GIACOMO PUCCINI (1850-1924):


The opera takes place at a convent in Italy during the latter part of the 17th century. The small church and the cloister are visible. On one side is a cemetery, and on the other side is a vegetable garden. In the center is a fount.

The Prayer.

The opera opens with scenes showing typical aspects of life in the convent. It is a fine spring evening, and the air is full of birdsong. Bells announce the beginning of prayers and set the tone for the entire opera. All the sisters sing hymns. Although we have not yet seen Sister Angelica, her singing, which deviates from that of the others, distinguishes her from the other sisters. The Monitor scolds two lay sisters who have stopped to listen to a bird singing and are late for prayers. Sister Angelica, who is also late, kneels down and kisses the threshold before entering the church. At the conclusion of the prayers, the sisters emerge from the church and pass in front of the Abbess for her blessing.

The Penances.

The Sister Monitor tells the two late postulants that as a penance for omitting a duty, they must say 20 prayers for all in need of absolution. Sister Ludmilla, who made everyone laugh in chapel, is sent to her spinning wheel in silence. Sister Osmina, who has hidden roses in her habit and denies her sin, is sent to her cell as a penalty. She is ordered not to delay, as the Virgin Mary is watching. Having dispensed with the penances, the Abbess grants an hour of recreation.

The Recreation.

Everyone gathers in the courtyard, and the Sister Monitor bids the sisters relax and play. Sister Angelica waters the grass and flowers as Sister Genevieve recounts Golden Fountain, the yearly spectacle when the water turns gold for three evenings. As the Mistress of the Novices explains, the setting sun strikes the fountain so as to turn the water golden. The event causes the sisters to remember Bianca Rosa, a sister who has died. Sister Genevieve suggests that they pour some of the "golden" water onto Bianca Rosa's tomb. The sisters then claim that the dead sister must wish for that to happen. Sister Angelica, who is in a different spiritual plane, has a different opinion, claiming that wishes are buds of the living and that the dead have no desires. She sings: "I desideria sono I Fiori dei vivi." As she explains to Sister Genevieve, "Death is life made beautiful!" The phrase becomes an important theme later in the opera.

As the nuns discuss their desires, the Monitor chastises them. The Monitor believes that any desire at all is wrong. Sister Genevieve begs to differ, confessing that she wishes to see lambs again because when she was a girl, she was a shepherdess: "Soave Signor mio? ("O sweetest Lord and Master,…"). The stout Sister Dolcina wishes for something good to eat. Sister Angelica claims that she has no desires. As soon as she makes this claim, the nuns begin to gossip. They know that Sister Angelica is lying and that her true desire is to hear from her wealthy noble family, which has not been in touch with her for seven years. The rumor is that prior to coming to the convent, Sister Angelica has been princess who had been forced to take her vows as punishment.

The Infirmary Sister interrupts the conversation. Rushing onto the gathering for help for a sister who has been stung by wasps, she begs Sister Angelica to make an herbal remedy, her specialty. Sister Angelica obliges and picks some herbs for a lotion.

The Return from the Quest.

The Alms Sisters enter with their gifts. The music is chirpy and happy. It was a good day for the collection of supplies for the convent:  lentils, bread, nuts, even some red currants. The Sisters distribute the treats and casually mention the news that a grand coach is waiting outside. The music tells the story. The harmonic movement comes to a virtual halt for 20 bars and resumes only when the Alms Sisters reveal the presence of a rich, noble visitor. At this point, the orchestra launches the principal melody of the opera, a long, sustained cantilena over which the voices chatter, at first casually, and then with growing excitement.  The visitor is with the Abbess. Sister Angelica becomes nervous and upset, fearing that someone in her family has come to visit her. Trembling, she describes the coach, but the Alms Sisters are not sure if it is the same one that they saw. As the visitor's bell rings, kind Sister Genevieve prays that the visitor will be for Sister Angelica.

The Abbess enters and reprimands Sister Angelica for her inappropriate excitement and inability to control her emotions. Angelica replies: "I am calm and obedient." The sisters leave for the cemetery and the Abbess announces the visitor. It is Sister Angelica's aunt, the Princess.



The Princess.

