Washington Opera:  Susannah

by Jan Rosen

Susannah, with music and libretto written by Carlisle Floyd in 1955, is an Americanized version of the “Susannah” story from the Book of Daniel in the Apocrypha. As relevant today, as it was way back then, the story is a slap at narrow-minded "holier-than-thou" hypocrisy.

Floyd’s operatic version of this tale is set in fictional New Hope Valley, Tennessee. I saw this production at the Washington Opera on its opening night, November 6, 1999, and I must say I was favorably impressed. Singing, acting, staging, all moved along fluently, with little effort.

During the orchestral prelude, the crimson and gold curtains of the Washington Opera stage opened up to reveal another curtain with a huge painting reflecting life in the Appalachians. The lower right hand portion of this curtain showed a fiddler and a harmonica player. In the background there was a tall thin male figure whom I suppose was supposed to be a preacher or elder scolding a woman who was half lying on the ground in fright. The rest of the painting was filled with outlines of mountains and hills. Interesting irony in that painting --- joy and happiness of dance and music attempting to overshadow the cold reality of narrow hypocrisy of the townspeople.

Act I begins with a lively square dance and with music so lively I was surprised no one started dancing in the aisles of the theater. People sitting to the right and left of me were keeping time with their feet, though! The set was that of an Appalachian village square. Fiddlers stood on stoops in the background and played real instruments. Not pretending. But really playing them!

When bass-baritone Jeffrey Wells comes on stage as the formidable Reverend Olin Blitch, one can really “feel” his presence. He looked the part in his goatee and black coat. Maybe it’s also the way he stands, his posture, his “looks.” There was this certain aura about him. I understand from an article interview that Olin Blitch has been a dream role for him and this was his first time singing it. I have heard him sing the role of Don Giovanni at Washington Opera a few years ago and he was sensational. Mr. Wells has a wonderful, powerful, controlled voice. He sings effortlessly, putting the right emotion and color into his voice for the desired emotional effect. He doesn’t need to “act.” His voice “acts” for him.

In Act I, scene 2, Mary Mills does her first solo aria in her role as Susannah. Ms. Mills sang beautifully, surely a lovely coloratura voice. I hung on every note of her “Ain't it a Pretty Night,” wanting her to keep at it. Her voice is so controlled and colorful, hitting all the right notes and capturing the tone of Susannah, who obviously is out of place in that burg. The aria describes the wistful longing for a world “out there.” Susannah’s only contact with “there” is mail order catalogs. She dreams of traveling to places like Knoxville and Nashville where “people talk nice and dress nice.” I felt a certain poignant irony here, as I have traveled to Knoxville, and it is a beautiful little city – a jewel in the heart of the Appalachians, and exuding a delightful Southern charm -- but it is not as large or as multicultural as are my hometown Washington, DC or New York City. To me, Ms. Mills perfectly captured the role of a rebellious Susannah, which is what she is supposed to be. She is a great actress as well as a great singer.

Ms. Mills was wonderfully supported by Richard Brunner in the role of Susannah’s brother Sam Polk. Mr. Brunner is a tenor, and I feel it is no accident that the role of Sam is sung by a tenor and the role of Blitch is sung by a bass-baritone. Not always, but many times, according to an article I read recently, in traditional operas, the “good” guys or heroes tend to sung by tenors, the villains by basses or baritones. Although the townspeople in the story vilify Sam because of his drinking, it is easy to sympathize with him. In the opera, Sam really is as nice to Susannah as she says he is. He proves his insightfulness, too, with his aria at the end of Act 1 as to how people tend to believe the bad in others. This role requires a certain mannerism to be convincing. My perception is the wrong singer for this role will cause the audience to sympathize with Blitch and the townspeople instead of with Sam. Mr. Brunner plays his role well as the understanding older brother who will do anything to defend his sister’s honor, even to the point of murdering Reverend Blitch.

This production was successful and came off very well. The audience certainly seemed to be enjoying themselves, keeping time with lively melodies, wiping away tears tears of empathy or sorrow at certain moments. The voices were clear and distinct. Even though the opera was sung in English (of course!), Washington Opera still provided surtitles. Excellent and thoughtful, but I would not have missed them, and didn’t even need to look at them very often, as the voices were so clear and distinct and were not drowned out by the music, which sometimes happens if a singer does not project properly.

Carlisle Floyd was there that evening and made a surprise appearance on stage during final bows. There was no announcement, but I recognized him as I saw his picture in Stagebill. I knew he was in town because of the Opera Guild Salon for him that weekend and I would have loved to go. It was a really lovely gesture, but attendance was limited to contributors at certain levels, so I was not invited. Maybe I will get to meet him someday. We all gave him a big round of applause and I could see he was very pleased with the performance.

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