recent interview with Opera News that it’s difficult to keep singing after Angelica receives that news. “She should probably die right there,” said Opolais. “What keeps her living? I think that what happens then is that she is losing her mind.”
In the long crescendo of the opera’s last 20 minutes, she transported to a higher plane. Her voice has taken on a steely quality in recent years, and its raw edges imparted keen desperation to everything she sang, from the tender first phrases of “Senza mamma” to Angelica’s frenetic final prayers for salvation after she poisons herself.
On the flipside, the work’s larger emotional crescendo was less drastic. Though the opera is brief, its story develops gradually. Angelica is introduced as just one among many nuns, an exemplar of humility, before her true inner torment and its cause are revealed. With Opolais at the fore, this slow burn didn’t exist. The finale dialed things up to the maximum (as it should) but when the title character goes straight from zero to 60 with her first notes, there’s less of a journey to take. For the opera’s first two-thirds, I rarely felt I was in the presence of Suor Angelica; rather, I was watching Opolais-sings-Angelica.
On the podium, Nelsons threw himself headlong into the music with familiar excitement and vigor, and the BSO deftly rendered the colors and images of Puccini’s score. A little less volume could have served Violeta Urmana’s stony Principessa well; her most vitriolic lines were inaudible in the side balcony, but her withering stare made even the tall Opolais look shrunken. The supporting cast was uniform in its excellence, from Fatma Said as a winsome Sister Genovieffa to Dana Beth Miller and MaryAnn McCormick as the imperious Abbess and Monitor. Boston’s own Lorelei Ensemble filled out the ranks of nuns, lending their psalms and lighthearted banter a silvery sheen.
The program began with two more early-20th-century pieces, both from France. Debussy’s impressionist triptych “Nocturnes” sounded blocky in parts, with individual sections’ trajectories clearly demarcated. “Nuages” didn’t evoke the whole sky’s movement, but maybe a pond’s reflection of it, with the English horn calling like a lonesome bird: a truly lovely contribution. The eager “Fêtes” rang with martial and slightly ominous notes, while “Sirènes” didn’t wholly mesh until its final measures, as Lorelei Ensemble’s undulating song seemed to skate above the sea instead of echoing from under it. Placing the vocalists offstage, as they were in certain passages of “Suor Angelica,” could have made for a more mysterious effect.
The first piece, Lili Boulanger’s “D’un soir triste,” washed Symphony Hall in dark watercolor sonorities, sprinkled with the harp and celesta’s pearly teardrops. This season, the BSO has made an admirable effort in airing out neglected pieces by women of past generations, and one hopes this will continue and expand in the future.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall Sept. 21. Repeats Sept. 23. 888-266-1200, www.bso.orgZoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.