Passionate Duet: Mascagni Paired With Hindemith

Susanna (Anna Caterina Antonacci) caresses a crucifix while below a naked figure mounts the Christ statue in
Hindemith’s ‘Sancta Susanna’ at the Paris Opera. (Photo: Elisa Haberer)

By Susan Brodie

PARIS – The Paris Opera warmed up winter’s approach in late November with a scorching double bill pairing Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana with Hindemith’s Sancta Susanna, both staged by the Italian director Mario Martone. The unusual juxtaposition showcased Elīna Garanča in a superb role debut as Santuzza and Anna Caterina Antonacci doing what she does best: baring her psyche in a wrenching characterization of a tortured soul. It made for an intense, compressed evening of fierce drama and satisfying music making.

Elina Garanca: Superb role debut as Santuzza. (Julien Benhamou)

New to the Paris Opera, Martone, director of Turin’s Teatro Stabile/National Theater, is best known as a stage and cinema director. But he has produced opera since his early career, including a multimedia vaudeville version of Otello, which he brought to New York in 1984, mounted by Falso Movimento, his Neapolitan performing troupe.

He had already staged Cavalleria in 2011, partnered as usual with I Pagliacci, for La Scala. But the combination of Mascagni’s 1890 verismo evergreen with Hindemith’s fevered 1921 Expressionist work provided an interesting opportunity to explore the conflicting urges of religion and desire.

Mascagni’s first opera, a competition winner, remains his best-known work and as much of a crowd-pleaser as at its 1890 premiere in Rome. The action takes place on Easter Sunday. Santuzza, seduced and abandoned by her lover, Turiddu, pleads first with his mother, Lucia, and then with Turiddu to take her back. But Turiddu has been ensnared once again by his old sweetheart, Lola, who married Alfio while Turiddu was away in the army. Devastated by Turiddu’s dismissal, Santuzza betrays him to Alfio, who avenges his honor in a fatal knife duel.

Yonghoon Lee has Turiddu’s sexy swagger. (Elisa Haberer)

Martone and his team (Sergio Tramonti, sets; Ursula Patzak, costumes; Pasquale Mari, lighting; Raffaella Giordano, choreography; and Daniela Schiavone, staging collaborator for the Mascagni, all in Paris Opera debuts) took an austerely distilled approach, using minimal props on an empty black stage and avoiding the usual Sicilian folklore elements. Unusually, the curtain remained down through the overture, with Turiddu’s plaintive siciliana and the first choruses sung offstage. The curtain rose only during the second choral section (with great improvement in the choral sound). While most productions of this opera set the action in the town square, Martone conceived the stage as the interior of the village church, the heart of the community. Each chorister carried a chair representing his or her place in church and thus in society. Only Santuzza, excommunicated for having lost her honor to Turiddu, had no chair.

The villagers at first sat in rows facing the audience; Santuzza wandered among them, unacknowledged. When Santuzza approached Mama Lucia (“Santuzza! You, here?”), the congregation turned upstage; a priest celebrated an elaborate Easter Mass while the drama unfolded downstage. When the Mass was over, the villagers arranged their chairs in a circle and strolled about, staring at Santuzza when she dared approach the community. This stark approach to the opera works, but it felt like a chilly treatment of a hot-blooded story.

Lucia (Elena Zaremba) and Garanca’s Santuzza. (Julien Benhamou)

Garanča’s role debut was confident and persuasive, both dramatically and vocally. The Latvian mezzo-soprano will sing her final Octavian at the Met next spring, but the power and womanly depth in her voice suggests that her career goal of singing Amneris could happen even before her projected endgame date of 2020. As Lucia, Elena Zaremba was a sympathetic mother figure, but her voice sounded lighter in color than that of Santuzza, usually sung by a soprano; the vocal role-reversal altered the balance between the two characters.

Tenor Yonghoon Lee, in his Paris Opera debut, had Italianate ping and power and nailed sexy Turiddu’s swagger if not perhaps the character’s more vulnerable side. Vitaliy Bilyy’s Alfio was manly enough; Antoinette Dennefeld as Lola could have conveyed more sizzle. Conductor Carlo Rizzi made the most of Martone’s emphasis on the music, deploying supple tempi and coaxing warm lyricism from the Paris Opera Orchestra. The orchestra provided most of the hour’s italianità.

