Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Suor Angelica
Out of the Box Opera / Basilica of Saint Mary
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Love in a Time of Hate, Only Ugly Guys and Reasons for Moving and Deanne's review of Glensheen

Alexandra Loutsion and Orchestra
conducted by Steven Hargreaves

Photo by Dan Norman
First, I need to get this out of my system: Wow! A beautiful, seldom-heard score by Giacomo Puccini, Alexandra Loutsion's bravura performance in the title role, Suor Angelica, the incomparable majesty of the Basilica of Saint Mary in downtown Minneapolis. Again, I say: Wow!

In a stroke of genius, Out of the Box Opera, a fairly recent addition to the Twin Cities' opera scene (more about that below) brokered a partnership with the Basilica of Saint Mary, housed in one of the most beautiful edifices in this state, to stage Puccini's neglected one-act opera, Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica). The material and the surroundings could not make a better match. The opera tells a story steeped in devotion, faith, sin and redemption, and the Basilica invokes a complementary sense of awe and mystery. Moreover, Out of the Box's Artistic Director David Lefkowich has staged Suor Angelica in three different spaces within the Basilica that ideally match the tone of the work's three scenes. Cast, orchestra, and audience relocate for each scene, a process deftly managed by an array of volunteers patiently guiding audience members.

Set in a convent in 17th century Siena, Suor Angelica opens with nuns partaking in the activities of an ordinary day, some being merry and thus prompting chastisement by the monitor of novices. Though they are reminded of the importance of casting aside all worldly desires, many admit to harboring secret wants. Suor Angelica at first denies having any such wishes, but finally admits to one–to be visited by someone from her family, none of whom she has seen since she came to the convent seven years before. As a stack of packages arrives and is distributed, it is clear that most of the sisters still enjoy material gifts. Suor Angelica receives, not a package, but something more compelling–a visitor from her family.

This first scene is performed in the Basilica's lower-level social hall, a good-sized open space that accommodates the cast of 15 singers, the 22-piece orchestra, and most of the audience–several are relegated to standing room. The space feels cheery and totally right for the depiction of everyday activities. From here, the opera migrates up one flight to a small chapel, the orchestra reduced to eight pieces, and much of the audience required to stand after the seats are filled up.

Here, Angelica meets with her visitor: a princess who is Angelica's aunt, and who became guardian of Angelica and her sister when their parents died twenty years before. La Principessa demands that the nun sign her inheritance over to her sister, who is about to wed. It is revealed that Angelica was sent to the convent in shame after having a child out of wedlock. Angelica yearns for the son she was forced to give up, and is devastated to learn that he has died. The narrow space in this chapel, with Suor Angelica and La Principessa the only two characters, is again ideal for the presentation of this scene, its intensity magnified by the encroaching space and use of candlelight.

All parties ascend up one floor more for the final scene, now in the Basilica's soaring nave, which feels all the more vast after the cramped chapel. Here there are ample seats for all, the full cast and full orchestra return and are joined by more than thirty members of the Basilica Chorus. Light streams through elaborate stained-glass windows on the uplifted walls. In concert with statuary and other art, these announce the intent for this to be a sacred space. Suor Angelica is redeemed of her sin, and yearns only to join her son in the life to come. Heralded by the full-bodied sound of the orchestra and chorus, the work's remarkable conclusion is profoundly stirring. Puccini's moving score and Alexandra Loutsion's exquisite performance certainly merit this response, but this is undoubtedly heightened by the solemn grandeur of the surroundings.

Puccini's score for Suor Angelica is not well known, but it conveys a sweep of emotions throughout, from the merriment of the nuns to the monitor's stern lectures, Suor Angelica's denial of desire, the excitement over the packages, the anguished exchange between Suor Angelica and La Principessa, Suor Angelica's degradation, and her salvation–all of these are masterfully conveyed in the language of music. This is particularly notable, as the production, sung in Italian, does not offer English supertitles. The program, accessed via QR code, provides a summary of each scene and from there the music, the staging, and the phrasing and emotive gifts of the singers tell the story. The score is played superbly throughout under Steven Hargreaves' direction, both with the full orchestra and the chamber ensemble accompanying the mid-section.

