Passion crucified: Garanča and Antonacci in Cavalleria Rusticana/ Sancta Susanna at Opéra Bastille 

One of the most intriguing questions while preparing for Cavalleria Rusticana / Sancta Susanna at Opéra Bastille  was an unusual pairing of those two operas and intrigue how the director would have solved linkage between those quite different pieces. What was clear before the performance – this will be unsurpassed opportunity to hear two outstanding mezzos at once: both Elīna Garanča and Anna Caterina Antonacci are worth the travel effort.

The production by Mario Martone communicates his intent quite clearly: both operas are discussing sacredness and human interaction with the divine. Both main protagonists are being restricted by religious and societal norms, both are suffering and perishing because of their passion. The passion is the central theme for both operas, passion that overwhelms and leads to self- destruction. The stage is dominated by crucifix both in Cavalleria and Sancta Susanna – if Cavalleria tells us societal perspective, then Sancta Susanna explores our internal sacred desires and unspoken decisions – this is actually a dream created by subconscious desire.

The concept, seemingly vaguely tied together, becomes convincing story when told in full. I will certainly follow future work of Martone with great interest and hope for many more new discoveries.

Cavalleria Rusticana starts with a beautiful lyrical off-stage aria by Turiddu, and opens to black and empty stage which fills up with chorus coming into a church to celebrate Easter Mass thus taking the centerstage of the whole production, staying there and playing  the main protagonist throughout the opera. Chorus dictates the dynamics of the storyline: either facing the audience and Santuzza being inclusive, or turning their backs to the audience, facing the altar and condemning her. The vocal delivery of the chorus this time felt a bit uneven, especially on soprano’s part, – it might be an intention of the director since too much squillo there made an impression of a lot of older ladies there. The movement of the clergyman through the chorus either on entrance or donation collection act resembles ritual dancing. Stage stays virtually empty, and when the chorus goes off, it is just abandoned Santuzza. Lighting plays a crucial role in the storytelling – from dimmed shadow to bright sunshine or sunset rays through church windows, all the time keeping main protagonists in the central spot.

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Photo Julien Benhamou/ ONP

Elīna Garanča as Santuzza demonstrated both her vocal supremacy and dramatic acting gift – she undoubtfully is at her best form and the role fits her voice as a glove. Her nordic cool acting turns hate into serpent whisper and the harsh chest tone is chillingly frightening. Santuzza’s fight for her love is a desperate act – at the time survival and future depended on succumbing to the standards defined by the church and society. Elīna constructs character of Santuzza as the main protagonist encompassed in passion and drowning in it – being it desire, love, jealousy or hate. At the same time, her Santuzza is a brave woman fighting for her place in the society. Garanča’s matured voice projects into audience freely and naturally, her tone has become so mellifluous in the middle register, while lower register has deep resonating sound and top notes are surprisingly fresh and crisp.

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Elīna Garanča / Photo Julien Benhamou/ ONP

Yanghoon Lee as Turiddu dramatically did well, being all the time aggressive and arrogant with clenched fists, on his toes, shoulders squared. His vocal mastery is unquestionable, especially it was well demonstrated in more lyrical arias as in the opening aria and duet with Lucia on farewell, where his transition into barely heard pianissimi was heartbreaking. Though while when projecting in full volume, his tone created an impression of a bit constricted and forced sound. Seems like Lee is well positioned to take on heroic tenor roles as his voice has both size and volume required. I have the most memorable impression of Lee as Manrico in Il Trovatore at the Met, and some of the scenes remind his performance in Verdi’s masterpiece. The stage chemistry between Lee and Garanča played out well, the passion dominated all scenic interactions being it desperate embrace or harsh push-back. Both of them painted tragedy of burning on the altar of passion and thus convicted to perish.

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Elīna Garanča and Yonghoon Lee/ Photo Julien Benhamou/ ONP

Another interesting finding of the night was Elena Zaremba as Lucia with her intelligent portrayal of concerned and helpless mother. Her mezzo has well-resonating chest voice in the lower register that suits the role and her character impeccably.

Vitaliy Bilyy as Alfio delivered a convincing portrayal of betrayed and furious husband, who turned from romantically dreamy newlywed to raging beast leading to unavoidable tragedy of this passionate engagement. His baritone is easy flowing and has a pleasant timbre, with the ability to add on more dramatic touch as demonstrated during confrontation scene.

Antoinette Dennefeld as Lola was well immersed in the role,  her scenic presence was noticeable regardless of vocally small part.

At the curtain calls the chorus took the stage bows, while all soloists came on proscenium through the curtain, – here the audience met Elīna Garanča with well deserved “Brava” and enthusiastically greeted also Yanghoon Lee who took the ovations in modestly.

The second part of the performance – Sancta Susanna went on after a brief break, thus establishing continuation of the overarching theme. It took me some time to contemplate the linkage and directorial intent, and while there are quite a few issues that could be discussed, the concept surprisingly works out quite well, regardless of some shortcomings.

If staging for Cavalleria was almost bare and the light played a crucial role, then for Sancta Susanna the concept of being secluded or locked up in a cell or your own mind and desire was illustrated by monstrous stone block taking up the whole stage with a cell amidst the mass, where Susanna resides and prays. The small window is so high that getting to reach it takes enormous effort, and none of the outside world can be seen through it. Nevertheless,  worldly sounds come through it and those light up in flames subsided desire with help of vivid imagination. It is a destiny of seclusion – to be exposed to your deepest desires and to create your own escape path – being either real or imaginable through more prayer or faith- abandonment and projecting erotic tension toward a sacred figure of Christ – and self- perishment. The world can break apart, and it can also heal in a divine way with some external help, but not with a prayer alone. Succumbing to passion has to be punished – probably it has been one of the main means to keep societal norms regulated through fright and condemnation.

Anna Caterina Antonacci as Susanna in this brief but intense opera delivers dramatically and vocally supercharged performance, she converts from faith absorbed nun into passion obsessed free woman who gives herself all regardless of expected consequences.

Renée Morloc as concerned Klementia tries to save Susanna but her story of Beata, a nun who was immured alive for her passion sins does not deter her from succumbing to desire.

 

Cavalleria Rusticana

Melodrama in one act (1890)

Music  Pietro Mascagni
Libretto  Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti, Guido Menasci after Giovanni Verga
In Italian
Conductor  Carlo Rizzi
Director   Mario Martone
Santuzza   Elīna Garanča
Turiddu  Yonghoon Lee
Lucia   Elena Zaremba
Alfio  Vitaliy Bilyy
Lola  Antoinette Dennefeld
Set design  Sergio Tramonti
Costume design Ursula Patzak
Lighting design Pasquale Mari
Assistant stage director Daniela Schiavone
Chorus master   José Luis Basso

Sancta Susanna

Opera in one act (1922)

Music   Paul Hindemith  (1895-1963)
Libretto   August Stramm
In German
Conductor   Carlo Rizzi
Director  Mario Martone
Susanna Anna Caterina Antonacci
Klementia  Renée Morloc
Alte Nonne  Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo
Set design Sergio Tramonti
Costume design Ursula Patzak
Lighting design Pasquale Mari
Choreography Raffaella Giordano
Chorus master José Luis Basso

Orchestre et Chœurs de l’Opéra national de Paris

Cavalleria rusticana : Production du Teatro alla Scala, Milan

French and English surtitles

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