Sancta Susanna/Cavalleria rusticana (Opéra Bastille, 6 December 2016)

After a Mozart night at the compact and bijou Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, thadieu and I relocated to the humongous Opéra Bastille for some verismo and expressionism.

I started with the above picture in hope those who have never been to Opéra Bastille get a feel of how massive it is. Just consider the staircase on the left. Capacity-wise it’s not quite the Met but nowadays it can pack more than Wiener Staatsoper (only because WS has reduced its seating capacity). It beats ENO by some 200 seats and the drops and depth are breathtaking. It feels a bit like the O2 Arena of European opera venues. I know thadieu is going to remind me of the Hollywood Bowl (where Ann Hallenberg sang Pergolesi’s Stabat mater…) but, come on, that’s not a venue designed for opera.

operabastillehall

click to enlarge

We had tickets on the 2nd balcony, which means at the top. The seats were comfy and, as with modern venues, the views were excellent – except for the distance! I’m blind enough to have had trouble with the surtitles (cosmopolitanly provided both in both French and English), thank goodness for my opera glasses, though by the end I was sick and tired of squinting and straining. What can you do, with a piece such as Sancta Susanna and a performer such as ACA, who you want to see acting as much as hear singing. Especially in such a short piece (~20min), where you blink and miss her. I also wanted to ascertain if Garanča can act or not.

However, for its imposing size and heavy figure cut in Place de la Bastille, I was won over by the indoors design. There are many details that make for an architecture photography fan’s delight.

Now with some distance from the shock produced by the sheer size and boldness of Bastille (on first seeing it in real life I said it looked like a prison, which might have even been the point) and after questioning the idea of having an opera of intimate size performed therein, I think it’s not such a far-fetched idea.

 

Cavalleria rusticana

Santuzza: Elīna Garanča
Turiddu: Yonghoon Lee
Lucia: Elena Zaremba
Alfio: Vitaliy Bilyy
Lola: Antoinette Dennefeld
Conductor: Carlo Rizzi | Orchestre et Chœurs de l’Opéra national de Paris
Director: Mario Martone

Though 40 years and different cultural attitudes separate Cavalleria rusticana and Sancta Susanna, the take on female sexuality (identity?) is very similar = repressive. That’s not surprising, as that view has come down through history and is still prevalent in certain traditional enclaves.

Thadieu expressed puzzlement as to the plot of Cavalleria rusticana, ie why the big drama? Well, desire and revenge are irrational, especially revenge borne by desire. As such, they are almost impossible to control – and certainly not by reason, rather – if at all – by outside contraints (ie, religion, local customs). So the answer to what is verismo is indeed people shouting at each other (because they can’t contain their emotions; or because they’re Southern Europeans 😉 ).

operabastillefoyer

click for details of the foyer

You could reduce the whole plot to Turiddu being on the rebound (still not over Lola) and Santuzza feeling horribly shafted, having fallen for him. Now we need to add to this local customs, which in traditional societies are very harsh on “fallen women”. There is a reason Turiddu makes it a point to ask his mother to look after Santuzza if he dies. It’s because he knows that according to custom he is supposed to either marry her or somehow provide for a(n unmarried) woman who “has given herself to him”. So sex isn’t fun and games, it’s bondage on both sides. A man needs to guard his own or risk derision. Alfio is being so serious about revenge because Turiddu has taken something of his.

I don’t know if Santuzza cares about this one way or another, aside from being shunned by the community bit. I think she’d be fine enough if Turiddu loved her. But since she’s lost both her honour and his love she decides to do something about it. In traditional societies women don’t have a lot of avenues for expression beside madness or evil. Santuzza pursues evil by disclosing to Alfio Turiddu’s affair with Alfio’s now wife. She knows just what is going to happen, which this production emphasises by having her walk off with determination after hearing of Turiddu’s demise.

Garanča, who, as thadieu would say, I got to see “accidentally”, having studiously avoided her up to now, managed the walk off very well. I would say that was her strongest acting of the night. My beef with her comes out of spite. The woman is in possession of an excellent intrument which I don’t think she uses interestingly. Earlier this Autumn I ended up watching her Cenerentola from the Met with my Mum, who found her completely boring, both vocally and dramatically. I swear I didn’t “groom” her for that opinion!

