For much of the world, 2018 marks the centenary of the end of World War 1; for music-lovers, it is the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein. But for opera fans, it is the centennial of Puccini’s fascinating operatic triplets comprising Il trittico, which premiered 14th December 1918 at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The three operas, Il tabarro (The Cloak), Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi, are being performed everywhere this year, in general individually, paired with another one-acter, but also as the entire Trittico, including, naturally, at The Met.

Most often presented is Suor Angelica, its all-female cast ideal for young singers, though the title role covers a wide emotional range and has some of Puccini’s infamously sadistic high notes. Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts (founded in 1934) chose to repeat their successful 2006 pairing of Suor Angelica with Puccini’s first opera, Le villi (1883), the latter offering strong roles for soprano, tenor and baritone and a taste of Puccinian things to come.

AVA students (called Resident Artists) are a small, select graduate-level group, some already starting a professional career. Among the best-known AVA grads are Barbara Daniels, Ailyn Pérez, Angela Meade, Joyce DiDonato, Michael Fabiano, Bryan Hymel and James Morris. The current crop is the typical mix of excellent second- to fourth-year singers and some extremely promising ones in their first year. Three of these “newbies” showed their impressive talents as Suor Angelica (Renee Richardson), her unforgiving aunt, the Zia Principessa (Chelsea Laggen) and Anna in Le villi (Kara Mulder); “older” tenor Abraham Bréton and baritone Lukasz Zientarski were Anna’s faithless betrothed Roberto and her vengeful father Guglielmo.

In Suor Angelica, Puccini outdid himself in his consummate use of musical motifs for specific events, emotions and personalities, matching even the smallest self-revelation, as with the nun who had been a shepherdess and misses the lambs: a gentle ‘baa’ in the orchestra and tenderness in her music. For Angelica and La Zia, the words of librettist Giovacchino Forzano are so perfectly expressed by Puccini as to create full-blooded portraits. When the horrified Angelica acknowledges that by taking poison she is damned, her music for “Ho smarrito la ragione” (I lost my mind) echoes that of “Parlatemi di lui! Di mio figlio!” (Speak to me of him, of my son!).

Richardson sang beautifully and expressively, as convincing in the subdued moments as in her indignant confrontation with her implacable aunt and her anguish over her son's death. I always wait for Angelica’s touching plea to her aunt to be inspired by “questo luogo santo” (this holy place) – nobody can match how Tebaldi sang it in her recording – but Richardson came close. Laggen's true mezzo timbre was crucial for a stony portrayal that was forceful but never exaggerated.

Le villi does have one famous tenor aria: “Torna ai felici dì” (Return to the happy days), sung with fervor and strong voice by Bretón, and a less-familiar one for Anna, “Se come voi piccina”, given great sweetness by Kara Mulder, who also knew how to go from her personification of “amore” to that of “vendetta”: a frightening witch-like villi!

Director David Gately was sensitive in following the staging inherent in the situations and projected by the music while adding only one intrusive personal touch: during the exquisite overture to Suor Angelica, nuns tended wounded World War 1 soldiers, distracting from the music. The sets by Peter Harrison were an appropriately simple cloister, a realistic village square and tavern and a very haunted forest, perfectly conveying all atmospheres.

One of the most inspiring interpreters of opera on any podium as well as one of the best opera coaches anywhere, AVA Music Director Christofer Macatsoris brought his special affection for Suor Angelica to the work, obvious from the response of the singers; the wonderful AVA Opera Orchestra played with great feeeling. Expert vocal coach Richard Raub showed his conducting skills with Le villi: strong rapport with vocalists and instrumentalists.