first impression, sancta susanna at opéra Bastille, 3/dec/2016

Yesterday I met up with the charming Al at Jardin du Luxembourg for a nice stroll in the sun-shinining early afternoon. After an initial kiss and greet (we haven’t seen each other in nearly 2 years!) we immediately were drawn to “what was your impression of last night at Opéra Bastille?”, Al’s being on the opening night and mine on the 3rd of December’s performance.

thadieu: the first piece is too long!
Al: and the 2nd piece is too short?!
thadieu: YES!!!

And that pretty much summarized our impression of the opera night(s). Apparently the two pieces have similar duration(?)***. That the first made me edgy, a tad angry, bored, feeling my jetlag, amongst other things should say something. Very briefly: I find the music and especially the story not particularly interesting (girl loves boy who loves other girl who was married, big drama scene (in the music) and apparently boy died at the end, not sure who killed him, likely other girl’s husband.). Likely due to the size of the hall, the tension is peaked in the music right from the start, along with the “show-down” in the opening scene in the church on who gets to sit where. Given the set up (and perhaps all the adrenaline in anticipation of finally hearing ACA for the first time, in Hindemith), the body and brain are ready for some life-altering event.. Things quickly fizzled as soon as the story unfolded, all via very loud singing and big posturing (to keep up with the drama in the music, and) to fill up the gigantic stage. As to why this piece is revolutionary/famous I am quite puzzled. As for the lead singers, my only impression is that I’d like to hear Elina Garanca singing Romeo in this huge hall and perhaps I’d have more interesting observations :-). Her character slowly revealed that she has been shunned by the town, but we don’t know why or how. In the initial showdown she was already seen as an outcast, and yet still talking to the boy’s mother. Is she responsible for him not talking to his mother? All this we don’t know, except that the tension is very highly built in the music, and yet reduced to “you love me?”, “you don’t love me?”, “how dare you?”, “no you lie to me”. This is the 4th time I have “accidentally” seen Yonghoon Lee live, I think he is singing louder than ever before, which I heard is what’s required for this piece, while the acting remains “do this to appear over-macho, do this to appear sad”, similar to in Il Trovatore in Munich. Oh, the chorus has some nice sections and the overture was interesting though! Let us leave it at that. Perhaps this is also the feeling when you come for Hindemith and its compelling storyline and intriguing music and got greeted by 1 hour of something totally its opposite.

Onto Hindemith! criminally too short! we need more time! more time to hear Anna Caterina Antonacci sing, and definitely more time to hear the music!

The first welcoming sight was the influx of woodwinds to the orchestra pit as the Cavallieri Rusticana’s cast taking a bow. As the curtain opened, it’s a also a huge relief that the infinite stage was reduced to 1/20th of its depth and approximately 1/16th of its cross-sectional area, with Susanna’s chamber at the center just above the orchestra pit. The first bar of music and one is ready to grab on the the seat preparing for the journey. This will be a first impression on the entire show how everything fits. I find the staging quite effective: a dark and simple room with a small-sized cross and tiny window above-head level where moon light comes through. The scene gives the feeling of entrapment in a tight and defined (regularized) space with freedom in the form of flower scent, moon light, and breezes traverse unconstrained on the outside. The burying ground underneath reveals the existence of condemned desire. When Susanna finally undressed herself to feel the flesh, a larger than life cross descended from “heaven”. She descended with it into the underground, hugging the human-sized figure of Jesus on the cross as the “mob” arrived for condemnation and shutting the tomb sealing her on the inside, the same way they had done forty years ago. Musically it remained intriguing and engaging and tense throughout, and before you could breath a sigh, any sign, it was over! ARGH!!
Singing-wise, ACA’s voice is everything I’ve anticipating. My first impression: omg, i would like to hear her singing non-stop for the next 3 hours. My second impression: she can not be thinking of retiring any time soon!!! not with this voice, must keep track of what she’s singing for the next few years!! For this piece, I will have to admit Susanna is part of a “whole” in the music. She sings about equal amount as Klementia, so one would have to give equal credit to both in the ability to carry along the narrative. The acting is highly compelling (and offered a good contrast to that during the first piece). That said, I strongly believe Opera Bastille is too big for this piece, such that it loses its intimacy in the communication between these two characters. Some part of the conversation can even be “heard” as internalized process and as such the ability to sing softer would be welcomed. However, because the orchestra (modern) was quite loud, likely to fill the entire house, the singers can not really afford to reduce the volume. I had a very good seat on the first balcony, and all sound came without any hinderance. Thus I wonder if the orchestra played softer one could ever achieve a more intimate feeling; likely not because I am told this is probably one of the biggest houses if not the biggest in France, and perhaps even Europe? It draws comparison only to the MET (the MET is bigger, but if you’re in the same conversation… I’d also mention LA opera, or San Diego auditorium.. *huge*..) . From a recent interview ACA mentions she might also sing Sancta Susanna in New York (Carnegie hall? isnt’ that also very big? but I’ll come to that for a more “chamber-like” feeling). We are coming back tomorrow for another round, this time I’ll be on the 2nd balcony. Will report how sound will come from there.

