Tuesday, May 07, 2019

Carlisle Floyd, Susannah (1955)


Speaking of American operas...well, here's one. One of the most famous, I'd say. It's loosely based on an apocryphal Bible story, transplanted to small-town Appalachia, but that's very loosely. The story goes and turns out entirely differently.

Susannah is the subject of jealousy by the town's wives and lust by the husbands, but she stays kind of apart from them, living with her brother Sam. They'll grab onto any opportunity to ostracize and shame her, until she's raped by the new preacher, Reverend Blitch (whose self-serving remorse afterwards is somewhat stomach-turning); Sam kills the preacher, but a mob comes for her, and although she chases them off with a shotgun, she's obviously completely cut herself off from the community--which, given this community in particular, does not seem like such a bad thing. And that is that, though her sharp rejection of her admirer Little Bat(?) seems needlessly cruel.

Short but potent, and the extremely American folk- and gospel-inflected music is great. I am seriously obsessed with Susannah's aria "The trees on the mountains are cold and bare," which could easily be performed as a regular folk song. The story did seem perhaps a little abbreviated to me. I wondered, in particular: are we supposed to sympathize with Blitch? I really didn't (the main thing that seems to upset him about what he'd done is that Susannah was a virgin--ugh), but I can't help feeling that more drama could be wrung from this than was. Floyd is still around in his nineties, and he's written a dozen operas, but this seems to be the only one anyone thinks about.

I watched this production from Undercroft Opera, which is (was? it's not clear to me whether they still exist) an amateur company meant to give opportunities to people who wouldn't otherwise have them. It's pretty okay. The singers are, basically, amateurs, but perfectly reasonable amateurs. The tenor who plays Sam and the baritone who plays Blitch (the recording does not include credits that would let me identify them by name) are notably better than most, but the real obvious stand-out is Susannah herself. Someone identifies her in the comments section, so I know that the singer's name is Lara Lynn McGill, and she is on a completely different level from the rest of the cast. I'm not saying she'd stand out on the Met stage, but she sounds like a professional in a way that no one else here does. And indeed, she seems to be making a reasonable living from music, as well she should be.

More than anything, though, this sorta whets my appetite to see a REAL performance. This makes you appreciate the way big opera houses are able to cast great singers even in tiny roles.

2 Comments:

Blogger Achille Talon pontificated to the effect that...

I was really confused by your suggestion that Susannah and the Elders was aprocryphal until Wikipedia told me that Protestants consider it so. Huh. In primarily Catholic lands like France, it's as unquestioned a Biblical story as Noah's Ark or David and Goliath — not quite as famous, but still fairly well-documented stuff.

5:11 AM  
Blogger GeoX, who is here to stay, like it or not. pontificated to the effect that...

I personally don't have any strong (or even weak) opinion about it; all I knew was what wikipedia told me.

9:15 AM  

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