Mascagni - Cavalleria Rusticana / Hindemith - Sancta Susanna

ONP Bastille, Wednesday November 30 2016

Conductor: Carlo Rizzi. Production: Mario Martone. Sets: Sergio Tramonti. Costumes: Ursula Patzak. Lighting: Pasquale Mari. Santuzza: Elīna Garanča. Turiddu: Yonghoon Lee. Lucia: Elena Zaremba. Alfio: Vitaliy Bilyy. Lola: Antoinette Dennefeld. Susanna: Anna Caterina Antonacci. Klementia: Renée Morloc. Alte Nonne: Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

Puzzled by the apparently odd pairing of Cavalleria Rusticana and Sancta Susanna, I went to the Bastille last night unsure of what to expect. The link between the two turned out to be basically the relationship between religion and sex, obvious in Sancta Susanna and made more obvious in Cavalleria Rusticana by heightening both. The crucifix, in various sizes, was a recurrent image. Director Mario Martone added in interview that both libretti refer to the heady scent of flowers, which seemed to be a bit “tiré par les cheveux”. He admitted he wasn’t keen on the “rhetoric” of so-called verismo, so in Cav he went for sobriety: no backdrops, indeed no scenery to speak of on a black stage, mostly dimly lit, and dark 19th-century costumes.

The staging was “sexed-up” by having a small, grimy brothel, complete with Madame, staff and patrons, glide across the empty stage at the beginning, and “religioned-up” by setting the action up to the intermezzo against the Easter mass, here not hidden in the church but occupying the dark stage. The chorus brought their own chairs and placed them in two blocks, separated by an aisle, facing the audience. When an altar appeared at the rear, a giant crucifix came down over it, a (pretend) lamb was sacrificed and a second, processional crucifix appeared to the left. As the priest and altar-boys filed in, candles lit and censers swinging, they (the chorus) turned their backs on us for mass, which went on silently - sermon, collection, communion and all - while the more usual business progressed on the apron (fortunately for the singers’ projection). After mass, the same chairs were set in a circle to form the village square. It was as simple as that and perfectly effective: “We don’t really need the village,” as my neighbour said.

Musically it sounded to me as if Carlo Rizzi was also trying to tone down the verismo rhetoric in a plain, no-nonsense performance. I can understand this, but am not sure it works: perhaps with Mascagni the only real solution is to let the bodice rip. The cast, however, was excellent. Elena Zaremba didn’t have much to do, of course, but she did it with great, straight-backed dignity and charisma. Antoinette Dennefeld was agreeably fresh-voiced and fluid. Yonghoon Lee has, as a friend also there put it later, “lots of metal” in his voice and is generous with it. Over-generous? I wonder how long he will be able to give so much in roles of this kind. Elīna Garanča, whom I hadn’t seen for years and years (as Sextus in La Clemenza di Tito in 2007, to be exact) was just marvellous. Gorgeous timbre. “In sumptuous voice,” said the friend.

Though there was a curtain and a pause for a change of scenery, the house stayed dark and there was no interval.

Sancta Susanna is a short story about mad nuns with a sexual crush on the crucified Christ. The plot is on Wikipedia. The curtain rose on a wall of cracked rock, filling the whole space, and Susanna’s cell, a hole in the wall, with a bed and a chair, a little crucifix and a little window. As the tale of Sister Beata was told, the bottom of the rock fell to reveal what was probably the giant Easter-mass crucifix, now lying abandoned underfloor and a long-haired, naked dancer acting the tale out. As the story progressed to its climax, Susanna stripped off her veils (revealing short, chopped hair) and habit (revealing her naked breasts in stark white light), an incredible giant spider, operated by slithering dancers in black, crept forward on the right with another nude dancer on its back, and the foot of a, this time, colossal crucifix, appeared at the rear – so colossal, the foot (well, up to the knees) was all there was room for. Finally, Susanna was walled in as the rock rose to fill the space again.

Carlo Rizzi and the orchestra seemed to me to show more interest in Hindemith’s more interesting score (a brief beauty: "In this case I would have arrived at the interval..." commented a musical friend on Facebook). Renée Morloc and Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo, with her deep, dark, grainy voice, were excellent, and Anna Caterina Antonacci was on stunning form, vocally and physically: “Superb,” the friend said. “When she sang ‘I am beautiful’ she really was!” Said my neighbour over steak and chips afterwards.

It turned out, then, to be a very strong double bill, dramatically and vocally. This was the première, yet there was no booing. And it’s very satisfactory to have two successful performances in a single evening, one of them a discovery, over early enough to start dinner before ten and be in bed by midnight.

Maestro Wenarto hasn't published any of Sancta Susanna yet, so here's some Mascagni instead.


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