Royal Opera House 2019-20 Review: Susanna

A Thought-Provoking Production of Rare Handel is a Mixed Affair

By Benjamin Poore
(Credit:  © ROH 2020 Stephen Cummiskey)

The London Handel Festival has birthed several successful collaborations with the Royal Opera House, and this is the second year they’ve staged a work in the new Linbury Theatre.

The oratorio “Susanna,” with a text attributed to “Solomon” author Moses Mendez, makes its return to Covent Garden, where it received its premiere, after 271-years in abeyance. Based on an incident from the Book of Daniel that has been a popular subject in European painting, Susanna is falsely accused of infidelity, tried by the exiled Israelites, but finally vindicated by the prophet. 

Contemporary Resonances

Isabelle Kettle’s production seeks out the scenario’s contemporary resonances. The captive Israelites are trapped by the crises of our times: ecological disaster, dwindling resources, war, and poverty. That we experience these threats (at least superficially) as nebulous or capricious makes them apt analogy for a vengeful Old Testament God. A community of poor fishermen and women catch nothing but plastic in their nets; Susanna and her father subsist in the war-torn shell of a home; fresh water is rationed out in plastic jerry cans.

These are the wretched of the earth, the displaced, the refugees; a diverse cast helps cement the impression of a truly global homeless. It’s a sound enough conception elaborating moments of the text that speaks of nets and crystal streams.

As in Mozart’s “Idomeneo,” the sea that roars ominously in the background is source of both threat and salvation, sometimes yielding up a single fish that Susanna must prepare for the community. Desperate circumstances give their community a special gift for brutality, as seen in the trial: a kangaroo court convened by a mob ready to bludgeon her with rocks.

Violence against women is at its most potent and frequent in disaster zones, and would make a powerful rationale for the behavior of the two Elders in this production – but this insinuation, if it was there, needed more substance on stage.

The only relief seems to come from a tender solidarity between the work’s women. Susanna and her attendant languish and laugh in a fragile garden cultivated using with the meagre water ration; in the prologue we see Daniel humiliated by the elders who will later shame Susanna.

At the end these three women stand aside from the joyous throng and their paean to female virtue. It’s a downbeat ending straight out of Ibsen opening the work out onto a bleaker and more abyssal plain. The sea roars as the light fails and Susanna walks to the plastic jerry can of water, the sign of a world that is unbalanced and unsustainable.

Contrasts with Handel’s frothy score are stark enough: the stage setting is grimly spare and shrouded in darkness, with ragged fabric banners looming above; the cramped kitchen counterpoises Handel’s rococo musical furnishings and lively coloratura passages.

Given the interventionist ending and directorial supplements in sound design – the sea roars and desolate winds blow – this is presumably deliberate, but results in an uneven dramatic experience.

This is compounded by some other wobbles. The kitchen setting for act one is over-busy with props, and there are some rather awkward moments of direction – has anyone ever sat on a sink, upset or otherwise?

Chelsias’ apparent frailty is hard enough to establish with a young singer in the role, but inconsistent walking stick usage and wayward limping robbed the character of genuine gravitas (far better, surely, to have suggested he was the victim of some kind of fishing accident than all this pantomime geriatrics.)



Rising to the Occassion

The Jette Parker Young Artists programme at the ROH generated the cast for the show. These young singers often dazzle in bit parts on the main stage, and the opportunity to see them work in a more sustained one is one to relish.

Baritone Michael Mofidian offered an outstanding performance in the smaller role of Chelsias, with the choicest diction of the night and a sound that filled every nook and cranny of the Linbury. His sumptuous chest resonance made for a fulsome sound across the role’s wide range, particularly the blazing top notes in his celebratory final aria.

Patrick Milne conducted the London Handel Orchestra in a thrilling realization of the score. The pastoral music of the score fluttered and floated, the strings summoning light breezes, and tossing off gleaming runs to accompany Joacim’s act two aria. The nervy music of the trial saw keen textural contrasts between biting string down bows and shadowy, fingerboard flickering. Dynamic light and shade were consistently well-studied across the evening.

Patrick Terry’s star is still rising, and he continues to prove himself a compelling Handelian, following an acclaimed turn in “Rinaldo” at the Glyndebourne Festival last summer; so too hid he impress in last year’s “Berenice” at this venue. As Joacim he drew the more luscious and earthy aspects of his voice that evening, unafraid of his vibrato, prioritizing richness of sound and dramatic directness over the kind of sculpted, gestural singing often associated with countertenors in this music. That said, his embellishments showed a flair for powerful, pure high notes, and boasted the best coloratura of the night, which was consistently slack and shapeless across the cast. He acted with real warmth, declaring, in mock heroic fashion, his love for Susanna at the dinner table with charm and humor.

Blaise Malaba’s Second Elder was in deliciously inky voice, rich and oaky in his glorious bottom notes, and making characterful contrast with tenor Andrés Presno’s First Elder, who was began as reticent, even naive, before being co-opted into the scheme.

Unfortunately Presno had real trouble with the English diction throughout and consequently delivered some rather eccentric vowels, which made him hard to follow; behind the vocal distortions imposed by these pronunciation troubles there was clearly a strong sense of line and glowing timbre.

He was not the only one with diction troubles: a slimmed down ROH chorus were muddy in their opening lament, though were used skillfully throughout the show, managing to avoid the awkward problem in staged oratorio of massed singers kicking their heels while the musical action unfolds elsewhere. Nonetheless the fugal chorus of Act two was full of energetic coloratura and burly, divine fury.

Yaritza Véliz’s Daniel also had some difficulties with the English text – which is, in fairness, a text full of arcane and esoteric corners – but sang with bright defiance in act two’s trial scene, and found both insurgent spirit and wounded loneliness in her role as outsider.

Masaba Cecilia Rangwanasha put in a soulful performance as the titular heroine. In the era of #MeToo directors have rightly begun to reappraise how sexual violence and is staged and its survivors figured, and Rangwashana paints a sensitive, multilayered picture. Her soprano has a tender warmth with plenty of dark colours in its lower reaches, and she deployed it with control and care, notwithstanding a few squally top notes.

Her final aria of the first half, a dignified and moving testament of her innocence in the face of the Elders’ false accusations, featured a dazzlingly gentle return in the da capo on “If guiltless blood be your intent;” the controlled word painting of “I triumph in my fall,” the aria’s climax, was an otherworldly moment of transfiguration.

It was the standout moment of what felt to be an inconsistent if nonetheless considered show.


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