The title character in “Suor Angelica” has died many, many times in this opera’s long history. But it’s hard to imagine a performance sticking with me more solidly than Samantha KnJoi’s in Sunday’s California Opera production at the Shaghoian Concert Hall.
KnJoi, a recent transplant to Fresno from Huntsville, Ala., shoehorned such angst and passion into those dying moments that I heard several audience members gasp. Singing her final aria, she combined anguish with a placid, beatific resignation to her fate. At one point she ended up flat on her back, singing straight up into the rafters of the Shaghoian, and her full voice still soared. In the most exquisite image of the afternoon, a young boy stood near her feet beckoning the dying Angelica forward. Was this her dead son urging her to heaven or a mere hallucination? In the grasp of the ecstasy of her voice, you were hard-pressed to know the difference.
Stage director Edna Garabedian treats opera as a full body experience, that’s for sure. I love the flourish and style of her vision, and the way that she can turn the barest of stages into a full-fledged operatic world. Once again, she managed to mount a full festival in Fresno through what seems at times like little more than sheer force of will.
“Suor Angelica” was paired on Sunday with “Pagliacci,” which offered its own emotional punch. Tenor Zachary Sheely, as Canio, pumped up the anger and jealousy to the hilt as he, too, did his own share of writhing in anguish on the ground. Stephanie Hower, as Nedda, was a graceful and tragic figure, and the key role of the hunchback Tonio, played by a very strong John Minagro, added a forceful darkness to the show.
Another thing occurred to me as I watched these two powerful operas back-to-back: I didn’t miss not having supertitles at all. Thanks to scholar-singer Ioanna Sfekas-Karvelas’s expert and beautifully delivered synopses of each production, I found myself enjoying a complete immersion in the music and the moment rather than constantly glancing up to read literal translations of each phrase.
One last thought at this wonderful festival comes to a close: I was touched that Maestro Nicola Iacovetti, one of the founding fathers of Fresno’s opera scene, was given such a rousing ovation by the audience. (I’d written about him in my Sunday Spotlight column.) One caller left a message with me today noting that while I’d written that Iacovetti and opera history would be a little richer in the process of having him conduct, I’d forgotten something.
“We ALL are richer,” she said simply.