In the world of opera, nuns are frequent visitors and fair game. They’re exotic, not infrequently neurotic, blistering with fervour and not difficult to costume (you can hire the habits off the peg, they never need a perfect fit).
More seriously, nuns on the opera stage deliver opportunities for a composer and librettist to reflect on what you might call “higher things” beyond the standard narratives of thwarted passion. All of which makes promising material for lyric theatre and explains the currency of pieces such as Poulenc’s The Carmelites (where an entire enclosed community go the guillotine in revolutionary France), Puccini’s Suor Angelica (where the eponymous Sister Angelica is cruelly treated by the church but compensated with a dying vision of the Blessed Virgin) … and, the other week, a brand new entry to the spiritual opera stakes by Lliam Paterson that made a powerful impression.
Paterson, born in Scotland and not yet 30, has several stageworks to his credit that have generated international interest. This latest one, The Angel Esmeralda, was a Scottish Opera commission which the company found it couldn’t accommodate within its Glasgow season. So the score got passed down to the Guildhall School in London for a student premiere; less prestigious but for the fact that the students did it so fantastically well – in a production by Martin Lloyd-Evans that required a dismantling of the Guildhall’s Silk Street Theatre for an in-the-round immersive experience.
The audience was thrust into the urban wasteland of the 1970s New York Bronx where, in a narrative based on a short story by Don DeLillo, two Carmelite Sisters do good works – until one of them experiences an alleged (and frankly tacky) miracle that the other refuses to accept.
From this emerges a compelling conflict of belief, sharpened by the fact that one Sister (you can guess which) is old in years, old-school in faith, conventionally devout and very much not of this world – while the other is younger, more liberal, more streetwise, more questioning.
As the piece unfolds it feels like something between West Side Story and The Saint of Bleecker Street – Menotti’s 1950s Broadway opera about a would-be nun in New York’s Little Italy who appears to have visions and receive the stigmata. Bleecker Street was, in its time, a runaway success; and though it’s not much played today, Menotti thought it was his best. It may have been: despite some corny writing, it has impact. And I wouldn’t be surprised if, consciously or otherwise, its essence hadn’t been absorbed by Paterson or his librettist Pamela Carter.
Esmeralda’s score is greedily absorbent, taking in from far and wide, though not without a critical, discriminating ear. Its textures are evocatively rich, steeped in the sound-world of the 1970s (electric keyboards and guitar and all) but with an energy and dynamism that speak equally of today.
As for the staging, it was brilliant: better than a lot of theoretically high-level shows I’ve seen in London recently (not least at ENO, whose dismal management could learn some lessons from it).
The performances were memorably strong and vivid, not least from Guildhall students Elsa Roux Chamoux and Harriet Burns as the two nuns. And it sent the audience home with something powerful to think about: that while the old, believing nun, along with almost everybody else onstage, “saw” the miracle occur – pointing to it, singing of it with excitement and exhilaration – we, the audience, saw nothing. Just a blank wall.
“That’s religion for you,” might have been our cynical response. “Delusion and hysteria.” But after an extraordinary closing solo number by the old nun – it amounted to a prayer – this clearly wasn’t how the piece wanted us to feel. Perhaps there was a miracle, that we weren’t privileged to share? And if there wasn’t, could it be that the belief in one was all that mattered? The belief having value in its own right?
There was something here for everybody at the Guildhall to reflect on in the days that followed – when the School was closed down after a coronavirus scare.