Thursday 8 December 2016

Cavalleria rusticana/Sancta Susanna, Opéra national de Paris, 3 December 2016

Opéra Bastille

Images: Julien Benhamou /OnP

Santuzza – Elina Garanča
Turiddu – Yonghoon Lee
Lucia – Elena Zaremba
Alfio – Vitaliy Bilyy
Lola – Antoinette Dennefeld

Susanna – Anna Caterina Antonacci
Klementia – Renée Morloc
Old Nun – Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo
Maid – Katharina Crespo
Knight – Jeff Esperanza

Mario Martone (director)
Sergio Tramonti (set designs)
Ursula Patzak (costumes)
Pasquale Mari (lighting)
Daniela Schiavone (assistant director, Cavalleria rusticana)
Raffaella Giordana (choreography, Sancta Susanna)

Chorus of the Opéra national de Paris (chorus master: José Luis Basso)
Orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris
Carlo Rizzi (conductor)

Two operas: one rather better known to the operatic public, but neither to me personally. I tried (perhaps that was the problem?) with Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, yet felt rather nonplussed. There was nothing especially to ‘mind’, but the work left little impression beyond its strange pacing (dragging almost interminably, then abruptly concluding, or at least finishing). Somehow, it came across both as crude and bland. I heard dashes of undigested Wagner, devoid of context, washed up amongst mildly Verdian debris. Every so often, Mascagni seemed to aspire towards Puccini, yet barely left the starting block, falling time and time again on mere cliché, and failing to achieve anything of interest melodically, harmonically, orchestrally. Characterisation seemed minimal, the drama, such as it was, situational. As for the story, such as it was, would it not have embarrassed a 1980s television mini-series? I had been curious to discover what the fuss was all about; in a sense, I am all the more curious now, since I really did not ‘get it’. ‘Some of my best friends’, but not, alas, me…


If Mascagni’s opera would have seemed more suited to a ten or fifteen minutes scena, Hindemith’s Sancta Susanna left me wanting more: always a good sign. The final part of his Expressionist triptych (Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen, and Das Nusch-Nuschi come first), it is much more my sort of thing, I suppose. Musically, it comes perhaps as close to ‘atonal’ Schoenberg as Hindemith would ever do: more than once, I was put in mind of Die glückliche Hand, even Bluebeard’s Castle, especially in terms of orchestral colour, but perhaps harmonically too. Subject matter – a convent riven by sexual frenzy and demonic possession – has certain points of contact with Erwartung, perhaps, and more generally with other contemporaneous musical explorations (mostly, of course by men) of female sexuality, but more obviously with Prokofiev’s later Fiery Angel. Hindemith certainly has no aspirations to the so-called athematicism of Erwartung, though, quasi-autonomous musical form already gesturing, from within its Expressionist cloak, to the Neue Sachlichkeit future.


What do the two works have in common? Very little, I think, although I suppose one might make some generic ‘religious’ claim. Mario Montane, perhaps mistakenly, made little or no effort to link them. An awkward five minutes or so (following curtain calls!) in between, house lights still off, did not help, audience members not unreasonably uncertain what to do (apart, that is, from some Hindemith foes who made a dash for it). It was not entirely clear to me whether the Cross seen in his Sicilian Church was supposed to be in some sense the same as that witnessed so strikingly in Sergio Tramonti’s design for the crypt or other underworld beneath the convent. At first, Montane’s Cavalleria rusticana seems highly conventional, but there is a greater degree of abstraction than one might first guess, much done with comparatively little, rescuing the work somewhat from its vulgar realism. A definite emphasis upon the menacing power of the village crowd, seated in judgement, is welcome too. (I thought of Peter Grimes.) The fun is really had to be had, though, in Sancta Susanna. The action initially takes place in a ‘window’, securely embedded, or so it seems, within a larger structure, which begins to fall to pieces – as, well, Susanna’s defences do. Nightmarish giant crucifixes, a huge insect (made up of a highly skilled movement team, well choreographed by Raffaella Giordana), and the past and present of nuns writhing on the Cross, tread with delicious ambiguity the line between sympathy and Gothic horror.

The orchestra of the Paris Opéra sounded sumptuous, with a splendid sheen but plenty of depth in the Hindemith too. Carlo Rizzi seemed perhaps more at home in Mascagni; I should not have minded a little more formal delineation in the Hindemith. Nevertheless, his exploration of orchestral colour there was greatly to be welcomed, and the climactic moments were viscerally exciting. Choral singing and blocking were well handled throughout.


Elina Garanča sang beautifully as Santuzza in the Mascagni, line impeccable, although there was a certain coldness to her performance that perhaps militated against the possibility of much emotional involvement. Yonghoon Lee’s excellent Turiddu was quite the peacock, also quite the mummy’s boy: just, I presume, as he should have been. Dramatic toing and froing between Anna Caterina Antonacci, every inch the queen of her stage, and Renée Morloc was gripping, reminding us that there is much to be pieced together from Hindemith’s vocal lines, not nearly so fragmentary as they might initially seem. Controlled frenzy was the order of the day, but never too controlled. All other parts were well taken. If only, though, Sancta Susanna had been presented with a more appropriate companion piece or pieces, though, whether Hindemith’s own or something more tellingly related or contrasted. Next time…