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Review: Winter Opera Saint Louis' Production of 'Suor Angelica'

Review: Winter Opera Saint Louis' Production of 'Suor Angelica'

Opera: Suor Angelica

Company: Winter Opera Saint Louis

Venue: Kirkwood Performing Arts Center

Dates: Run concluded

Story: Life in a 17th century Italian convent is austere but rewarding for a group of nuns cloistered there who sing and work in their devotion to God. They especially are delighted by Sister Angelica’s green thumb and her ability to concoct herbal potions, which can provide soothing balm for sundry physical maladies.

Sister Angelica mostly keeps to herself, but rumors persist that she was banished seven years earlier to the convent after some scandal. It’s all supposition, though, as Sister Angelica declines to comment on the matter.

One day visitors arrive at the convent, and the Abbess announces that the royal family’s princess has come to see Angelica. The princess informs Sister Angelica that her sister is getting married and that Angelica needs to sign a document renouncing any claims by her to her royal inheritance. Sister Angelica replies that one stipulation in the agreement cannot be met: She will not renounce her illegitimate son, the reason for her banishment seven years earlier.

After some discussion, the Princess reveals that Angelica’s son died two years ago. Devastated by the news, Angelica signs the document and then decides to poison herself to join her son in death. As she is dying, she realizes that her suicide is a sin against God and begs the Virgin Mary for mercy. As she passes away, she sees the Virgin Mary and her son together as the latter runs to greet her.

Highlights: Winter Opera Saint Louis triumphantly returned to a local stage for the first time in more than a year with a highly polished and beautifully performed rendition of this one-act tragedy by Giacomo Puccini.

Other Info: Winter Opera personnel checked the temperatures of arriving patrons at the door and asked the standard COVID-19 questions, which have become customary since March 2020. Attendance was limited to 10 percent capacity for the 529-seat Kirkwood Performing Arts Center, which is the new home of Stages St. Louis, the Kirkwood Theatre Guild and also for other troupes, such as Winter Opera Saint Louis. Suor Angelica marked the initial operatic offering in the venue.

Winter Opera general director Gina Galati and conductor Edward Benyas welcomed the opening-night audience to robust applause. Benyas noted that the short Puccini opera would be preceded by performances of two other works, Verdi’s Prelude to Act I of La Traviata and Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, the latter showcasing harp and flute solos.

Each work was performed by the 16-member ensemble in the orchestra pit, which was the largest Winter Opera could accommodate while adhering to a social distance of six feet between musicians. Their accomplished renditions of both preludes set the tone for the caliber of the opera to follow.

Stage director Galati moved her baker’s dozen of performers deftly during the 45-minute work, highlighted by Karen Kanakis, whose soaring soprano took advantage of the new building’s acoustics to deliver an affecting performance in the title role. Kanakis not only demonstrated her beautiful voice but also handled the acting elements of the tragedy with aplomb.

There also was superb work by Nora Teipen as the Princess and Erin Haupt as the Abbess, each of whom richly showcased their own vocal talents.

The all-St. Louis and all-female cast included Emily Moore, Sarah Pistorius, Kat Rubush, Holley Sherwood, Journee Carter, Alexandra Billhartz, Marguerite Lally, Janelle Pierce, Lauren Smith Bearden and Josie Moser.

Technically, the spacious stage at KPAC allowed scenic designer Scott Loebl to pull out the stops in his highly refined set, which featured a garden setting outside a looming double door leading into the convent, all set before a handsome backdrop for the sky.

All of it was accentuated with Patrick Neal Bearden’s precise lighting, which went appropriately dark at the work’s climactic scene. Lauren Smith Bearden’s costumes featured the traditional black and white garb of the nuns offset by the Princess’ elegant attire.

At times, the singers appeared way too close for COVID comfort levels on the stage, but presumably all had been tested for the novel coronavirus before rehearsals even began. As for the masked audience, the spacious gaps between patrons and the high ceiling in the auditorium helped alleviate many concerns.

With more and more people being vaccinated every day, there is reason for optimism that Winter Opera Saint Louis’ delightful presentation will be just the first of many to follow on local stages in the ensuing months.

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