I thought her singing absolutely spot on (no note out of place, always making every entrance, flowing coloratura) but lacking in fire. So I didn’t have an easy time imagining her as Santuzza. When we were planning this trip I even asked thadieu if we should show up for “part 1”. Though in the end she suffered a lot more than I did, it was her “might as well” that convinced me I should give Garanča a chance.

Well, the report is similar to that on Cenerentola: the woman can surely sing – and the tone is less metallic in the house – the voice sounds as healthy as ever (she’s only 40 or so) and is loud enough to make herself heard in this repertoire in a big house (though the singing is only seldom accompanied by the entire orchestra). Let me tell you that not only is the house big, but the orchestra makes a proper racket that travels all the way up to the rafters. With my hair on end and my eyes popping out I wondered how loud Wagner must sound in there.

operabastilledrop

click for a better feeling of “the drop”

Similar to Cenerentola, I thought the fire was lacking. To be fair, they made use of the entire stage – which is likewise staggerinly big sideways and in depth – and often times you had Santuzza and Turiddu share an “intimate” chat 20m apart. It looks good from the rafters but you do wonder, especially as it’s verismo: do people in real life have a very intense conversation physically that far apart?

The personnenregie felt very much old school, with broad gestures and lots of space between protagonists. Bilyy as Alfio wasn’t so bad but Lee as Turiddu acted right out of the ’50s book of opera acting: feet always planted wide apart, pumped fists, head held high etc. Garanča herself never offended me gesture-wise but there’s this removed, ice-queen feel about her. Nervous energy drips from some singers’ tendons – not so in her case. She’s there, apparently focused within.

Santuzza is very much focused on Turiddu. I did not feel that at any point. I think she was at her most emotional in her interaction with Lucia during Voi lo sapete (well, duh, you will say, it’s her big aria), but still, come on, Santuzza’s mind is supposed to be clouded over with emotion for this chap. When playing a woman who asks a man/lover on her knees to return to her, well, that kind of passion needs you to radiate desire (and quite possibly a bit of self hatred) from all your being. I’d say that’s beyond Garanča’s dramatic capabilities. Yet she’s not completely lacking in charisma; just not Sicilian.

Though not impressed with his acting – or his chemistry (lack thereof?) with Garanča, I thought Lee was vocally a good Turiddu (my experience here is limited). The music asks him to provide loud and solid long held notes and he did that with ease and panache. It’s not an unpleasant tone by any means. However I think he could work on his Italian phrasing.

The (loud) choir wasn’t bad at all and the choral bits in the piece made for good contrast between the apparently peaceful rural environment and the festering desires in private.

Sancta Susanna

Susanna: Anna Caterina Antonacci
Klementia: Renée Morloc
Alte Nonne: Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo
Conductor: Carlo Rizzi | Orchestre et Chœurs de l’Opéra national de Paris
Director: Mario Martone

This whole trip was concocted for the sole purpose of seeing Antonacci in a rarely performed opera (and what with going off the beaten track, I have yet to see her sing in Italian). Though I don’t, by any means, dislike Cavalleria rusticana, this type of sexual paroxysm is more up my alley. Can’t beat a nun chorus of Satana! Satana! Satana!, can you? 😉 There are two things Germans are ace at and those are Romanticism and Expressionism – the hidden depths of the mind.

For those of strong emotional constitution the mind is a fascinating realm. Nobody has quite figured out what the hell (and it is often hell) is going on there. I think this small opera is effective – seeing it in the environment of the huge Opéra Bastille auditorium adds to it – because the mind is an immense, volcanic world enclosed in a tiny place.

There is repression/violence by women on women in Cavalleria rusticana but here it’s a lot more obvious. If the nunnery represents the world of women, then it’s quite clear what nuns walling up one of their own stands for.

In my experience nobody thinks more about evil/the devil than the pious. That’s the kind of mind who has invented/defined it and that is the mind that has to live and fight with it. On the other hand it’s true that, pious or not, every once in a while something from the depths surfaces and rearranges one’s identity in ways hitherto unsuspected.

So what I take from this – on a literal level – is the question are the brides of Christ, if Christ is both of God and human, not supposed to engage with his human side in ways brides would? Of course the orthodox view is hell, no! but what harm is there, if they are utterly faithful to him? Poor nuns 😉 To quote thadieu again “why the drama?” Sister Susanna was letting off some steam after hearing her maid go at it with her (the maid’s) lover.