The Princess enters, dressed in black and leaning on an ebony stick. The music conveys her frigid demeanor. Without even looking at Sister Angelica, she offers her hand to be kissed. Sister Angelica is nonetheless deeply moved to have a visit from a family member. The Princess explains that Sister Angelica's sister, little Anna Violet, is to be married. In accordance with the wishes of Angelica's parents, who passed away 20 years ago, the Princess is in charge of their estate. It is the Princess who will decide on the division of the money between the children. Angelica must sign a document renouncing her claim to her portion of the inheritance so that her sister will have a dowry.

Sister Angelica asks about her sister's fiancé, and the Princess coldly replies that he is one who found it possible to overlook the sin that Sister Angelica brought on the family honor.  Sister Angelica replies that she has repented of her sins. For seven years she has sacrificed everything to the Virgin, with one exception, the memory of the illegitimate son that her family forced her to give up. The Princess is offended by Sister Angelica's reaction and tells of her frequent visits to her own sister's grave, where their spirits commune: "Nel silenzio di quei raccoglimenti." But always her thoughts return to her niece's sin and the need for its expiation.

Sister Angelica insists on news of her son. At first, the Princess refuses to speak. When Sister Angelica threatens eternal damnation by the Virgin, the Princess finally responds. She informs Sister Angelica that her son has died of a fever two years ago. Devastated by the news, Sister Angelica collapses in tears. The Princess leaves.

Puccini's instructions for the scene are extremely specific. Sister Angelica moves, but the Princess does not. After her entrance, the Princess stares straight ahead and never once looks Sister Angelica straight in the eye. The Princess is the only true contralto role that Puccini ever wrote. The orchestration that accompanies her entrance begins in C-sharp minor and terminates in a muted horn chorus in C minor. The dissonance has a disturbing impact on the listener, creating a snakelike effect and suggesting a motionless figure who is frozen in a past full of hidden rancor. The Princess has no vocal arias or duets. Her lines are purely declamatory, and many of them are on the same single note pattern that was dominant in Il Tabarro. Vocally, she literally pulls down sister Angelica's efforts to rise up.

The Grace.

A heavenly vision appears to Sister Angelica. She believes that she hears her son calling for her to meet him in paradise. Her aria, "Senza mamma bimbo, tu sei morto" ("Without your mother, child, you died"), is more of a narrative than a true aria. Like Sister Angelica herself, it has lost its center. It is structured in two parts. The first part shows Sister Angelica demonstrating some emotion. Just when we would expect fireworks to emerge, a great sense of calm takes over. Puccini wrote the second part of the aria after the New York premiere.  Although the vocal line is in G major, the muted orchestration recalls the Princess's prayer in the previous scene. The overall effect is that fantasy and reality are dramatically different.

It is dark when the sisters return from the cemetery. Singing of divine grace ("La grazia e discesa del Cielo"), they assure Sister Angelica that her wish will come true. Left alone, Sister Angelica makes a poison and drinks it, but then realizes that she is committing suicide, a mortal sin that will damn her to eternal separation from her son. Her look of exaltation gives way to anguish. Her original aria was "Amici fiori, voi mi compensate", a remarkably modern piece with polytonal implications. Puccini eventually replaced it with a 16-bar extension of the preceding intermezzo, over which the soprano sings an altered text containing an ironical reference to the wasp episode that the composer had originally marked as an optional cut.

The Miracle.

Knowing that she has damned herself by taking her own life, Sister Angelica prays to the Virgin Mary to save her. She contends that love for her son drove her out of her mind. Angelica hears the angels pleading with the Holy Mother for mercy. A mystic light bathes the church. As the door opens, the Virgin Mary enters with a little boy, whom she pushes toward the dying nun. The little boy runs to embrace his mother.

Stage directors have taken different approaches to this last scene. In some productions, there is a sense of hallucination. In others, the theme is mental breakdown. Heroin overdose has even appeared.

