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Carlisle Floyd’s 1956 opera Susannah is easy to poke fun at. Americana always is. There are the Tennessee mountain setting, the square dance, the lyrics about mail-order catalogues and freshly shucked peas. There’s the plot, straight out of the Old Testament, about the winsome teenager Susannah, shunned by her town’s fundamentalist elders for bathing naked in the “crick” and raped by an itinerant preacher who tells her he’s saving her soul. Most of all, there’s Floyd’s heart-on-his-sleeve music, woven of homespun lyricism.
Of course, those are the very things that give Susannah its power. The Jesus-lovin’ Our Town the composer has created may feel as foreign to fin de millenaire urban sensibilities as the frontier saloon in Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West, but Floyd is a smart shopper when it comes to folk-based archetypes, and he exploits them to calculated emotional effect. We’re meant to despise the closed-minded elders, to warm to Susannah and her good-hearted, hard-drinking brother, Sam, to feel a queasy mix of pity and loathing for the Rev. Olin Blitch. Like Puccini, Floyd employs every swooning string motif and nattering woodwind figure, every line of text (the libretto is Floyd’s own) in the cause of audience sympathy. Unlike Puccini, Floyd never comes off like a musical imperialist, imposing his own cultural tropes on some cleverly chosen exotic culture. Susannah is Puccinian in its refulgent melodic invention and shameless manipulation, but every note is made in America.
Washington Opera has always fared well with midcentury American works. Their current production of Susannah follows on the heels of successful revivals of The Consul, The Ballad of Baby Doe, and The Crucible. These are all operas written during that extraordinary postwar period when American music was splitting into camps (high art vs. vernacular, Ivy League experimentalism vs. good ol’ populist neoromanticism), and all of them came down aggressively on the conservative side of things. Susannah—the most arrestingly lyrical, accessible, and economically written of the lot—breathes the same peaty pasture air as Aaron Copland’s ballets, Randall Thompson’s choral works, Richard Rodgers’ Broadway musicals, and Elmer Bernstein’s film scores.
WashOp’s production—which has made the rounds of American opera companies including the Chicago Lyric, the Houston Grand, and the Met—is a real beauty. Dressed smartly in the saturated primary colors of farmbelt barns and silos, Michael Yeargan’s set is a cluster of clean-lined clapboard houses and dangerously listing shade trees. Scene changes become a silent ballet—except for the distracting clank and thump of the stage machinery—with woods shifting shape and houses floating into place as if in a dream, trailed by the story’s lost characters seeking their place in this unsettled world. All is lit with evocative warmth by Duane Schuler and Joan Sullivan-Genthe and costumed by Yeargan with a dour plainness that’s right on the money. My only question is why Thomas Hart Benton’s painting The Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley was chosen as the show curtain over that same painter’s Susanna and the Elders? Did producers fear its frankness and nudity would provoke a Bible-thumping backlash in conservative audiences? They should reread Floyd’s libretto.
Such imaginative, well-researched design works only if we believe the characters it surrounds are flesh and blood. Ensuring that belief is the original stage direction (reproduced here by Brenda Nuckton) of Robert Falls, the artistic director of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and Tony Award-winner for last season’s hit revival of Death of a Salesman on Broadway. The naturalistic American tradition of playwrights like Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Horton Foote figures prominently on Falls’ resume, and the wealth of lived-in behavioral detail he brings to Susannah conjures it into life. The occasional broad stroke aside, the acting in this production is a far cry from the high school dramatics usually encountered on the opera stage. Falls also has a feel for creating striking, dramatically potent stage pictures that help the score’s more galvanizing moments resonate.
Ideally, Susannah would have moved into the more intimate Eisenhower Theater rather than the Opera House, where quieter moments between characters tend to dissipate. Not that this production hasn’t played bigger houses. When I saw it at the Met a few months ago, everything seemed gargantuan. In keeping with the Met’s aircraft-hangar dimensions (it’s roughly twice the size of the Opera House), the square dance had a grander sprawl; the trees loomed more forbiddingly; the houses, with a more twilight air surrounding them, took on the look of pop sculpture. In the pit, James Conlon coaxed the Met strings to an MGM opulence and made the revival-meeting music sound as if it were heaving forth from some Middle American Nibelheim. The cast—Renee Fleming, Samuel Ramey, and Jerry Hadley—brought an irresistible, if inappropriate, glamour to the proceedings. With their sumptuous voices and larger-than-life acting, it seemed as though the Marschallin, Boris Godunov, and Tom Rakewell had wandered into a folk-life festival.
The Met rendering worked remarkably well on its own terms, but WashOp strikes closer to Susannah’s plain-spoken, down-home roots. John DeMain conducts a leaner, meaner reading of the score. If he sometimes overwhelms his singers, the fault seems to lie less with DeMain than with the more modest voices in this cast and their only intermittently successful projection of the text past the footlights. (Oddly, I found myself seeking out the surtitles more at KenCen than at the Met.) But, in many ways, the scale of singing serves the piece, putting forth the drama in a more believable way, as do the cast’s simpler acting and folks-next-door good looks.
Mary Mills is just right in the title role. Doe-eyed and ingenuous, she seems to carry the weight of recrimination on her hunched shoulders. Her pearly lyric soprano, with its ripple of nascent sensuality, is a flexible instrument able to suggest the character’s pie-in-the-sky optimism, weariness, and yearning. Mills has yet to disappoint in the eclectic range of roles she’s undertaken; WashOp should bring her back every season. Jeffrey Wells, as Blitch, is another reliable singing actor. While his voice lacks the power and rolling, velvet tone of Ramey’s, it does possess a darkly impressive bass sound. And he exhibits a natural command in scenes like the revival meeting. Wells, who served in the Baptist Youth Ministry, knows Blitch and his ilk and falls very naturally into the preachin’ business. Richard Brunner brings heldentenor heft to the part of Sam, making him a burly nice guy. Victor Benedetti and Josepha Gayer are effectively repellent as the Elder and Mrs. McLean, and as their mentally challenged son, Little Bat, Beau Palmer does some behaviorally well-researched, heartrending work. His clarion character tenor registers with fine impact as well.
The river of mainstream American operas that crested in the ’50s has splintered into a thousand tributaries. To ask where the new American operas are in 1999 is to ask how opera is being defined and reinvented in any given week, and to ask, further, whether the whole art form is dead. Susannah, which continues WashOp’s worthy exploration of American works, provides a peek into the movement such home-grown opera once embodied. CP