Suor Angelica, with its female cast and dusk-to-moonlight drama of faith, forgiveness and redemption, suffered most after Il trittico’s 1918 première. James Huneker’s mansplaining provides a representative example of the barely concealed misogyny and complete ignorance of conventual life which clouded many reviews: “A nun that has had a ‘past’ before she renounces the world does not commit suicide after seven years of convent life because she learns of the death of her love-child.” Fortunately, Suor Angelica has finally found favor, even amongst scholars, who have discovered much to appreciate in Puccini’s use of dissonance, his manipulation of tonality – both melodic and harmonic – his mastery of orchestral colors and weaving of recurring melodic arabesques throughout the score. Sharing a program with similarly innovative and twilit works by Lili Boulanger and Claude Debussy reveals the debt Puccini owed to the French, but also proves he always remained himself.

Kristine Opolais in Puccini's Suor Angelica with the BSO
© Winslow Townson

Boulanger is one of the most tantalizing “what-ifs” in the history of music. At age 19, she was the first female to win the Prix de Rome. She died five years later. Given her chronic illness and increasing frailty, her forward-looking output is impressive. Influences are clear, but she always spurs herself on into new territory. 1918’s D’un Soir triste is one of the last pieces she wrote, a restless, portentous de profundis darkened by the twilight of her own life and of the world she knew. Andris Nelsons chose Clinton F. Nieweg’s 2018 critical edition for this program, rooting his performance in a tightening and relaxation of tension, as the music constantly crests and falls and textures thin and thicken within the arc of two major waves of turmoil and anguish. Despite often overwhelming darkness and sadness, the calm and repose glimmering in the final bars held out the hope of light and peace.

Debussy’s Nocturnes benefited from similar attention to flow, and the orchestra’s mastery of playing softly, particularly in Nuages, whose clouds were light and translucent, their hues languidly intensifying and dimming against a changing sky. Fêtes was animated and assertive, with the march sounding uncommonly sinister. Sirènes demanded unusual balance and dynamic finesse since Nelsons used only the eight women of the Lorelei Ensemble instead of the 16 voices specified by Debussy. He placed them towards the back corner, stage left and ensured the alluring mystery of their song rode above the shimmering, moonlit swells of the score.

Kristine Opolais almost overwhelmed the role of the tormented nun in this concert setting with her characteristic full-throttle dramatic immersion and a voice now unusually dark and dense for the role. Her outburst in the face of her Aunt’s intransigence almost blew Violeta Urmana off the stage, but she still single-handedly carried the opera to a convincingly rapturous conclusion. The treacherous pp A at the end of “Senza mamma didn’t immediately come into focus and there were some signs of forcing, but her top notes were otherwise reliable. Opolais also effectively approximated the offstage quality of the C Angelica sings before the intermezzo by moving almost to the end of the stage and turning her back to the hall.

Staging Advisor Eve Summer had Urmana lighten the Zia Principessa’s oppressive presence with flashes of compassion briefly crossing her face and some occasional softening of body language, but Puccini’s music doesn’t leave much leeway for humanizing a character more spectral presence than person and who dramatically and musically destroys the harmony of Angelica’s convent. “Nel silenzio di quei raccoglimenti”, with its vocabulary more fitting a tawdry séance than religious rapture, was a chilling and unsettling manifestation of misguided piety. She, not her niece, is the one who should heed her sister’s cries of “espiare”. Dana Beth Miller and Mary Ann McCormick were authoritative as the Abbess and the Monitor. Fatma Said’s crystalline timbre was perfect for Sister Genoveffa. The Lorelei Ensemble etched spirited individual portraits of the rest of the community.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra performed the opera as if it were an old and familiar friend, playing with precision, transparency, and a panoply of colors and timbres enlivening Puccini’s scene painting and echoing the first half’s pieces. Unfortunately, as has happened in the past, Nelsons occasionally covered his singers. He also seemed uncharacteristically detached, at times allowing his focus and the dramatic tension in the orchestra to lapse. Most grievously, balance plus placement of the offstage chorus and instruments worked against his soloist and dampened the catharsis of the miracle.