2002 Susannah

March 10, 2002
Opera review / By Marilyn Farwell:

Risk pays off for opera company

For The Register-Guard

When Carlisle Floyd attended a production of his opera “Susannah” in Ireland, one prominent member of the audience asked him whether being an American opera composer wasn’t a contradiction in terms.

Eugene Opera’s production of this 1955 opera answered that query with a resounding “no.”

In truth, American composers have written hundreds of operas, and while only a few are successful, we are currently enjoying a renaissance of productions and compositions of American opera. Carlisle Floyd is the dean of American opera composers, and “Susannah” is probably his best composition.

Eugene Opera did an excellent job of bringing this riveting opera to the stage as part of a four-year project on American opera.

The sets were imaginative, the singers well-schooled in drama as well as in music, the orchestra well-prepared, and the chorus supportive.

Meagan Miller, who played the lead, is a soprano of note and is likely to be a major singer in the future. The only problem to emerge periodically was an imbalance between the orchestra and singers. Otherwise, the production on Friday night was what any opera should be – a complete musical drama.

Carlisle Floyd wrote the libretto as well as the music and took his inspiration from the Apocryphal story of Susanna and the Elders. Floyd’s story tells of a woman in the fictive community of New Hope Valley, Tenn., who is falsely accused of licentiousness by the town, especially by the self-righteous elders of the church. An itinerant preacher, Rev. Olin Blitch, calls Susannah to repentance but then hypocritically seduces her.

Written during the McCarthy era, this opera takes its place with Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” as one of the most famous artistic responses to this shameful episode in American history.

While Susanna in the Biblical story is exonerated, Susannah in New Hope Valley is not. She is unalterably tainted, as were many who were called before Sen. Joe McCarthy’s infamous committee.

Miller sang and acted the role of Susannah with operatic maturity. She sang her two arias, both poignant and lyrical outpourings, with beauty of tone and a rare vocal control in the upper register. Her voice has a rich, velvet sheen that she is able to shade with emotional meaning.

Miller’s portrayal of this betrayed heroine was wrenching. Eugene Opera this season has presented excellent leading sopranos, but Miller stands out among these.

Thom King as Olin Blitch made this complex character more than a one-dimensional villain. Although King’s baritonal voice is not as powerful as it should be for this role, his well-honed voice and acting ability charged his character with energy.

The tenors, Brennen Guillory as Susannah’s brother Sam and especially Joel Weiss as Susannah’s dimwitted admirer Little Bat, portrayed their characters with vocal and dramatic insight.

The numerous minor characters were well portrayed, but special note goes to Victoria Hart as Mrs. McLean, the wife of a church elder and the self-appointed leader of the gossip against Susannah. Hart exuded the qualities of a judgmental, small-town mind every moment she was on stage.

The elders, led by Sandy Naishtat as Mr. McLean, were properly arrogant about correct behavior. The chorus admirably filled in the rest of the townspeople who lived narrow lives and were quick to judge.

The sets were evocative of an Appalachian locale. A series of rough-hewn timbers provided the minimalist outlines of Susannah’s home, the dance hall and the church.

The fine lighting of the backdrop of forest trees enhanced the effect. Visually, this opera production was the best of the season.

Along with Chuck Hudson’s fine dramatic direction, the opera set off sparks now and again. Floyd’s music contains hymns, folk tunes and square dances. American 20th-century opera composers are considered musically conservative, more like the 19th-century Puccini than the atonal composer, Alban Berg. While Floyd’s music displays some modern dissonance, usually indicating dramatic strife, sweeping lyricism is its tonal core.

Under Artistic Director Robert Ashens’ leadership, the orchestra had control of both elements of the score, but even with a pared down orchestra the singers were at times overwhelmed.

“Susannah” is a risk for Eugene Opera. In its 25-year history, it has relied more on repeat performances of operatic war horses than on unusual pieces, particularly modern works. With the introduction of a four-year commitment to American opera, Eugene will have the chance for a more varied repertoire.

I applaud Robert Ashens’ commitment to this project and hope the Eugene audience will support him. If “Susannah” is any indication, we should be in for some exciting years ahead.

Marilyn Farwell is a professor emerita of English at the University of Oregon. She reviews opera for The Register-Guard.