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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Florentine Opera Presents Carlisle Floyd's 'Susannah'

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Carlisle Floyd's compelling American opera Susannah, to be performed by the Florentine Opera March 16 & 18 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, may come as a welcome surprise to those unfamiliar with the work. Composed in 1955 during the political persecutions of the McCarthy era, Susannah could hardly seem more prescient had it been written during the dysfunctional political paranoia and religious hypocrisy besetting our own times. But Susannah, unabashedly melodious and rich in soaring melodies heightened by dramatic phrasing, also seems to hearken back to a less self-conscious, more romantic era of operatic composition. Unlike certain trends in current musical theater, Susannah has a strong, integrated musical profile. It's all of a piece and plays well.

However, the libretto alone invites instant controversy. Set amid the strict fundamentalists of eastern Tennessee, young, innocent Susannah faces unwarranted hostility at the hands of the wives of her congregation, who are jealous of her youthful beauty. Seen bathing nude in a stream near her home, she is shunned for her wickedness at a church dinner and must make a public confession to be absolved. The young, inexperienced Rev. Blitch visits Susannah's home and says he wants to pray for her soul. Instead, he rapes her, later asking for her forgiveness. His remorse is genuine.

Floyd's gentle scoring underlines a genuine love for Susannah, but tragedy follows. The developing density of the psychologically complex score has been described as “dramatic verismo with poetic connotations.” Appalachian folk tunes are discretely employed, Susannah's melancholy aria “The Trees on the Mountain” is highly praised, and the intense second-act prayer meeting carries its own momentum, heightening the impending anticipation of what must be a foregone conclusion—all magnificently realized with mounting concentration and dramatic drive not unlike the best of Puccini at his most urgent.

Yet Floyd is his own master, with a contemporary sophistication underlining the opera's dramatic highpoint, transforming the tragedy into a “catastrophe which resonates against the cynicism of late-20th-century society,” to paraphrase the composer's own words.