The cast all perform exquisitely, with Alexandra Loutsion as Suor Angelica and Alice Chung as La Principessa given by far the greatest opportunities to shine. Loutsion has a stunning soprano voice, and while I do not usually identify the word "fierce" with a soprano, in this case it applies. Moreover, Loutsion uses her face, her body, and dramatic timing as effective tools in delivering a powerhouse performance. Chung brings a beautiful and strong mezzo-soprano voice to her performance as La Principessa, conveying an icy exterior casting judgement on her distraught niece. While the score is little known, one aria for each of these characters is notable: for Suor Angelica, "Senza mamma" (Without a mother) and for La Principessa "Nel silenzio" (In the silence). Both are among the many moments that soar in this production.

There are no sets to credit; the Basilica is the set. The same is true of lighting design. The apt costumes are largely traditional nuns' habits, with a suitably severe look for La Principessa and an effective change in Angelica's costume in the final scene. Suor Angelica was the middle section of Puccini's Il trittico (The Triptych), a collection of three one-act operas, the first being Il Tabarro, the third being Gianni Schicchi. Il trittico premiered late in 1918, but after several more productions the following year, the comedic Gianni Schicchi emerged as the favorite, and has since often been staged with other one act operas. Just this spring, Theatre Latté Da produced a delightful adaptation called Johnny Skeeky. Suor Angelica, cited as Puccini's personal favorite of the three, faded from the popular repertoire.

Now, about Out of the Box Opera. This recent arrival to the Twin Cities' opera scene is dedicated to bringing opera to unlikely places. Their first staged event in 2017 was Diva Opera Cage Match–singers facing off with the winners selected by celebrity judges. It was held at the Uppercut Boxing Gym in northeast Minneapolis. This was followed by a few Opera Cage Match reprises, then programs that served up anthologies of opera hits, some paired with other musical genres like soul, jazz or Broadway, at such venues as the historic Pillsbury A Mill ruins, the Weisman Art Museum, and the Canopy by Hilton hotel. In 2022 Out of the Box presented a fractured version of La Traviata in a co-production with Opera Columbus.

I missed those events, sadly, so cannot compare Out of the Box's magnificent staging of Suor Angelica to their previous work, though it surely has the cachet of being a more "serious" production than those that came before. In any event, Suor Angelica, staged in collaboration with the Basilica of Saint Mary, is a singular achievement. We can thank Out of the Box Opera for lifting before us the beauty and depth in Suor Angelica, let alone for delivering it in such a remarkable staging.

Suor Angelica, presented by Out of the Box Opera, runs through June 29, 2024, at the Basilica of Saint Mary, 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul MN. For tickets and information, please call 612-333-6699 or visit

Music: Giacomo Puccini; Libretto: Giovacchino Forzano; for Out of the Box Opera–Conductor: Steven Hargreaves; Artistic Director: David Lefkowich; Assistant Director: Reed Demangone; Chorus Master: Carson Rose-Schneider; Production Stylist: Christopher Verdosci; Costume Supervisor: Andrea Gross; Repetiteur; Cecilia Nguyen Tran; Stage Manager: Brett Finley. For the Basilica of Saint Mary –Managing Director of Ministries/Director of Liturgy and Sacred Arts: Johan van Parys; Associate Director of Sacred Arts: Kathy Dhaemers; Director of Music: Patrick Schneider.

Cast: Anna Beth Baker (Lay Sister), Alyssa Burdick (Mistress of the Novices), Corissa Bussian (Sister Dolcina), Alice Chung (La Principessa), Emily Cottam (The Nursing Sister), Kristina Dudley (A Novice), Jennifer Eckes (The Monitor), Victoria Erickson (chorus), Natalia Harrison (Suor Genevieve), Sarah Kuhlmann (First & Second Cercatrici), Alexandra Loutsion (Suor Angelica), Justine Scarbrough (The Novice), Lucy Thrasher (The Abbess), Eryn Tvete (Sister Osmina), Amy Wolf (Lay Sister).