Paul Hindemith - Sancta Susanna (Lyon)
Opéra de Lyon, 2012
Bernhard Kontarsky, John Fulljames, Agnes Selma Weiland, Magdalena Anna Hofmann, Joanna Curelaru Kata, Zoé Micha, Hervé Dez Martinez
Less than half an hour long, it seems that Paul Hindemith's early one-act opera Sancta Susanna is designed to pack as much shock impact into its short running time as possible, and it's true that Hindemith intended to shake up the musical establishment in the early 1920s. It certainly had the desired effect when it was refused at Stuttgart for its blasphemous content, receiving its premiere in 1922 in Frankfurt. As short as it is and as long ago now as it was composed, the work still has the potential to court controversy when it is performed.
It was chosen by the Opéra de Lyon in 2012 as one of the companion pieces for their Puccini + season, offering a contrasting or complementary work to be played alongside each of the three one-act dramas of Puccini's Il Trittico. Sancta Susanna was evidently chosen to be performed with Suor Angelica, another story of a nun who faces a great internal conflict between her spiritual duties and her own human needs and female desires. Although they are very nearly contemporary, there is very little that is common in the treatment of these themes or in terms of musical approach, but it's a contrast that works well and in favour of both works.
Based on a German expressionist short story by August Albert Berhard Stramm, Sancta Susanna is however rather more abstract in its approach to the drama. Hindemith's equally expressionist score is suggestive of mood and of powerful barely repressed forces on the verge of spilling over into shocking revelations. The setting of Hindemith's work consequently takes place in an enclosed space of closed-up people, in a convent with nuns in protective clothing that separates them from the people of world outside. What is kept inside however is bursting to escape and it doesn't take much for those passions to overflow.
For Sister Susanna, praying before the status of Christ, the conflict reaches unbearable proportions when on a Spring evening the sound of lovers outside reaches her ears, Hindemith's music pushing the pitch of an organ note to almost unbearable intensity. Susanna's self-possession disappears when she is told by Sister Klementia of another nun forty years ago who abandoned herself to her passions, stripping naked and wrapping herself around a statue of Christ. Walled up in a cell for her actions, Susanna is convinced she can hear sounds the nun's tomb.
The call of the flesh and its conflict with the spirit lead Susanna to also strip off her garments, an action that infects Klementia also, the situation building into a musical frenzy before the other nuns attempt to intervene and attempt to call a halt to this satanic display. Their anger is directed towards Klementia, but Susanna offers herself up to their displeasure. More than just abandoning herself to illicit desires, Susanna blasphemously proposes a union of the soul and the flesh.
Director John Fulljames makes the most of the opportunity or indeed the necessity for this scene to be as outrageous and shocking as possible in the 2012 Lyon production, the soprano Agnes Selma Weiland left completely naked but for satanic writing tattooed across her body. The darkness of the convent and Susanna are illuminated in blinding light as the naked woman offers herself to the descending figure of Christ on the cross. It's highly effective and still startling to see it staged in this way.
From a singing and musical perspective it's also highly effective. Bernhard Kontarsky conducts here, as with the Puccini + production of Schoenberg's Von Heute auf Morgen, to bring out all the power of the work alongside its more suggestive tones and moods. Mezzo-soprano Magdalena Anna Hofmann also shows the range of her abilities here, which even in such a short piece is just if not even more demanding than either of her other Lyon appearances in Von Heuten auf Morgen and Franz Schreker's Die Gezeichneten. Agnes Selma Weiland surpasses the greatest challenges of the work, physically and musically stripping soul and body bare in a way that a work like this demands if it is to have any impact or meaning at all.
Links: Opéra de Lyon, Opera Platform