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