The journey from deep prayer to (literally) pure randiness is scandalous only to hypocrites but otherwise well documented in history. The body/mind seeks balance.

We had Antonacci, one of the singers who best mixes singing and acting into a coherent whole, put the fire of life/lust into our initially catatonic heroine. She doesn’t have much to sing and has to shout a few times (she’s louder than I thought for such a big hall, but she doesn’t have to do it constantly for an hour) so those unfamiliar with her singing might find this outing rather inconclusive.

Dramatically, though, she’s magnificent. She’s in her 50s now but she can act young and elusive and she can also act frantic with desire just by the way or the pace at which she moves. The most interesting part is the development between one state to the other, as well as “the whole being” at the end, when she stands and faces the looming nuns. Thadieu said in the premiere she didn’t leave the crucifix she had climbed onto, but I thought this stand was an excellent idea. She’s neither just angelic nor only frenzied by lust, but a strong presence that likely has integrated both.

There are some really cool things the production does within 20min. If you look closely at the above picture you can see the bottom part of the wall comes off at the crack. When it did, we could see underneath the cell. As lust started to creep into Susanna’s mind/body, a fallen crucifix appeared on our left and a young woman (perhaps the ghost of the previous walled in nun) started embracing it. Later on Susanna descends there, whilst a giant spider that looks like the human centipede crawls on the other side of the stage (remember, it’s vast) and deposits the said young woman on the ground. They wall Susanna in by pushing back the bottom of the wall.

operbastilletop

top foyer

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About dehggial

opera lover with a predilection for Mozart and Baroque

Posted on December 8, 2016, in 20th century, italian opera, live performances, mezzos & contraltos, opera trips, sopranos and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. thanks so much for the explanations on this post! you did your homework, unlike me taking crash course and loudly crying along the way 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. another thank you, dehggi – really enjoying your take also on Cavalleria, and how it interacted with the size.
    EG – yeah, there is a post I am always postponing on whether a performer owes an audience vulnerability. Garanca (she is 40) is technically close to perfect, and you are right, there is charisma (every time I see her, I want to cast her as a pinstripe Carmen in a corporate/politics setting and I think she’d ace that), but I tend to stumble over the approach of total control. And I’m not really sure whther I have the right the stumble?
    Antonacci is kind of an unfair juxtaposition because if she can light the enormous Bastille on fire in 20 minutes? Good luck with being up next to that.

    Either way, rereading, and enjoying the impressions (and bring on more photos!).

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    • I added more pictures 🙂

      yes, I thought all along how weird it was to “pair up” two such radically different performers. Might be the reason why ACA came after Garanca 😉 The pieces are also very different in feel and with no intermission it was quite an emotionally tasking evening.

      I would be curious on your ideas on that (performer vulnerability). I guess it works either way, depending on what one wants from opera. I for one want personal (emotional) involvement in art (which is why I have a very hard time with most contemporary fine art) but admiring a singer for their skill at singing the material might be just as valid… I’m trying to be open minded, though I can’t quite wrap my mind around it. I wonder if EG is similarly remote in recital.

      your Carmen idea sounds doable!

      Liked by 1 person

      • yes, that point of personal involvement… perhaps I will have to write about it after all. It is something I keep thinking about, a lot.
        Thank you for the added photos! The foyer spacing is amazing, but I still have trouble getting into the color scheme
        (also, on the surtitle size: good grief!!)

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        • actually the colour scheme is more off white-marble than pictured, especially in the hall. It’s what the camera could cope with given the low light conditions (and my preferred filter). That writing is just the “mobiles off” announcement, the surtitles were larger and in two different colours but I would have liked them bolded. The font looked something like Calibri.

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  3. i re-read this 5x on my flight and still loving it!!! and finally caught on you mean I was suffering! that is really the right word 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is a pair of brilliant reviews. Now I want to hear Sancta Susanna. I never heard Garanca, but from recordings I agree with your assessment. I heard Yonghoon Lee as Trovatore, and your description is perfect! He has a great spinto voice, but his Italian is so innatural, poor thing, he must be struggling like hell. Also his gesturing is extremely stereotyped, you are absolutely correct.
    Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • you’re welcome! I would definitely recommend this production os Sancta Susanna, I think it does a great job expressing that sexual frenzy. I hope YL develops his Italian (and perhaps does something about his acting).

      Like

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