S WE ENTER THE LAST WEEKS of the Year of Mercy I thought I would share with you the story of Puccini’s operetta Suor Angelic (Sr. Angelica), which so beautifully portrays the incredible love and mercy our Heavenly Father has for each one of us. To be honest, I hadn’t heard of this opera until a couple of months ago when the local university contacted me and asked if 12 of our choristers would sing the role of the opera’s angelic choir (which they did very well last weekend). Little did I know how much the whole project would touch me.
The opera revolves around the goings-on of an Italian convent near Sienna in the late 16th century, and especially around the life of one Sr. Angelica. One evening during recreation the sisters are reminiscing and asking each other if any has any desires for things outside the convent. One sister, who had been a shepherdess, admits that she would love to cuddle a little lamb once more. The questioning turns to Sr. Angelica who unconvincingly informs the sisters that she has no desires. In truth, Sr. Angelica has not heard from her family in the seven years she has been at the convent and would love more than anything to receive news from home. However, her wish is soon granted.
Sr. Angelica’s aunt, the Princess, arrives at the convent and coldly asks Sr. Angelica to sign away her claim to any family inheritance, the entirety of which the Princess plans to give to Sr. Angelica’s blood sister, who will soon wed, as a dowry. Sr. Angelica is happy for her sister, but when she asks for other news of home, we learn through the cold and unforgiving Princess that Sr. Angelica had disgraced the family by having a child out of wedlock (the reason for her entering the convent). Sr. Angelica tries to convince her aunt that she has repented and has offered many sacrifices in reparation for her sin, but her aunt is unaffected. Sr. Angelic begs for news of her son and after a short silence the Princess informs her that two years prior the boy had become gravely ill, and although the family did everything it could to save him, he ultimately died. Sr. Angelica falls to the ground and sobs, and after her aunt leaves sings the famous aria, Senza Mama. The words are hauntingly beautiful.
Without a mother, my baby, you died! Your lips, without my kisses grew pale and cold! And you closed, my baby, your beautiful eyes! Not being able to caress me, you folded your little hands in a cross! And you died without knowing how much your mother loved you! Now that you are an angel in heaven. you can see your mother, you can come down from the sky and I feel you fluttering about me … You’re here, you’re here, you kiss me, caress me … Oh, tell me, when shall I see you in heaven? When shall I kiss you? Oh, sweet end to all my sorrows, when can I join you in Heaven? When shall I die,oh, when shall I die? Tell your mother, pretty baby, with a tiny twinkle of a star. Speak to me, my beloved, my loved one.
By the end of the aria. Sr. Angelica is hysterical and delirious with longing to see her son, and using her knowledge of herbs, concocts a poisonous drink which she consumes, thinking she will soon see her son.
Immediately after downing the potion she returns to her senses and realizes that she is damned because, as she sings in Italian, she has “given herself death” and she will die in mortal sin. In desperation, she throws herself before our Blessed Mother and implores Her to have mercy, singing:
O Madonna, Madonna, save me, save me! For the love of my child! I have lost my reason! Do not let me die in damnation! Give me a sign of Thy grace, Madonna, save me!
Here the choir of angels (the children’s chorus) implores the Blessed Mother,
What Eve sadly took away you restore to the precious seed: Let the mourners enter the realm of stars, Open the gates of heaven! O most glorious of virgins, hail Mary!
As Sr. Angelica dies amid the angelic invocations from the Litany of Our Lady of Loretto, our Blessed Mother appears to Sr. Angelica with her son and encourages the boy to go toward his mother. As the boy is about to embrace Sr. Angelica, she breaths her last and we are left with the certainty that the embrace takes place in eternity.
In less capable hands, the story could have easily slid into mere sentimentality, especially considering the era in which it was written, but Puccini’s music allows us to glimpse in the libretto the love of a Father, Who doesn’t merely sit on the 50 yard line waiting to see which side of the eternal line we might die on, but Who fights for the souls of each of His children, as any good father would.