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What makes justice blind

Queen Elizabeth Hall
06/05/2003 -  
George Frideric Handel: Susanna

Rachel Nicholls (Susanna), Andrew Radley (Joachim), Mark Curtis (First Elder), Simon Kirkbride (Second Elder), Rebecca Bottone (Witness), Arwel Huw Morgan (Chelsias)

Christian Curmyn (conductor), Netia Jones (director)

Early Opera Company Orchestra

The Early Opera Company's staged production of Handel's Susanna is the second in London in just over three months and the fourth new staging of a Handel oratorio in Europe this year, seven years after Peter Sellars' Glyndebourne Theodora came as a bolt from the blue. There were a handful of previous examples, including John Copley's Semele, back at Covent Garden again this summer, but they were essentially singer vehicles. This crop of stagings -- by two national houses, one touring fringe company and one college -- is diverse in many ways, but they all try to understand the oratorios as drama and to translate the drama into theatre. This task is in some ways like trying to stage Faust or Peer Gynt, polyphonic poems of cultural cosmology masquerading as plays; Rita's proposal to do it on the wireless could look like a good solution for a Handel oratorio as well, particularly the emotionally complex ones from Saul on, where external specifics might undermine the universal humanity of the work. Yet the oratorios, however self-sufficient they can seem as artefacts, were written for live performance in a way that Faust wasn't. Their human reality pushes them towards a mimetic, theatrical, performance that their original form makes difficult or impossible.

Susanna is perhaps the oratorio of which this is most true, because the relationship between power and sexual integrity is such a central topic both in opera and drama and in everyday talk. At its heart is an outrage that happens "on stage", as it does in the scriptural source: two lecherous elders proposition the beautiful Susanna, who is bathing in her garden while her husband is away, and accuse her of adultery when she refuses. She is about to be executed when the child prodigy Daniel takes over and exonerates her by inviting the elders (separately) to add verisimilitude to their narratives. There is a sense of virtue in mortal danger, not only from the threat of death, but also from the intrusion and the proposition, to the extent that what the elders do is far more than words, even if it never clear from the text and music what it is. In the libretto, they say they intend to "force her to bliss", and the second elder uses the imagery of military invasion; in the scriptural story, Susanna screams blue murder, which suggests that she is trying to avoid being regarded as complicit in rape, and this is what triggers the elders' lies about the young man who did it and ran away. Both this year's stagings had an explicit rape, presumably as the easiest way of depicting the enormity of the crime, even though the comic-pastoral literary texture of the elders' arias suggests a pinched bottom at worst. There is a parallel problem staging Semele, where the appearance of Jupiter in all his ithyphallic-steropic might is implied in a transition between scenes which are still, somehow, comic.

Netia Jones' production for the Early Opera Company is, however, in most other respects quite different from Stephen Medcalf's for Guildhall. Where Medcalf showed a remote and explicitly repressed sexual code, by setting the action in a Puritan community, suggesting that the mores of Susanna are not entirely ours, Jones takes up the theme of the elders' voyeurism and sets the action in the context of modern prurience, driven by sensational trials and intrusive media: at the end, Susanna, reunited with her husband Joachim, are pursued by the press. The whole action takes place in a courtroom, with flashbacks. Chelsias is a witness on his daughter Susanna's behalf, a decent but slightly bedraggled middle-aged mad, and his aria "Who fears the Lord" is a personal statement to the court, which finds him a bit tedious and has an usher try to remove him from the witness stand during the da capo. Susanna and Joachim are a sexy, very young couple -- their act 1 music is all sung in bed. The elders are either lawyers or magistrates, although it's not clear which: they sit on the bench, but also make speeches to the jury (and hand them brown envelopes). One or both of them has taken a lot of illicit photos of Susanna, which are shown in a video projection. Daniel, perhaps to preserve the right-sex casting, is a smart schoolgirl. The chorus are the jury, and they do a lot of jumping up and down, perhaps inspired by Sellars but pretty pointless in the context. Apart from the transformation of Daniel, the libretto is followed closely, although there are some cuts, including the role of the maid and the whole scene-setting in the garden, the role of the judge, now silent (Chelsias rather implausibly asks the schoolgirl to retry the case) and the music for Joachim's return in act 3 (he returns silently after Susanna's last aria.

There is something uncomfortable about this production that seems right: Susanna's final aria, although she sings of the triumph of truth over vice, has a dark undertone in its music, although Jones perhaps went to far in presenting it as a mad scene for Susanna: she is, after all, reintegrated with the community at this point, although the values of the community has been shown to be unsatisfactory. Much of the modern setting works, at least as a way of pointing out what is going on. But the basic incoherent of the setting raises questions that at times get in the way. We're used to hearing about Babylon or Antioch when the scene is obviously Washington DC or somewhere in the UK. But when, for instance, the libretto refers to the elders administering the law, it should be clear what their powers are: can they compel the jury to convict, as judges, or do they depend on their individual personal authority, as lawyers? More generally, the depiction of Susanna and Joachim's love has a kind of voyeurism that is in a way inevitable just from having them act out their roles, but which is far from the unproblematic domestic intimacy of their music.

If the production is uneven, the performances were all worth seeing and hearing. Arwel Huw Morgan was touching as Chelsias, and Andrew Radley was attractive as Joachim, a rather domesticated counter-tenor role. Mark Curtis sang sweetly the first elder, at times sympathetic, or at least pathetic, at others horribly slimy and pervy. Simon Kirkbride blustered appropriately as the second elder.

Rachel Nicholls was glorious as Susanna, looking like Britney and sounding like Joan Sutherland, alas, even unto frequent incomprehensibility, though most of the cast had the same problem. Nicholls was particularly powerful in her two big straight-to-camera arias, Crystal streams and Guild trembling spoke my doom. She seemed to come adrift a bit after the graphic, if implausibly, rape by the second elder, which suggested that the staging at this point was physically as well as emotionally misjudged. Rebecca Bottone as the witness sang impressively, if mostly invisibly, from the auditorium.

Christian Curnyn lead the small orchestra in idiomatic style, providing a dramatic coherence that made irrelevant any niggles about the staging.

HE Elsom



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