My discussion with Al did evolve around the point of what Susanna is expressing desire to (I am still unsure), whether it is spiritually offering both her flesh body and soul to the higher divine, or whether it is a deviation from her devoted spirit and unwavering physical desire of the flesh. In addition, we are still pondering the symbolic meaning of Jesus on the cross, whether it is a relation to the divine figure or a male figure or both..

Also, similar to Dehggi’s and her “enter-the-shrine” feeling in Munich, Opéra Bastille is that glorious hall for me where V.Kasarova debuted her Roméo. All these years, and finally here we are :-). Oh, Al also informed me C.Bartoli is singing the title role of “Ariodante” in Händel’s opera this 2/Jun and the Salzburg festival!! I better sort out my schedule.

This is a report of the double-billed of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Hindemith’s Sancta Susanna on Saturday 3/Dec/2016. For a less biased opinion on the first piece, please check this review out. If that is true that Sancta Susanna was only ***20min long, i’m indeed *very* miffed!


About thả diều
writing-challenged opera-addict

2 Responses to first impression, sancta susanna at opéra Bastille, 3/dec/2016

  1. Agathe says:

    Many thanks for your impressions, thadieu, and you did get me interested in this piece, which I didn’t know before. It is striking, if „uncomfortable“ music and not hard to believe that ACA did a gripping performance! The story itself seems to be a product of early 1990s intellectuals’ fascination with psychoanalysis, with it’s fixation on sex as the basis of everything human. From a modern viewpoint, the idea of a (male) librettist/composer indulging in the nun’s suppressed sexuality does feel a bit iffy to me. (German Philosopher Peter Sloterdijk recently wrote a book in which „female sexuality“ plays a major role and he rightfully got laughed at by many critics for that). So I guess, a modern staging should maybe try find some distance or alternative viewpoint to the original idea? That must be very difficult though, so I’m not saying I could do it better, it’s just that I don’t feel so comfortable with the „unfiltered“ staging of the original idea. But I haven’t seen the Paris production of course, so can’t really judge and it certainly is an interesting piece musically.

    I totally agree with you that modern orchestras in big houses can take away the chance of more differentiated dynamics and have often found the overall sound unbalanced in the sense of the singers not getting through very well. For that reason the opera house (“Festspielhaus”) of Bayreuth has a „cover“ above the orchestra pit, to result in more balanced dynamics between singer and orchestra, as planned by Wagner himself, and the acoustics are still highly praised by Wagner fans today. So, while Bayreuth Festival in general may have it’s pros and cons, that is a good idea I think.
    Have fun at the next performance of this and at Don G!

  2. Anik LaChev says:

    thank you for the write-up, thadieu!
    I may or may have not been stalkting this space in the past 48 hours waiting for your impressions… I chuckled throughout at your being underwhelmed by Mascagni. Nope, we won’t turn you into a verismo fan (Romeo would be more intriguing – but there are singer who deem trouser roles unbecoming with growing age, so I guess that boat has sailed in this particular case).
    Much like Agathe, I didn’t know this Hindemith well, either, but in between your observations (and Agathe’s) remarks and of course what you describe about ACA make it sound very, very intriguing. And perhaps it’s supposed to be an unanswered question here, perhaps intellect and sensuality in one? Curious to hear whether you will single out different things tomorrow

    but for now, of course, waiting for news from tonight, too. 😉

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