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Monday, March 19, 2012

The Florentine Opera's Loving 'Susannah'

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Terrible things befall innocent people in melodrama. By the end, evil is usually punished and the good guys rewarded or at least consoled. American composer Carlisle Floyd's 1955 opera Susannah tells the melodramatic story of a young woman falsely accused of seduction and murder by the churchgoers of a tiny village in the Deep South, but poetic justice is absent. Susannah is driven to become a despairing caricature of the sinner she's accused of being all along. Her rapist is shot, but the townsfolk who are the true villains go unpunished. Floyd, who also wrote the libretto, said he was thinking of the anti-Communist witch hunts led by Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy as he composed the work. In any case, his opera retells an old tale of an attractive single woman whose mere existence threatens men's self-control and the security of wives.

The 85-year-old composer was in the house on opening night of the Florentine Opera's premiere of Susannah at the Marcus Center. He joined the curtain call to receive a standing ovation. He must have been pleased to see the opera he wrote 60 years ago staged with such care and conviction. For me, it seemed a loving production of a sincere work by a promising young artist of the 1950s. There are dramaturgical weaknesses: Characters do what the story requires, no matter how implausible or contradictory, and the most dramatic actions happen offstage. Musically, it sometimes soars hymn-like, or dances along with earthy folk-song rhythms; other times it tries to arouse emotions the story alone can't muster.

General Director William Florescu took a commendable risk in staging this relatively unfamiliar modern American opera. I can rave about Erhard Rom's corrugated set with its feminine mountains and stiff reeds, the church descending like a guillotine and its crucifix a giant, tipping absence. Noele Stollmack's lighting was perfect. Many of the well-costumed singers were capable actors. Director Florescu's staging was clear, if subdued. I wish I could have heard the singing clearly over the orchestra. The supertitles were indispensable.

Soprano Betty Waynne Allison sang Susannah soulfully, making the role—more idea than character—as convincing as possible. To his credit, bass-baritone Wayne Tigges was fascinating as the perverse Rev. Blitch, a role with strangely Shakespearean dimensions. The tenors Jonathan Boyd and Rodell Rosel were just right as, respectively, Susannah's devoted, violent brother and the village idiot.