The melodic and narrative simplicity of the Mascagni didn’t quite prepare a viewer for the gothic weirdness of Hindemith’s Sancta Susanna, nor did the awkward lights-out transition between the two pieces. In 1921, Hindemith (1895-1963) set a one-act play published on the eve of World War I in Der Sturm, a groundbreaking Berlin-based avant-garde magazine for expressionist art and literature, founded in 1910. The author, August Stramm (1874-1915), earned little recognition in his lifetime, but his play captured Hindemith’s attention years after the writer’s death on the battlefield.

Antonacci portrays a fervent young novice. (Elisa Haberer)

Composed as part of a trilogy, along with Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen (Assassin, the Hope of Women) and Das Nusch-Nuschi (a play for Burmese marionettes), Sancta Susanna was considered so scandalous that conductor Fritz Busch refused on moral grounds to include it when he led the premieres of the other two operas in Stuttgart in 1921. Susanna finally had its premiere a year later at the Frankfurt Opera and caused a scandal for its treatment of the thin line between religious and erotic ecstasy.

It’s easy to see why the work provoked outrage. The story concerns a fervent young novice, discovered praying in her convent cell by Sister Klementia, who rouses her from a near trance state. The lovely spring night stimulates more than Susanna: outside she hears the cries of a couple making love. She has the maidservant brought to her for chastisement; when the girl’s lover comes to collect her, Susanna curses him with cries of “Satana! Satana!” Shaken by the incident, Klementia tells Susanna a 40-year-old story of a novice who tore off her habit and pressed her naked body against the crucifix.

As punishment, the novice was buried alive inside the convent walls, and a loincloth was wrapped around the Christ statue. Susanna imagines she hears the novice’s voice. Becoming agitated, she runs into the sanctuary and tears off her own robes and the crucifix’s loincloth. A spider startles her as the nuns enter to pray, and they discover Susanna’s compromising position. She asks for the same punishment as the long-ago novice, but when she refuses to confess, the nuns curse her with cries of “Satana! Satana!”

Martone’s staging for this second half was a vivid contrast to the stripped-down Mascagni. With the first notes, the curtain rises on Susanna’s cell, a small white room perched high above stage level, set into the middle of a white wall. As the story unfolds, sections of the wall fall away, revealing elements of the sordid history and emblems of Susanna’s turbulent subconscious.

Klementia (Rene Morloc) and Susanna (Antonacci). (Elisa Haberer)

At the climax, a naked dancer climbs onto a toppled crucifix; when an enormous Christ torso descends from the flies Susanna runs down from her cell to the nether realm to mount the crucifix herself, while an enormous animated spider worthy of Louise Bourgeois carries away the dancer. At the final cataclysmic measures, a row of hooded figures folds up the wall with Susanna within. The effect is both preposterous and stirring: it’s modern stagecraft of powerful imagination.

The 25-minute score is very strong, tonally based but with debts to Debussy, Schoenberg, and even Wagner. The delicate introduction evokes the lush beauty of a warm spring night, but the music turns ominous, recalling the mood of Schoenberg’s Erwartung. The full orchestral writing provides substance and continuity for a libretto that on the page consists primarily of stage directions linked by fragmentary bursts of speech. These characters don’t speak in elegant meter but stammer in confusion and cry out in extreme emotion. An initially lyrical four-note theme develops into an insistently taunting clarinet leitmotif — the erotic itch in music — reminiscent of Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel.

The role of Susanna was another tour de force for soprano Antonacci, whose Susanna conveyed inner torment with vocal nuance and physical fearlessness; the enclosed walls of her cell provided welcome sound reinforcement against the sometimes overwhelming orchestra. Alto Renee Morloc’s Sister Klementia anchored Susanna’s fevered utterances with maternal steadiness and vocal solidity. Musically and theatrically, the performance made a persuasive argument for a sadly neglected work. It would be really fascinating to see Hindemith’s three operas staged together.

The double bill runs through Dec. 23. To order tickets, go here.

France Musique radio will broadcast the double bill on Dec. 25 at 2 p.m. EST.

Susan Brodie writes about music, the arts, and life from New York City and Paris. Follow her at @Susan Brodie (Twitter) and Toi Toi Toi!

Thin line between religious and erotic ecstasy: Antonacci’s characterization of a tormented soul. (Elisa Haberer)