When Carlisle Floyd wrote the exquisite opera Susannah in the mid-1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy was out hunting up commies under every rock and movie studio. It was a bleak, hysterical period--but it was nothing new. Witch-hunts crop up over and over again throughout history, changing form to suit every era and culture. What makes Floyd's powerful piece so stirring is the way it expresses in complex, haunting music the zealotry that can provide one of the most frightening twists of human nature. And this production at Central City Opera is the very best piece of musical theater you are likely to see anywhere in the area this year. It makes all those rock operas and musical comedies look like watery gruel.
Set in the hill country of Tennessee during the 1930s, the story is based on the Bible story of Susannah and the Elders. Like her biblical predecessor, the Depression-era Susannah is young, innocent and beautiful. Her parents are long since dead, and she's been raised by a brother who's an alcoholic, a situation that provides fodder for the village gossips.
Susannah is unaware of the malice that surrounds her, and at the church picnic, she dances with all the boys, including itinerate preacher Blitch, a new arrival bent on saving souls. She goes out to the creek near her home to bathe, not knowing that a group of church elders are out searching for a likely spot to conduct baptisms. They see her naked in the water, lust after her in their hearts, then blame her for their stirred desires. In their zeal to believe Susannah a wicked woman, the elders threaten and cajole one of her weak-minded friends to "confess" that he has sinned with her. Then they turn to their new preacher man to convert her.
Susannah's brother, Sam, knows how his neighbors think, but even he underestimates their capacity for self-righteous mischief and goes off to check his traps in the mountains, leaving his sister defenseless. At a church meeting, a magnificent hymn invites the sinner to confess and cleanse his or her soul. In this amazing scene, the beautiful hymn begins as a moving testament to the overburdened heart. But gradually, as the preacher continues his sermon, the tone of the hymn changes, growing more sinister and becoming absolutely expressionistic when the hands of the congregants reach out for the girl like so many monsters in a horror movie. The stagecraft for this scene is incredible, from the lighting design to the choreography to the hypnotic music.
But the most exquisite aria of the evening comes in the next scene as Susannah sings a fetching, folk-like "Come Back, O Summer." Diane Alexander's magnificent voice is only half the story--she is a terrific actress who uses body language effectively to underscore the emotional content of the music, and her intelligent acting makes this moment of sad vulnerability all the more poignant.
Unlike most heroines of grand opera, Susannah is no wimpy victim, no dying doll. In a moment of defeat she lets the preacher seduce her. But not even this degradation can ultimately knock her off her pins. And though he wrongs the young woman, it would be a mistake to label Blitch a Jimmy Swaggart-style hypocrite. He's much more complex than that--he truly believes she has sinned, and he really is trying to save her when he comes to see her. Andrew Wentzel gives a powerful performance, actually making us pity Blitch as much as we despise his wretched self-righteousness.
A famous young conductor once told Carlisle Floyd that his opera was too regional, that it would never play outside of a few Southern states. The conductor was wrong: More than 800 performances later, Susannah is one of the most frequently produced modern American operas. It's lyrical, accessible and breathtakingly beautiful, and the 75-year-old Floyd, who grew up the son of a Methodist minister, says he has come to love and admire his Susannah.
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At a time when most fictional heroines were fragile, easily victimized or evil femmes fatales, Floyd created a strong teenager embittered but not broken by social madness. His vision of the loss of innocence is a tragic one, but it offers a cleansing release: One leaves the opera house in Central City buoyant with the beauty of the music and the eternal relevance of the story.
Susannah, through August 9 at the Central City Opera House, Central City, 292-6700.