Over and over, we debate whether and how art from the distant past is relevant, yet the issue isn’t the old work at all. It’s how we interact with it today. We may update it. We may try to vacuum-pack it as if the air it breathes should remain untouched by contemporary microbes. Or we can, with a slight nudge, turn a 17th-century opera into a gentle indictment of our own interactions with old art, as Opera Lafayette and the New York-based Heartbeat Opera did with Alessandro Stradella’s “La Susanna” at the Kennedy Center on Sunday and Monday night.
After the spirited overture — played by the six-piece ensemble Stradella specified, with Ryan Brown, Opera Lafayette’s founder, as one of two violinists and leaders — a lecturer took the stage while the supertitles announced “Our Bodies, Our Stories: Reclaiming the Narrative for Feminism,” by Dr. Beatrice Armstrong. Dr. Armstrong made the normal introductory requests to turn off cellphones and then launched into her talk — singing in a strong, dark contralto. Her real name is Sara Couden, and she was taking the role of the narrator, Testo, using her pointer to move the figures from one stylized tableau to another as she explained what was happening.
With this simple framing device, director Ethan Heard, one of Heartbeat Opera’s founders, gave new punch to an old story of female abuse at the hands of men. “La Susanna” is an adaptation of the Bible story of Susanna and the Elders, in which a virtuous wife is spied on in her bath by two corrupt judges and then falsely accused of adultery when she spots them. Originally conceived as an oratorio, it has telling arias for all of its characters — including lusting songs for the two judges (Patrick Kilbride, a light tenor, and Paul Max Tipton, a solid bass-baritone) — and a number of striking ensembles. Susanna gets several long soliloquies, first joyful and liberated in her bath, then suffering in prison; Lucía Martín Cartón, a Spanish soprano with a significant career in Europe, sounded appropriately vulnerable, lifting a filament of gentle voice that sometimes touched the borders of speech. Reid Thompson’s set, centered on a round bath, supported the theme with four statues: three monuments to clothed men, and a single naked woman.
As the narrator explicates all of this, and Susanna is on the verge of being stoned, a student who has been taking notes on a laptop at the side of the stage decides she has had enough. She leaps up, rips up the syllabus and sets about calling out the judges and establishing just what actually happened and who is to blame. Ariana Douglas brought young energy and outrage to the part of someone who, in this production, was not merely content to learn about the past but also willing to challenge it. As Susanna was exonerated, the statues of men were toppled and the piece ended abruptly. In the subsequent silence, the lecturer handed her pointer to the student, a sign of passing the torch to the next generation. It was a thoughtful production that did full justice to a forgotten work.
La Susanna will be performed May 2-5 in New York. operalafayette.org/la-susanna.