Puccini’s operas spark the question, is the art form still relevant?

By Haley Twist

A woman mourns the loss of her child, succumbing to the suffering that life has brought her. A family’s greed causes them to care more about material possessions rather than the death of their family member. In the simplest of terms, the plots and themes of Giacomo Puccini’s operas are relevant enough to be understood today if we look beyond the dated Italian librettos and classical compositions.

The UNC Charlotte Department of Music performed Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi, the last two components in the famous Italian composer’s one-act opera trio, Il trittico, last Tuesday evening.

Although the performers were all UNC Charlotte students and it could be assumed that the acts would be slightly modernized, the two operas were performed in a traditional manner — entirely in Italian with the actors in period-specific garb.

Admittedly, getting past the out-of-date aura of the entire opera scene can be difficult. When the word “opera” is even mentioned, it’s hard not to think about dressing in Victorian garb and riding in a horse-drawn carriage to the local theater to experience a cultured evening out.

In the tragedy Suor Angelica, Sister Angelica (Stephanie Patterson) is a young outcast-turned-nun who spends her days praying and making different remedies from the plant life surrounding the monastery. That is, until one day when she is visited by her cold-hearted aunt (Jessi Shannon) who informs her of  the death of her son, whom she hasn’t seen since she joined the monastery. A devastated Angelica decides to put an end to her suffering, mixing herself a deadly poison and committing suicide.

The context in this may not be a standard modern-day story, but the themes are universal. The story bears the weight of those who suffer with the overwhelming loss of someone beloved, and those who so desperately feel they can no longer bear to live. This is a story that is seen in many other art forms, including modern movies like Miguel Arteta’s The Good Girl.

After the curtains close on this tragedy, they are opened shortly thereafter for Puccini’s comedy, Gianni Schicchi, where audiences meet a family who has just lost a loved one. But instead of mourning the death, they mourn the fact that they’re getting stiffed in his will.

Stories and films like Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress remind us that both greed and the obsession with wealth are subjects we often still see. The famous line, “oh mio babbino caro,” is sung in Gianni Schicchi, and it’s a tune that even non-opera goers will likely recognize from various film scores. (Youtube it, you’ll see). This suggests the mark that operas have made on many aspects of culture and art since its heyday.

Maybe the music sounds dated, maybe the plots are in need of a modern upgrade. But it’s the themes of greed, love and death that keep operas just as relevant as stories like Romeo and Juliet.

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