Berlin Philharmonic’s new director puts women front and centerThe Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’s new chief conductor Kirill Petrenko selected a rarely-performed opera set in late 17th-century Italy as his first opera project in the German capital.
But more than 100 years after Giacomo Puccini’s “Suor Angelica” was first performed, the opera appears remarkably relevant to modern times.
In addition to touching on the role of women in society, the opera also highlights the suffering caused by expulsion, separation and the flight from war and natural catastrophes such as global warming.
“Basically, the first question for me was: How can I put this opera in the here and now? What does it have to do with us now?” said Nicola Huempel, who directed Saturday’s staging of the opera in the Berliner Philharmonie concert house. A further performance is slated for Sunday.
Composed in 1917, “Suor Angelica” was one of three one-act operas written by Puccini and was first performed in December 1918, six years before his death at the age of 65.
In conversation with the Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall, an online platform which is also showing the “Suor Angelica” performance free of charge in a livestream, Petrenko described the opera as “very realistic.”
It tells the story of a young woman sent to a convent seven years earlier by her family as punishment for having an illegitimate child.
Heroines dominate some of Puccini’s most famous operas, such as “La boheme” and “Madama Butterfly.”
But in “Suor Angelica,” the great Italian opera composer has written a piece in which women make up the entire cast, which Huempel, a German theater and opera director, said was unusual for an opera.
Huempel sees similarities between this story of a mother separated from her illegitimate child and the plight of people struggling to exert their sense of dignity in modern-day strife.
“Worldwide, mothers are separated from their children because of fleeing violence or war,” said Huempel, who also oversaw the opera’s costumes. The “Suor Angelica” team was drawn from 14 nations.
“We have moved the location of the opera [from the setting of a convent] to a spiritual place today where women meet to process traumas, do meditation exercises or simply optimize their lives,” she said.
Russian-born Petrenko, who conducted the performance with his customary verve - once described by a philharmonic orchestra member as like the energy of a kung fu master - said the opera was “something unique.”
It was performed by young singers from Berlin music schools as well as the Choir of the Vocal Heroes Choral Programme and in cooperation with the Berlin music theater company Nico and the Navigators.
The international cast of singers and musicians performing the opera are largely under 30 - with some considerably younger. The leading Swedish soprano, Katarina Dalayman, aged 57, plays the only adult role in the opera.
“These young musicians take it all in,” said Petrenko, who launched his first season as Berlin Philharmonic chief conductor in August last year. They played, he said, “with fire in their eyes."