Mario Martone surprises the Bastille

Insights into Cavalleria rusticana / Sancta Susanna

By Thierry Méranger 13 December 2016

© Elena Bauer / OnP

Mario Martone surprises the Bastille
The director of the film Morto di un matematico napoletano celebrates the unexpected marriage between Sancta Susanna by Hindemith and Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana at the Opera.

Running from the 23rd November to the 23rd of December, this is a combination that will have audiences flocking to the Opéra Bastille. It is indeed a highly unexpected operatic diptych that the Italian film maker, Mario Martone (Morto di un matematico napoletano, L’odore del sangue, Noi credevamo) has been commissioned to direct. An intriguing head to head. On my left, the archi-well-known Cavalleria rusticana, a one-act opera by Mascagni (1890) which takes place on Easter Sunday in a Sicilian village, with its Intermezzo so beloved of admirers of the theme music to Raging Bull and the epilogue of Godfather III. On my right, a vigorous challenger who, at the last minute, has replaced the usual Pagliacci by Leoncavallo: Sancta Susanna, Paul Hindemith’s lightning short – only 25 minutes long - expressionist opera, an object of such scandal in its day (created in 1922 it portrayed a naked nun kissing the body of Christ on the cross), that initially performances were banned… during Holy Week. The privilege of witnessing rehearsals of this production, in particular a run-through of Sancta Susanna, proved to be an amazing experience. Far from merely filling up a gap in the programme, the “sparring partner” seems to be of one body with the verismo star and illuminates it with its own provocative radicality. Under Martone’s guidance, each opera seems to have taken a step towards the other. An austere Cavelleria, a card this director, no stranger to the operatic stage, has played before at La Scala Milan in 2011: local colour and folklore fade from the mind of the spectator and give way to an altar that the libretto merely alludes to. Susanna, on the other hand, leaves its usual habitat, the church, in order to emphasise the contrast between sacred and erotic passion and to generate multiple spaces. The convent cell, a niche that explodes into a 13th century polyptich, is a marvellous bit of stage scenery, ultimately revealing, at a subterranean level, the phantasmagorical dimension of Hindemith’s opera, in the image of a ghostly nun condemned to be buried alive on account of her carnal desire for Christ crucified. The strength of the production, over and above the pictorial references, lies as much in its theatrical genes as in its cinematic heritage: the fragmentation of the performing space providing an exact parallel with split screen technique as used by Fleischer in The Boston Strangler in 1968.

En répétition
En répétition © Elena Bauer / OnP
       The direction of the gaze of spectators and singers alike, is the main pitch of Martone’s production in which the links woven simultaneously between one space and another are regulated with a pitilessly ingenuous meticulousness. Consequently, the disruption of proportion in Sancta Susanna comes as a surprise: spiders and the body of Christ, all unnaturally large, appear suddenly from the wings or the fly loft… The director gives the following explanation: “The sense of proportion for the mystic act of retreat, like that studied by painters such as Giotto and Fra Angelico, is very contained at first, severe and compact. Then with the explosion of the wall, which opens on every side, it loses its sense of scale: everything becomes completely disproportionate: the figure of Christ is gigantic, a spider spins its way down…” It is scarcely difficult to understand that these changes of scale, which reflect Susanna’s vision, are so many close-ups giving substance to her fantasies. The proliferation of viewpoints associated with the fragmentation of the set provides each spectator with a uniquely individual experience. To quote Martone himself, the production was conceived so that “no two people will see the same thing, depending on where they are sitting. With this compartmentalised set, nobody sees everything. There will always be something hidden from view, even when the set explodes.” Does this question of the position of the spectator constitute a major difference between theatre and cinema direction? The maestro denies any such differentiation. “It’s the same thing in the cinema: what you don’t see is just as important as what you do. My films also often operate by omission, including the narrative. In my first film, Morto di un matematico Napolitano, I chose to recount only the last week in the life of my protagonist, as if everything from before were hidden from view. It’s a way of maintaining the viewer's tension”. And he concludes with advice which, in all logic, should gratify, in a single dictum, director, spectator and protagonist alike: “It is better to wonder why rather than be satisfied with everything.”

Thierry Méranger is a journalist and has been a member of the editorial committee of the Cahiers du Cinéma since 2004.

  • Les Cahiers du Cinéma, partenaire de l'Opéra national de Paris

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