Norman Bates, Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh Come to Mind in Baroque Opera
05/02/2019 - & April 21, 22 (Washington), May 3, 4, 5 (New York), 2019
Alessandro Stradella La Susanna
Lucía Martín-Cartón (Susanna), Sara Couden (Scholar, Testo), Ariana Douglas (Student, Daniel), Patrick Kilbride, Paul Max Tipton (Judges)
Arash Noori (Theorbo), Anthony Manzo (Bass), Loretta O’Sullivan (Cello), Andrew Appel (Harpsichord), Ryan Brown and Jacob Ashworth (Violin & Co-Music Direction)
Ethan Heard (Stage Direction), Emma Jaster (Movement Direction), Reid Thompson (Scenic Design), Beth Goldenberg (Costume Design), Oliver Wason (Lighting Design)
P. Kilbride, P. M. Tipton, L. Martín Cartón (© Russ Rowland)
Two opera companies, Opera Lafayette, located in the DC nexus of American power, and Heart Beat Opera, in New York’s throbbing center, joined forces to bring La Susanna by Alessandro Stradella to life. Taking up the challenge of perfectly beautiful music and a tawdry story which is all too familiar over centuries of time, the production succeeds in bringing a tale of unjust accusations and imprisonment up to the moment.
Two judges, who look like Mutt and Jeff. but could easily be Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh. They leer at the nude Susanna, bathing innocently in her private garden. Norman Bates leered at Janet Leigh showering through a peephole covered by a portrait of this very Susanna. Susanna has had sordid history because we have not moved much forward from beautiful women being punished when they rebuff overtures from powerful men.
Susanna was jailed and prosecuted by her leerer/accusers, not because she was a seductress but because she would not comply with the love and lust of her salivating judges. Dr. Ford had the same experience in 2018. Susanna’s story takes place in the 6th century B.C.E.
The composer, also known as a rue and seducer, has written lovely long lines. The expressive face and body of Lucía Martín-Cartón infuses these lyric lines with feeling. The entire cast is able to create a variety of emotions inflecting essentially sweet music with lust, desire, fear, and a panoply of subtler emotions. Only the bracket to the show, Sara Couden, a superb contralto, can suggest in the depths of her lush chest voice, the cruelty that is to come for Susanna, as ‘the scholar’ discusses the sexual abuse of woman over the ages. She is often ominous, suggesting that all is not right and never has-been.
Director Ethan Heard uses gesture to dramatize points. Gestures are frozen when the singing is carried by a performer not part of the action. The gestures may well have been taken from classic painting by Jan Lievens, Francesco Trevisani and Picasso among others.
The orchestra is light, two violins, a theorbo, bass, cello and harpsichord. Yet the balance with the singing action on stage was perfect. The music, so lovely, suggestively underpins the singing lines. It is more difficult for instruments to suggest emotional complexity than it is for the human voice and appropriately the instrumental ensemble is left to hover over the evening with the hope for the triumph of beauty as power continues to be abused.
The set created by Reid Thompson has a shower curtain dropping from ceiling to floor. Within its bounds, the bathing tub of Susanna is central to the first act. This is covered to represent a witness box and a jail in the second act. Lighting, golds, blues and pinks, is effective in changing the mood of a scene.
Costumes by Beth Goldenberg have the judges in traditional garb, including the flowing white collar bibs, and curled white wigs when they are in court. Red gloves are their bloodied hands and become an important prop as the story progresses.
Statues surround the basin. They represent a priest, a businessman and a soldier. They have the aroma of Harlan Crow’s garden statues in Dallas. This collection of history’s felons includes Felix Dzerzhinsky, the first commissar of the Soviet secret police, Fidel Castro, crestfallen, and Joseph Stalin, resolute. Nicolae Ceausescu is young and Lenin at his most powerful. In La Susanna, all are felled as Saddam Hussein was, at the end of the opera. Would that the world were as just as this wonderful opera production.