|Shannon Jones and Steven Fredericks (photo by Kate Hess)|
Carlisle Floyd's l955 opera Susannah premiered at Florida State University where Floyd was on the piano faculty; we are trying to imagine how the audience of that day took it. While not exactly "backwater", Tallahassee (home of FSU) is rather far from liberal New York and the 1950's were not exactly famous for sexual liberation.
The opera was produced again at FSU in 2005. "Autres temps, autres moeurs." We noticed on the FSU website that the university will not tolerate sexual violence. Could it be that the opera affected university culture?
Last night we attended a fine performance by Utopia Opera, the fans of which vote on which operas should be presented for the upcoming season. No opera is too challenging for Director William Remmers. Coming in November will be L'Italiana in Algeri.
The story is a brutal one and much of the music is brutal as well. There is a great deal of dissonance in the orchestra, except for the welcome interludes of lyricism given to the folk music, some of which was composed by Floyd to sound like folk music, as in "The Trees on the Mountain", beautifully sung by soprano Shannon Jones, who turned in a lovely multidimensional performance as the eponymous heroine.
The poor girl, just 18 years old, is an orphan, raised in dire poverty by her much older devoted brother ; they seem to survive on what he can hunt and trap. The repressive fundamentalist religious community she inhabits in rural Tennessee is, as one might suspect, composed of small minded people who judge her harshly on account of her lovely appearance and the alcoholic tendencies of her brother Sam, brilliantly portrayed by tenor Adam Klein (who also served as dialect coach).
A quartet of church women (Jennifer Allen, Mary-Hollis Hundley, Mary Molnar and Sarah Marvel Bleasedale) gossip about her at a church square dance while their husbands, elders of the church (Glenn Friedman, Brian Long, Victor Ziccardi and Matthew Walsh), are paying more attention to her than their wives would like. The green-eyed monster is a dangerous beast indeed!
A new preacher Olin Blitch (superb bass-baritone Steven Fredericks) comes to town hell bent (pun intentional) on saving souls, using every manipulative trick in the book to frighten the congregation with threats of eternal damnation.
The quartet of elders, searching for a suitable creek for baptismal purposes, espies Susannah bathing NUDE! Overcome by lust, they cover up their feelings with indignance and accusations. The acting in this scene was particularly fine; their words expressed outrage but oh, how they stared. They even persuade her friend Little Bat (tenor Mitchell Roe) to lie and accuse her of seducing him.
Blitch tries to get her to confess but she isn't buying it; she knows she is innocent. When her brother is away for the night, Blitch rapes her with disastrous consequences. No spoilers here!
Polymath William Remmers (both Stage Director and Music Director, not to mention engaging M.C.) led the orchestra of twenty with a huge sound that threatened to overwhelm the small sized Lang Hall. But they did not drown out the three principals who had large intense voices and forceful personalities.
The chorus was notably excellent, singing religious hymns in the revival scene. The scenery, as usual, was sparse--a gun rack (hint) and a rocking chair. Costumes were suggestive of the time and place.
We did not know that the work is the second most produced American opera (after Porgy and Bess); we knew of it only through performances of "Ain't It a Pretty Night" heard in recital and in competitions. For us, that was one of the highlights, along with "The Trees on the Mountain" and the charming "Jaybird", sung in duet with Mr. Klein.
With our preference for 19th c. works in foreign languages, we are unlikely to visit it again so are pleased that we had the opportunity to hear it last night. There will be another performance tonight and you may be pleased to attend.
What sticks in our mind is how contemporary the theme is--men of the cloth are still misusing their power over the young. Will this ever end?
(c) meche kroop