Grace is depicted in the orchestra by great swirls on the harps and muted trumpets. The music suggests not only grace, but madness, as Sister Angelica herself mentions when she is praying desperately. Although Puccini pulled out all the stops with the music, including two pianos, organ, glockenspiel, celesta, triangle, bass drum, and cymbals, in addition to the rest of the orchestra, the conclusion of the opera generated a very negative response. Some commentators suggested that Puccini himself didn't believe in the moment. Only one commentator, Michele Girardi, understood that the moment is not meant to be religious, but psychological in meaning.

Highlights of the Opera

  • Suor Angelica is a one act opera. Giovacchino Forzano, the author of the drama, had originally planned his work as a spoken play.  During the winter of 1916-1917, he changed his mind and offered it to Puccini to include in his proposed trio of three operas. Puccini accepted immediately, intending to have it performed along with Il Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi in the Il trittico trio.
  • Il trittico was first performed in on December 14, 1918, at the Metropolitan Opera. The castfeatured Geraldine Farrar as Sister Angelica and Flora Perini as the Princess, Sister Angelica's aunt.The Italian premiere of Il trittico took place at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome on January 11, 1919. It was a grand success. In fact, some have called it the greatest triumph of Puccini's life.
  • Of the three operas in Il trittico, Gianni Schicchi was better received than the other two. It was performed more frequently with operas other than with the two that Puccini had intended. Nonetheless, Suor Angelica was Puccini's favorite of the three, almost like a mother preferring her weakest child! The theme was also appealing to him, as his eldest and favorite sister, Ingenia, Mother Superior at the convent at Vicepelago, was a nun. Given his sister's connections, Puccini was able to visit her establishment and play the score to the assembled nuns, all of whom were moved to tears. Another valuable source of information was Puccini's lifelong friend, the priest Father Pietro Panichelli, who supplied the text for the final scene.
  • The entire cast of the opera are women. Only at the very end is there a touch of men's chorus. Puccini's preference for the soprano voice is very evident. It is no surprise that the role of Suor Angelica has become a favorite of prima donna sopranos of the old school who can wring an audience's collective neck with their ability to combine vocal prowess with acting talent and sheer chutzpah. More than any other Puccini opera, Suor Angelica depends entirely on the performance of the title role.
  • Given the beauty of Suor Angelica, why is it not performed more frequently? Some opera companies have been put off by the all-female cast. In other instances, Protestant audiences were alienated by the subject. Still another explanation is that Puccini's handling of the final scene was not miraculous enough for some people.

Suggested Reading

  • Ashbrook, William (1968, 1985). The Operas of Puccini.
  • Berger, William (2005). Puccini Without Excuses: A Refreshing Reassessment of the World's Most Popular Composer.
  • Budden, Julian (2002). Puccini: His Life and Works.
  • Budden, Julian (1992). Suor Angelica in the The New Grove Dictionary of Opera.
  • Carner, Mosco. (1980). Giacomo Puccini in The New Grove Masters of Italian Opera.
  • Fisher, Burton D. (2004). Puccini, Giacomo, in Opera Classics Library Puccini Companion: The Glorious Dozen.
  • Haylock, Julian (2008). Puccini, His Life and Music.
  • Kendell, Colin (2012). The Complete Puccini: The Story of the World's Most Popular Operatic Composer.
  • Osborne, Charles (1981). The Complete Operas of Puccini.
  • Phillips-Matz, Mary Jane (2002). Puccini: A Biography.
  • Seligman, Vincent (2007). Puccini Among Friends.
  • Wilson, Alexandra (2007). The Puccini Problem.

Class Schedule — Your Choice!

  • February 6, 2024: Puccini's Gianni Schicchi (Il Trittico)
  • February 13, 2024: Handel's Rodelinda
  • February 20, 2024: Tchaikovsky's Pique Dame
  • February 27, 2024: Borodin's Prince Igor
  • March 5, 2024: Hermann Prey, Jussi Bjorling, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Enrico Caruso
  • March 12, 2024: Thomas Quastoff, Ryan Speedo Green, Benjamin Bernheim, Lise Davidsen, Renee Fleming

About this Website

The website contains links to the music we will hear and other background information.

Questions and Additional Information

Please reach out to Instructor Margie Satinsky with questions and requests for additional information. Contact information is: (919) 383-5998 (home/work), or (919) 812-2235 (cell/text), or margiesatinsky@icloud.com.