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Review: ‘La Susanna’ Topples the Patriarchy. Literally.
By Joshua Barone
May 3, 2019
The ambition of “La Susanna,” a 17th-century oratorio reimagined by two opera companies for the #MeToo era, is so explicit, it’s announced with a sign.
“Our Bodies, Our Stories: Reclaiming the Narrative for Feminism,” it says above the stage at BAM Fisher, where Heartbeat Opera and Opera Lafayette are offering Alessandro Stradella’s 1681 work as a staged production through Sunday.
The sign establishes a meta narrative — that the biblical story of Susanna will be framed as an academic lecture about it — and sets the tone for an evening that will end, quite literally, with the toppling of the patriarchy.
That’s because this production, directed by Ethan Heard without some of the graceful subtlety that made his “Fidelio” with Heartbeat Opera so powerful last season, takes its aim at the men who tend to co-opt Susanna’s tale: Daniel, who in the Bible is depicted as her savior; Stradella, who puts her story in the mouths of male narrators and performers; artists, who have painted scenes of her, front and center and often nude, while clothed men look on hungrily.
But what about poor Susanna, whose idyllic bath is intruded upon by lecherous Elders who attempt to rape her, then falsely accuse her of promiscuity and establish a Kafkaesque trial in which they are the witnesses and judges?
Enter Dr. Beatrice Armstrong: the name given here to the role of Testo, the narrator of the oratorio, previously sung by a man (as all the parts were) but now taken up by the contralto Sara Couden. She narrates her lecture with a baton pointed at stage, where the characters often strike poses that evoke Susanna-themed paintings by the likes of Rubens and Tintoretto.
Ms. Couden moves in and out of the set to observe and comment on the oratorio. She interacts briefly with the small orchestra, led by the lithe and nimble violinists Ryan Brown and Jacob Ashworth. She smiles warmly at Susanna, sung by the soprano Lucía Martín Cartón with unadorned, celestial purity that later turned to emotive exasperation. And she is aided by a student who, we learn, is actually the character Daniel recast as a young woman (the soprano Ariana Douglas, both bright and vigorously commanding).
So the only men in this telling of “La Susanna,” then, are the two Elders: Patrick Kilbride, a menacingly delicate tenor, and Paul Max Tipton, an imposing bass-baritone. It’s such a simple switch — changing the gender of characters — but it is also the difference between this story being one of a helpless woman’s male savior, or of a young feminist’s coming into her own.
Surprisingly, the naturally dramatic oratorio doesn’t need much beyond this small but crucial shift. Giovanni Battista Giardini’s libretto has the fed-up spirit of #MeToo baked into it already: The Elders speak with entitlement; Daniel warns against the dangerous potential of evil and power; the description of Susanna on trial, wishing to speak and fighting back tears, could have been quoting a report of Christine Blasey Ford’s Senate testimony last fall.
If only, then, this “Susanna” had less of a heavy hand. As the Elders are taken away for execution, statues representing male power — one man in vestments, another in a business suit and a third in a soldier’s uniform — are torn down like those of fallen dictators. When Ms. Douglas’s character reaches her breaking point, she grabs her teacher’s baton and points it at the audience while chastising the “mindless mob.”
Then again, this production is meant to be a lecture. It certainly felt like one.
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/03/arts ... eview.html
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