|Patrick Kilbride, Paul Max Tipton, and Lucía Martín Cartón (photo by Russ Rowland)
It seemed like a strange coupling but strange couplings often produce very special children and such is the case with the marriage of Heartbeat Opera with Opera Lafayette. Opera Lafayette is a longstanding (25 years) fixture in D.C. and we have enjoyed their annual visits to NYC for some time since they bring lovely productions of Baroque opera. Heartbeat Opera has been growing for only five years and is best known for their radical reinterpretations of the classics, thus achieving impressive recognition and honors from the opera community.
The lovechild of this visit was a riveting production of Alessandro Stradella's 1681 opera La Susanna, a retelling of the story from The Book of Daniel about an innocent young woman blackmailed by two venerable but lustful judges and condemned to death. The story has a happy ending due to a deus ex machina in the person of the youth Daniel who cross-examines the two judges, thus exonerating Susanna and condemning the wicked judges to death.
This story was the inspiration for Carlisle Floyd's 1955 opera Susanna and the Elders, remembered primarily for the soprano aria "Ain't it a Pretty Night". The story has been immortalized by many Renaissance painters; many of the works so inspired were exhibited in the Gallery of BAM Fisher where last night's opera was performed.
Ethan Heard's direction shed so much light on the issue presented by the story that we had tears dripping from our eyes. The story was presented with specificity, leaving us to identify with Susanna and her predicament; memories were evoked that left us shaken and angry. Good art should make us feel and think; this Mr. Heard accomplished, all while the Baroque ensemble soothed us with lovely harmonies.
If this had been set by a contemporary composer, it would likely have had a jagged atonal setting that would have just left us irritated. The contrast between the lovely music and the horrifying story worked to great advantage.
The framing device for the story was an academic lecture on female studies and also art history, since the scenes of the violation employed a stop-action or freeze strategy which imitated the many paintings we saw in the Gallery. This narration is generally performed by a male character named Testa, but was here performed by Sara Couden whose powerful contralto was employed both effectively and musically to further the characterization.
As the eponymous Susanna, the plangent soprano of Lucía Martín Cartón could not have been better. She radiated joy and innocence in Act I, and conveyed both fear and hope in Act II.
As the wicked judges we heard two fine singers who had the unenviable task of making us hate them. Tenor Patrick Kilbride and bass-baritone Paul Max Tipton were scarily convincing in their lust and deceit. Moreover they sang a particularly fine trio with Ms. Couden in Act I.
Soprano Ariana Douglas rounded out the cast. She didn't have much to do as a student in Act I but in Act II she portrayed Daniel as a White Knight who got involved by conducting the cross-examination whilst Ms. Couden's professor kept her distance.
These fine voices were matched by some splendid playing of the chamber orchestra off to the side. We never would have expected to hear Ryan Brown, founder and artistic director of Opera Lafayette and Jacob Ashworth, music director of Heartbeat Opera (as well as music director of Cantata Profana) sitting side by side bowing their violins! A theorbo, a cello, a bass, and a harpsichord completed the group.
Reid Thompson's scenic design was simple and effective. There was a large round vessel center stage which served well for Susanna's Act I bath, as well as a prisoner's docket for Act II. There were three enormous statues onstage, male authority figures--a statesman, a priest, and a soldier--representative of all types who have been involved in abuse of power toward women. All were carried offstage at the end. Lighting by Oliver Wason was effective.
Beth Goldenberg's costumes for Act I were perfect. Susanna wore a shimmering body suit for which, fortunately, she had the right body; it fostered the image of happiness, innocence, and moisture. (In place of water there were tiny sparkly confetti.) The judges were dressed in what appeared to be Renaissance robes.
In Act II, Susanna wore an orange prisoner jumpsuit which jolted us into contemporary times. Our main quibble was with the Professor who was costumed a bit too glamorously for someone giving an academic lecture. It would have been more appropriate had she been wearing a tailored pantsuit.
Emma Jaster's movement direction was as fine as we have come to expect from her.
Of course this story has contemporary resonance. What upset us the most, among the many memories that were evoked, was a documentary we saw that was smuggled out of a Middle-Eastern country in which an innocent woman was buried up to her neck and stoned to death--all captured on film. Every time we see a woman on the streets of New York who has been taught to cover up her beauty so as not to inflame a man's lust, we feel the same anger; oh, the injustice of it all!
The success of this particular treatment of this particular opera drove the point home without spoonfeeding, without hammering us on the head with contemporary examples. Therein lay the artistry.
Although opening night was sold out, perhaps you will be able to snag tickets for tonight, tomorrow or Sunday matinée. We recommend it highly. We reviewed two operas this past week in which the directors tried too hard to make the stories "relevant". This was different.
(c) meche kroop