Haymarket Opera returns with a superb cast in Stradella’s “La Susanna” 

Sun Mar 27, 2022 at 3:47 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Kaitlin Foley sang the title role in Stradella’s La Susanna, presented by Haymarket Opera Company Saturday night. Photo: Topher Alexander

On a chilly Saturday night, Haymarket Opera Company returned to live performance, opening its season with Stradella’s La Susanna at DePaul University’s Gannon Concert Hall.

It was on the same stage in 2020 that Haymarket presented a concert with Elizabeth DeShong just before Covid-19 shut down all live local events.

Not that Chicago’s upstart Baroque opera company has been on vacation the past two years. From the start of the pandemic, Haymarket shifted gracefully—and smartly—to filmed performances, streamed on its website and rendered with a vocal and artistic quality that matched or bettered their live efforts. The company’s 10th anniversary all-Handel season last year remained intact online, finishing with a triumphant production of Orlando, Chicago’s finest opera performance of 2021.

Antonio Stradella (1643-82) composed operas, oratorios and concerto grossi. His music was nearly as popular in his lifetime as that of Handel or Vivaldi, though his work has been eclipsed in the intervening 3-1/4 centuries. Today he is as noted for his colorful romantic life, which led to two assassination attempts, the second of which proved successful at age 43.

La Susanna is an oratorio set on the biblical tale of Susanna and the Elders, which has inspired numerous celebrated works, most notably an oratorio by Handel and opera by Carlisle Floyd. The beautiful Susanna is seen bathing by two lecherous elders. She fights off their attempts at seduction and in angry response they accuse the married woman of adultery, a crime punishable by death. The powerful men get themselves appointed judges in their own case to ensure Susanna’s conviction. Yet at the 11th hour, the prophet Daniel arrives to question the two men, exposing their perjury and winning release and vindication for the innocent Susanna.

The tale of powerful men behaving badly toward women is sadly familiar. Yet equally striking was the emphasis on “corrupt magistrates” and illicit jurisprudence highlighted in Giovanni Battista Giardini’s libretto, which felt remarkably timely to a Chicago audience in the era of Jussi Smollett and repeat violent felons let out to carjack, rape and murder. Lines drawing murmurs of recognition included “Injustice and power combined is capable of great evil” and “All you who administer the laws and abuse your power, hear this: Heaven will weigh your decrees and watch your every step!” Would that were true in Cook County.

Jurisprudential relevance apart, the formal oratorio style of the period tends to short the inherent drama of the scenario. Yet Stradella’s music is glorious—gracious, buoyant and consistently inspired, and was exceedingly well-served by a uniformly fine group of singers. From the dreamy slow introduction and sprightly Allegro of the extended Overture, one was immediately drawn into Stradella’s world.

Kaitlin Foley proved ideal in the title role, the Haymarket regular’s high, pure-toned soprano well-suited to the unjustly accused Susanna. At times one wanted greater fire in the (brief) dramatic moments and more incisive note values. But Foley’s dignified and poised vocalism made the most of her arias, as in Susanna’s desperate prayer and, especially, her long Dido-like lament in Act II, which proved most affecting.

The role of Testo is the fulcrum of the piece. Mezzo-soprano Quinn Middleman executed this narrator part effectively, though at times one wanted greater clarity to her words. As Daniel (here Daniele), Kristin Knutson made a strong and aptly heroic rescuer in her belated prophet ex machina appearance, taking over the proceedings and exposing the judges’ perjury. Daniel gets the single flashy aria in the entire work (“Dove, dove correte”) and Knutson handled the fireworks cleanly if a bit cautiously.

(L to r) Kristin Knutson, Kaitlin Foley, Quinn Middleman, Aaron Wardell and William Dwyer in La Susanna. Photo: Topher Alexander.

If the devil gets the best tunes in opera, the two villains have some of the most expressive music in Stradella’s oratorio. Both singers were excellent as the oddly sympathetic Judges (“I yearn for love—is that a crime?”). Aaron Wardell deployed his rich and rounded bass-baritone superbly while tenor William Dwyer sang with a vibrant tone and stylish expression. All the voices blended wonderfully in the ensembles and choruses. 

The “orchestra” for Stradella’s work consists of just five players, apt in scale for this intimate work. Leading unobtrusively from the cello, artistic director Craig Trompeter set ideal tempos and fine pacing that kept things moving. The playing of the period-instrument Haymarket Orchestra was characteristically nimble and polished, a couple brief moments of violin disarray apart. Playing both harpsichord and organ, Jason Moy consistently underlined the oratorio’s drama. 

Haymarket Opera present Joseph Bologne’s L’Amant Anonyme June 17-19. haymarketopera.org

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Haymarket Opera returns with a superb cast in Stradella’s “La Susanna” ”

  1. Posted Mar 28, 2022 at 10:10 am by Ted Hatmaker

    I very much agree with this review. This was an authoritative performance of a work not often performed. I think a shout-out should also go to Brandon Aker, who played so expressively on the theorbo.

  2. Posted Mar 30, 2022 at 8:30 am by Charles Capwell

    This performance was typical of what we have learned to expect of this fine organisation which is bringing Chicago respectable and respectful productions of Baroque vocal and instrumental pieces. The singers were all impressive, though I did feel Ms. Foley could have restrained the piercing quality of her upper range–her “Dido like lament” in Act II, however, was perfect for its musical expressivity and control.

    And yes, Acker and Moy handled the continuo splendidly.

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