Encounters

This is my body

Cavalleria rusticana / Sancta Susanna by Mario Martone — By Simon Hatab and Farah Makki

The double bill of Cavalleria rusticana by Mascagni and Hindemith’s Sancta Susanna playing at the Paris Opera from November 29th to December 23rd, is an unexpected association. However, between the Sicilian tragedy and the mysterious fervour that leads a nun to kiss the body of Christ, director Mario Martone sees a common dramatic thread running through them both. Here he reveals the key ideas of his production.

As a sideline to your career as a film director, you have been staging operas for twenty-odd years. Do you consider opera as a sort of occasional excursion outside your main field or is there a continuous thread leading you from one art form to the other?

Mario Martone: In fact, music has always been present in my career. I started working when I was very young, in the late seventies. I was 17 or 18. At the time, I was part of an avant-garde group called Falso Movimento (False Movement). We organised visual and musical performances. One of my first performances in fact used the music of Verdi’s Otello, arranged by the America composer, Peter Gordon. The production was presented at the MaMa, the New York experimental art centre, before touring in various other countries… Cinema came into my life later, when I was about thirty. Soon after the turn of the century, I staged my first opera: Così fan tutte with Claudio Abbado. My career has been made up of lines, threads which, at a certain point, began to intersect: after that, in 2010, I made Noi Credevamo1 for which I used 19th century Italian music – Verdi, Rossini, Bellini… I was working on the interactions between Art and History, and Roberto Abbado conducted the Turin Orchestra. To return to your question, I would say then that I have always used music in my work but with great freedom. My artistic career is like an archipelago: my creations are distinct from each other, often far apart, but they end up intersecting each other after several years.

One of the features of the Cavalleria rusticana / Sancta Susanna evening is that the production of Cavalleria rusticana, which occupies the first half, is already in existence: you staged it in 2011 at La Scala Milan. But there it was followed by Pagliacci, as is often the case, according to operatic tradition. Can you say a few words on the creative process that led you to replace Leoncavallo’s work by that of Hindemith?

M.M.: When La Scala asked me to stage the diptych Cavalleria rusticana/Pagliacci, I hesitated for a long time. Italian Verismo is certainly not my favourite repertoire. There is something that disturbs me in its rhetoric. I finally took on the project when I realised that I could adopt an aesthetic of sobriety: rather than adding images I could take them out. In Cavalleria Rusticana, I thus decided to eliminate all the Sicilian folklore – the market place, the church bells, the farmers’ wagons…: everything that seemed to me to weigh down the drama and obscure its essence, which is that of a Greek tragedy. One mustn’t forget that before it became that picturesque world full of farm carts, Sicily was part of Ancient Greece. [laughs].

If we look at Cavalleria from that angle, the piece takes on a different meaning. I emptied the stage until I had this almost bare space in which the liturgical ritual, the Easter Mass, takes place [mentioned in the libretto]. This arrangement gives the chorus central importance. In focussing on the singers of the chorus, I wanted to return to the sacred dimension of the opera.

At that time, did you consider Cavalleria and Pagliacci as forming a single production?

M.M.: No, I thought of them as two completely different productions. I didn’t try to unify them through a single dramaturgical approach. In fact, for Pagliacci, the scenography was not sparse: it was filled with visual suggestivity.
My artistic career is like an archipelago: my creations are often far apart, but they end up intersecting each other. Mario Martone

When the Paris Opera asked you to restage your Cavalleria Rusticana, you abandoned Pagliacci in favour of Sancta Susanna. Clearly, the divorce between Mascagni and Leoncavallo wasn’t too painful since you have never conceived of these works as belonging together. But how did you envisage the new combination of Cavalleria and Hindemith’s opera?

M.M.: To understand the link between the two works, one must begin with my staging of Cavalleria, which is set in a church during the Easter mass. This mass takes place in front of an altar and a crucifix that visually dominates the tragedy. On that premise, my interpretation exacerbates the eroticism and the sensuality of the drama by interweaving them with the sacred. Cavalleria is a tragedy about passion and betrayal. It is self-abandon and exaltation of the senses that lead to the catastrophe. What I find interesting, personally, is this huge contrast that Mascagni draws out of Verga’s novella and dramatises: the composer underlines the sacred dimension very strongly – far more strongly than in Verga –and the contrast with the sensual dimension and bodily desire, with longing that must be satisfied in spite of everything and at any price creates an obvious link with Sancta Susanna. This articulation between the two works was born therefore, I think, out of my vision of Cavalleria Rusticana.

What creates continuity between Mascagni’s work and Hindemith’s is therefore a certain interweaving of desire with what is sacred?

M.M. Yes, at the beginning of Cavalleria we hear off-stage voices, that far-off song we imagine comes from the Sicilian countryside, redolent with the scent of oranges, luxuriant vines, blossoming myrtles and golden ears of wheat… They are just voices, an essential moment of opera, an instant of euphoria produced by the earth and the sun: a sort of pagan sensuality, a surrender to nature. In a certain way, Sancta Susanna takes up and amplifies this theme. Indeed, nature also plays an important role in Hindemith’s opera: the spring night, the perfume of the lilac, the bush behind which the gardener and the servant make love…
Mario Martone lors de la réalisation de « Leopardi Il giovane favoloso », 2015,  Collection Christophel
Mario Martone lors de la réalisation de « Leopardi Il giovane favoloso », 2015, Collection Christophel © Palomar / Rai Cinema

Between Mascagni’s late 19th century verismo and Hindemith’s German expressionism, how do you see the aesthetic rupture between the two works?

M.M.: The two operas effectively present a huge contrast. Whilst Cavalleria rusticana has a firm, horizontal narrative line, I see Sancta Susanna more as a vision, an expression emanating from within. In Hindemith’s opera, I tried to render visible on stage what Susanna was feeling within herself. But this contrast did not prevent me from weaving links between the two halves of the programme. First of all, there is the presence of the crucifix, which assures visual continuity. Furthermore, both works raise questions about our relationship with space: how does space open up? How does it retract? I play with these spatial expansions and retractions to find a certain rhythm.

The theme of spiritual devotion has been widely exploited by artists. Are there any painters that inspired you for Sancta Susanna?

M.M.: Yes, Giotto: at the beginning of the opera, Susanna’s cell is inspired by his very Italian vision, before the invention of perspective. But this inspiration is only visible at the beginning of the opera. Afterwards, everything explodes…

Interviewed by Simon Hatab and Farah Makki
Translated from the Italian by Farah Makki


1  Noi credevamo 2010 (We believed in English), set in 1828, recounts the struggle of two young Italian aristocrats in the Risorgimento, the unification of the Italian nation. The film was considered as "a new Guépard" a reference to Visconti’s film also on the subject of the Risorgimento.

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