(London Handel Festival; Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House, 5 March 2019)
The Biblical story of Susanna is very timely. A beautiful woman in a happy marriage is targeted by two powerful elders in her community while her husband is away. When she rejects their sexual advances, they revenge themselves by publicly accusing her of adultery with a mysterious third person, destroying her reputation and bringing shame upon her family. She is condemned to death but, in the nick of time, is rescued by the youthful prophet Daniel, who interrogates the elders, exposing inconsistencies in their stories. Susanna is vindicated and the two elders condemned to death in her place. At the risk of sounding frivolous, this is the #MeToo oratorio, and any director handling the story in the present climate will be forcibly aware of the parallels. This new production from the Royal Opera House, which features singers from the Jette Parker Young Artists programme, is a little too eager to demonstrate its social conscience. It tackles not only the sexual exploitation of women (as expected) but also (less logically) the climate crisis. The result is weighed down by concept, which – at least on the first night – risked distracting attention from the grace and variety of Handel’s music.
The story of Susanna takes place in ancient Babylon during the 6th century BC, but Isabelle Kettle’s production updates this to a Cornish fishing village ravaged by ecological disaster. The misfortunes visited on the people by a vengeful God are not captivity and the loss of a homeland, but the loss of a vital way of life. There is no money and the pipes have run dry. The people are exhausted, drained in every sense. The opening chorus, How long, O Lord, shall Israel groan, is sung by a gang of ground-down fisherfolk in waders, vests and fraying sweaters, picking pieces of plastic out of their otherwise empty nets. While I understand the desire to find a new way of presenting the Israelites’ plight, I felt that this ‘climate change’ narrative took over quite a lot of the production. After all, the oratorio has its own built-in social issue to deal with, but questions of authority, abuse of power, and sexual exploitation played second fiddle to the imposed ecological context. More on that later.
Joacim (Patrick Terry) is a young man depressed by his hardscrabble life, who takes comfort in his marriage to the lovely Susanna (Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha). Their home is the set for the first act of the oratorio: a modest, messy kitchen, with their deep underlying faith signalled by the crucifix hanging on the wall. (Their straitened circumstances mark a notable change from the Biblical text, in which Joacim is ‘very rich’.) For this young couple, home is is a refuge from the harsh world outside – albeit one occasionally disturbed by Susanna’s ponderous father Chelsias (Michael Mofidian). When Joacim is called away on a journey (here he departs with a large backpack and the last of their fresh water), Susanna is left alone. She immediately feels a sense of foreboding and prays to God that any ill fortune will fall only on her and not on her beloved Joacim. Soon she’s making the best of things, relaxing in her little garden with her unnamed friend (April Koyejo-Audiger). But, unfortunately for Susanna, ill-fortune is indeed on the way, because two of the community elders (Andrés Presno and Blaise Malaba) have their eye on her. Having commiserated with one another for the love-pangs they suffer, they decide that the only thing to do is to visit Susanna, ‘Force her to bliss, and cure our wild despair‘.
When they turn up at Susanna’s house, she is startled and at first tries to get rid of them without causing offence. Once she does extricate herself (a deeply uncomfortable scene), Susanna finds herself accused anyway – publicly shamed by the community and condemned to death. Off on his travels, Joacim hears news of his wife’s troubles (Susanna’s loyal friend seeks him out) and hurries home. But before he can arrive, the show-trial has come and gone: Susanna, found guilty solely on the word of the elders, is hauled out to the stoning ground. This deeply serious moment was lightened, at least for me, by an irresistible flashback to The Life of Brian, as the various members of this community gathered up their stones in anticipation (there were no false beards on stage, though). Happily for Susanna, the young Daniel (Yaritza Véliz) dares to challenge the claims of the elders, and proves them false. By the time Joacim turns up, Susanna is free and the turncoat community are ready with a jubilant chorus which celebrates her chastity. I noted that Rangwanasha’s Susanna stood stiff and unsmiling in that final chorus, as well she might, with her whole community suddenly praising her, mere minutes after being ready to stone her to death without a fair hearing.
Some thoughts on the singers first, I saw Patrick Terry in Berenice last year and was delighted to see him again. Like last year, he stole the show with a combination of sensitive singing and dramatic flair. When on stage, his Joachim is never ‘in standby’: he’s always reacting to the world around him, playing off the other characters. His voice, I fancy, is better than it was last year, still clear and elegant, with more control over the entire range and some lovely high notes, most notably in his standout aria On fair Euphrates’ verdant side. This lament for the absence of a loved one – without whom even lovely scenes lose their charm – was delivered with great feeling and aplomb. Happily, Terry’s voice blends beautifully with Rangwanasha’s and their Act 1 duet When thou art nigh was truly lovely. Their chemistry emphasised something which I often forget about the story of Susanna – she is not a devout virgin who rejects the elders as men per se (which maybe the Catholic church would have preferred), but a happily married woman. Terry and Rangwanasha successfully conveyed this spark, hinting at a kind of newlywed eagerness which is invariably thwarted by the arrival of the aged Chelsias.
