Arts / How Susanna beats the rap, Handel style

NOT even the greatest fan in the world would claim that George Frideric Handel’s operas closely resemble real life, but that may all be about to change.

Tobias Cole and Jacqueline Porter in Handel in the Theatre’s “The Vow” (2016) Photo by Hou Leong

This year Tobias Cole, director of the company Handel in the Theatre and its lead singer, has hired Caroline Stacey to direct its coming production of Handel’s “Susanna” at The Playhouse.

She’s an opera expert with years of productions behind her throughout Australia and NZ, not least the Aussie premiere opera of Prokofiev’s “The Love for Three Oranges”, the Canberra production of the “Jane Eyre” opera and Sandra France’s searing bushfire opera, “From a Black Sky”.

She is not turning “Susanna” into a verismo opera, one of Handel’s Biblical tales disliked by the Bishop of London. Based on an episode from the book of Daniel, it depicts the arrest and trial of the virtuous wife Susanna on a trumped-up charge of adultery and her vindication at the hand of the boy prophet Daniel.

Central to the action is a scene where the lovely Susanna is spied upon as she bathes, the very kind of thing the bishop would have deplored, although Stacey assures us there will be no nudity.

Working together with her regular designer Imogen Keen she is striving to create a dominant visual image of a world in chains, fitting for “Handel’s intense and powerful emotional palette”.

“In listening to the music you just get an incredible array of pictures that come to mind,” Stacey says.

“Any performative style imaginable can be embedded in this work, but it demands strong physicality from the singers so that they inhabit this heightened landscape fully.”

Performed without amplification, the bone, muscle and sinews of the performers’ bodies become the canvas on which deep emotions are painted.

“It’s incredibly uplifting in terms of a visceral experience, it allows you to step out of the banality of life,” she says.

“The gorgeous and the grotesque mix in a wildly surreal manner, taking us into the dangers, the ecstasies, the purity and the emotional experience of being human.”

“Susanna,” she notes, has a totally grown-up story dealing with the question of virtue, abuses of power between men and women, and systemic biases against women in society.

While the most famous scene is the one where Susanna is spied upon bathing by two elders, played by Robert Macfarlane and Jeremy Kleeman, the biggest dramatic challenge is to create a relationship between Susanna and the figure of the boy Daniel, who, in a kind of Emperor’s-New-Clothes-moment, is the only one who can see the truth. Alison Robertson, who plays Daniel, is in fact in her 30s, but captures the childlike quality necessary for the part.

One of the most interesting “characters” to Stacey is the “dramatic chorus”, hand-picked singers who act as a Greek chorus commenting on the action, asking questions and sometimes stepping into the action.

Stacey also praises the principals, saying: “They have strong, sophisticated opera backgrounds but are willing to inhabit their characters and respond to more abstract concepts.”

While Stacey has been preparing for “Susanna”, she has also been rehearsing “Venus in Fur” at The Street Theatre, and finds some issues in the two works remarkably similar, including the idea of women as victims of the “male gaze”, so she’s been closely working with singer Jacqueline Porter, who returns to the company as Susanna, to give agency to her role.

In consultation with Weymark and Cole, she’s cut the last three or four scenes of the original in order to make sense of the story and to finish with the focus firmly on Susanna.

“Susanna”, The Playhouse, 7.30pm, September 1, and 2pm, September 2. Bookings to or 6275 2700.



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