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Monday, October 05, 2020

Susannah v the Elders

From the Opera Vault Dept.: One of the most powerful American opera’s is Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah,” which resonates all the more deeply in this current era of pseudo-religious fervor exciting the armed and unloved. Here’s a look back at a 2003 production by Lake George Opera (now Opera Saratoga).


IT WOULD HAVE BEEN EASY, when I lived in an urban area, to dismiss Carlisle Floyd’s premise for his opera Susannah as being trite and out of date – but over a decade of rural living has proven to me that the judgments, the Manichean dance of good versus evil, the church-based politicking are very much a part of the fabric of American farm life.

Sheryl Woods
Photo by Frank Giraldi

My wife and I painted both of our surnames on our mailbox when we moved here, but not until I thoughtfully posted a photocopy of our marriage license on the bulletin board of the local church did the sour tongues stop wagging.

Susannah, written in 1955, takes the Apocryphal story of Susanna and the Elders as its inspiration, but it’s re-set in rural Tennessee and has a distinct flavor of the McCarthy-era witch hunts woven in.

It starts innocently enough, at a dance introduced by a melodic figure that begins like the Preludio from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3 and ends with a square dance lick. But a dark note is sounded with the arrival of itinerant preacher Olin Blitch, who discovers that the attractive Susannah is viewed with suspicion and scorn by some of the village women.

While searching for a baptismal creek, a group of village Elders sees the young woman bathing, naked, and decide to shun her until she’s “saved.” A simple, musically powerful scene gives us her discovery of this attitude at a church picnic, and that’s the kind of scene that makes this opera such a good one and made this production so successful.

Soprano Sheryl Woods was a powerhouse in the title role, informing her character with sincere simplicity while triumphing in the vocal challenges. As the awful realization of the townspeople’s attitudes became clearer to her, we saw a hardness develop; by the end of the piece, she’s more than ready to take care of herself against these fools.

A unit set took on a few props and pieces of stage furniture to mark the transitions from scene to scene. Director John Stephens moved the action smoothly, helping reveal key characterizations in solo moments and bringing characters together effectively for the ever-more-emotional interactions.

Bass-baritone Donald Sherrill was frightening as Blitch, his hulking power skillfully realized, the climactic encounter with Susannah all too credible (and headline-current). Sam, Susannah’s brother, is well meaning but dulled by alcohol, and tenor Richard Crawley played the appealing aspects and correctly trusted that his character’s ineffectuality would come through and justify his tragic act in Act Two.

Susannah’s frustrated admirer, the over-excited Little Bat, was nicely sung by tenor Joel Sorensen; his hyperkinetic excesses contribute to Susannah’s difficulties, and Sorensen played him full throttle.

Cast and chorus alike were superb, and the orchestra, under the able direction of Susan Davenny Wyner, supported them splendidly, paying full measure to the beauty of Floyd’s music. The opera was sung in its native English without the distraction of supertitles, and, with minimal concentration, was easy to understand. The lesson it teaches about tolerance remain a little harder for many to grasp.

by Carlisle Floyd
Lake George Opera Festival, July 9

Metroland Magazine, 17 July 2003

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