Rangwanasha has a lovely voice: rich, smooth and languorous, and capable of great dignity. Her Susanna gains confidence in herself throughout the production, culminating in Faith displays her rosy wing, where she affirms her hope in salvation even in the face of execution. Although the celebrated aria Crystal streams in murmurs flowing was very pretty, I thought Rangwanasha’s best performance was in her final aria, Guilt trembling spoke my doom, which was delivered with such power and finesse that it earned the only post-aria applause of the night – and well-deserved too. As this was the first night there were still some moments where her acting seemed slightly self-conscious and deliberate, but I’m sure she’ll settle into it during the run. I’m looking forward to seeing more of her as she develops and matures throughout the Young Artists Programme: with her voice already this good, we’ll have a lot to look forward to.
For me, Terry and Rangwanasha were the two standouts in the cast, though I would also highlight Michael Mofidian’s resonant, musical baritone – Chelsias isn’t the most interesting character, but Mofidian gives him a pleasing authority – and Yaritza Véliz’s rich, vibrant soprano, which softened to gentle delicacy in Daniel’s aria Chastity, thou cherub bright. I liked what I heard of Koyejo-Audiger, though she didn’t have much air-time in the small role of Susanna’s friend (or ‘Attendant’ as credited in the programme), Already minor, the role was cut further for this production. I had some reservations about both elders, whose voices seem better suited for other genres than Baroque, and who didn’t always manage to capture the delicate chromatic shades of Handel’s music. But of course these singers are all young: they will mature. It is unfair, perhaps, to make the inevitable comparisons with last year’s Handel Festival offering, Berenice, which featured seasoned performers (with the exception of the exuberant Terry). One of my main issues, however, can easily be tackled by cast and director: the lack of clarity in some enunciation. This wasn’t a problem across the board, but was very notable in certain cases and it needs to be resolved as soon as possible. In a production sung in English, without surtitles, it’s crucial to have singers pronounce the words clearly so that the audience can follow the plot. This is a challenge with a very international cast, as we had here, and some of the singers could just do with a bit more practice.
Let’s take some time to look at the concept, especially the fishing-village setting. I thought this pudding was over-egged: surely the production would have done better to focus on the role of women within this community – which is of such relevance to Susanna’s condemnation? While I agree that climate change and ecological disaster are important issues, this may not be the right place to address them. The efforts to integrate fishing-village life sometimes felt clumsy, notably the Act 1 chorus (Righteous Heav’n beholds their guile, I think). This chorus is directed at the Elders, warning them that their crimes are known to God, and that divine retribution will be swift. The action on stage was completely disconnected from that theme. Instead, Susanna’s entire community pile into her kitchen, where they show off a single fish that they’ve managed to catch, worship it in awe, and end up inviting Susanna to fillet it for them. Perhaps only truly virtuous women are allowed to fillet fish? Who knows. There will be uncomfortable flashbacks during this scene for anyone who experienced the notorious Idomeneo with the shark. What is it with the Royal Opera House chorus worshipping fish?
There are also, more logically, hints about Susanna’s role as a woman in this community. Many of these, however, remain hints, tantalising with the suggestion of an underlying narrative that doesn’t really come through. When we first meet Chelsias, why do Susanna and Joacim react as they do? Susanna seems anxious to placate, while Joacim appears fed-up: perhaps Chelsias is the stereotypical overbearing in-law who keeps rocking up for free food and sympathy? But is there more to it? Chelsias boasts of having brought up his daughter in the light of the Lord, but does he have a tyrannical streak? In the final chorus, Susanna seems to shrink away from her father who, having doubted her, is now eager to be seen standing at her side. And is there a rivalry between Joacim and Chelsias, husband and father tussling for Susanna’s attention? These things were all suggested by the way the singers chose to act, but were never explained. Nor did I understand why Susanna kept casting dark looks at both Joacim and Chelsias in the first act, unless it’s because the two men are sitting at the table praising her, while not lifting a finger to help her prepare the dinner. What is being conveyed here?
And also, is Daniel a woman in this production? I think that’s the intention. Although Véliz is still listed in the programme as ‘Daniel’, she’s dressed like other women in the community. Interestingly, she also appears in the first act, when she makes a shy pass at one of the elders, who has come to visit Joacim (this is before Susanna makes her entrance). She’s rebuffed and then roughly kissed. There’s a sense that this is a world when men casually hold and exploit their power. Yet this encounter between Véliz (as ‘Daniel / Daniela’) and the elder throws a different light on the end of the oratorio, where she exposes his lies. Is revenge, rather than justice, the guiding principle for this Daniel? If Daniel becomes a woman, of course, that has further major implications – that women can’t rely on men to speak out for them, but have to take on the responsibility of speaking out for their sisters. Is that what the director wanted to say? It would certainly fit with the #MeToo moment, but I wasn’t sure whether this was deliberate or not. Maybe fewer concepts presented more confidently and clearly would have been more successful than putting in lots of hints which left the audience with puzzling questions.
I think that simplest is often best. That doesn’t always suit young directors who want to put their stamp on something, but unfortunately I’m not going to remember this Susanna for its music so much as its complex interpretation. Fortunately I’ll also remember the promising young singers in its cast, whose careers I’ll keenly be following.