SF Opera Examiner Cindy Warner seems to be continuing her one-by-one examination of the three parts of Giacomo Puccini's Il Trittico with yesterday afternoon's reflections on "Suor Angelica." As I read her piece, I recalled that my immediate impression at the conclusion of this opera was how Proustian it felt. Whether this was simply a matter of experiencing it within the French context of "Il Tabarro" or a sign that either Puccini or his librettist, Giovacchino Forzano, had been "under the influence" of Marcel Proust is a matter of deeper research than I can muster at this time. Nevertheless, I find it interesting that, from a strictly chronological point of view, the Trittico premiere took place between the publication of Du Côté de Chez Swann and that of À l'Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleurs.
When we strip away all of the surface features, we find that the underlying story of "Suor Angelica" is (like so many other fundamental plot lines) one of choices and consequences; and, of course, the very title of the first of the Recherche du Temps Perdu novels refers to a choice that, while seemingly trivial, reverberates through the entire collection. When the young Marcel (not yet named in the text) first goes for walks with his father, they come to an intersection at which they must make a choice between walking past either the Swann or Guermantes homes, respectively. While the first novel tends to focus on Swann, we already get a sense of how this cross in the road is a metaphor for a choice between two different world views, Swann's "way," which is guided by the heart, and the Guermantes "way," which is guided by a keen sense of societal norms with little room for reflection over whether or not those norms make any sense (or, for that matter, still have any value in a world being shaken by events such as the Dreyfus Affair).
Perhaps my intellectual tendencies (which Cindy likes to twit to bring me back down to earth) were overreacting at the Opera last Sunday; but I had no trouble seeing the Princess, particularly as she was portrayed by Ewa Podleś (presumably in conjunction with director James Robinson), as the embodiment of the Guermantes "way," firmly upholding those societal norms (feeling even more obsolete in Robinson's choice of a 1950s setting) "by any means necessary." (This idea of authority being exercised, even if brutality is necessary, registers nicely with Cindy comparing the Princess with Scarpia.) In that context it was then easy to associate Sister Angelica with Charles Swann, regardless of any surface-level differences in their respective paths of life. However, if Puccini saw this as a tragedy of the confrontation of these two "ways," he was far less detached about it than Proust was. André Aciman, in a 2002 article for The New York Review, offered an excellent snapshot of what Proust's own narrator's voice had to say about this fundamental choice. It is not kind to either side:
He exposes love for the utter selfishness it is, loyalty for self-interest, beauty for bad taste, purity for perversion.
Whatever feelings Puccini and Forzano may have had about either the "Swann way" or the "Guermantes way," neither of them were inclined to follow "Proust's way," which is more consistent with the "comedy of distress" perspective, which I found at the heart of "Il Tabarro."