Photo Flash: Pamela Armstrong in 'Susannah'
It has been 25 years since the last production of Susannah in Southern California by a major opera company. This is not only Opera Pacific's first presentation of Susannah; it is also the first time that an opera by Carlisle Floyd has been included in Opera Pacific's repertoire. Bringing Susannah to Southern California pays homage to the work of one of America's most revered opera composers and the tradition of American opera.
Carlisle Floyd was born in 1926 in Latta, South Carolina; many of his works are set in the South, where he spent most of life, outside of receiving his Bachelor and Masters of Music from Syracuse University, followed by a short teaching stint there. In 1951, he became a member of the music faculty at Florida State University at Tallahassee, retiring thirty years later as a Professor of Composition
Since 1955 Susannah has had more than 800 performances in the United States and Europe. New York City Opera has revived Susannah four times and it has been a staple of both large and small regional companies, including the Metropolitan Opera, Houston, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, San Diego and Kansas City.
Coupled with a large orchestration, the music of Susannah, sung in English and laden with the vernacular language of Depression-era Tennessee, was inspired by the hymns, folk tunes and even square dance motifs of Floyd's South Carolina upbringing in the thirties. A pivotal work of historical significance, Susannah is based on the biblical story of "Susanna and the Elders." At once regional and universal, Susannah features an authentically plainspoken libretto that resonates with a Southern hill country dialect. The straightforwardness of the work connects with audiences, often enabling newer and younger audiences to connect with this classic American work.
The story is set in the small Tennessee mountain town of New Hope Valley. 18 year-old Susannah Polk, the prettiest girl in town, is the center of attention at the town square dance. She lives on the family farm with her strong willed brother Sam. The wives of the town first notice the Church Elders' attraction to Susannah, and then begin to voice their disapproval of her pretty face, her dress, and her manner, and then move on to discuss the new Preacher Olin Blitch, who himself dances with Susannah. Later, Susannah is seen swimming naked in the creek by the Elders, who are seeking a place for a Baptismal pool; shocked and horrified they return to the town, targeting her as a sinner.
At the town picnic, Susannah is shunned. Sam tells her the town is looking for a confession – and she replies that she has nothing to confess. When Susannah refuses to repent at Blitch's revival meeting, Blitch himself pays a visit to her – but instead of asking her to repent, he ends up seducing her. Blitch then tries to persuade the townspeople to forgive her, who are uncomprehending by their Preacher's change of heart. Tragedy ensues, and at the end, Susannah, using her gun, orders everyone away, leaving her alone.
Singing the role of Susannah is American soprano Pamela Armstrong, recognized internationally as a major young artist, and who made her Opera Pacific debut in 2002 as Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni. She has also sung the role of Donna Anna in Don Giovanni in Turin, Bordeaux, and Marseille and New York City Opera, where her roles have included Magda in Puccini's La Rondine, Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata, and the Countess in Richard Strauss's Capriccio. Armstrong made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Mimì in Puccini's La bohème in 2001 and returned in 2003 as Micaëla in Bizet's Carmen. The same year, she made her Spanish debut in La Rondine in Oviedo. In 2006, she sang her first Arabella in Richard Strauss's Arabella in Toulouse, as well as Rosalinde in Johann Strauss Jr.'s Fledermaus at Glyndebourne. In May 2007, Armstrong performed in San Diego as the Countess in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, a role she has sung with Vienna Staatsoper, New York City Opera, and in Toulouse, Paris, Los Angeles, Houston, and Trieste. Other upcoming engagements include Elvira in Bellini's Puritani in St. Louis, her first performances of Massenet's Thaïs in Oviedo, and Magda for Michigan Opera Theatre.
Tickets for Opera Pacific's Susannah are priced from $27 to $191 and are available by calling 1-800-34-OPERA, online at www.operapacific.org, or by visiting the Orange County Performing Artscenter Box Office at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For information, go to www.operapacific.org. For groups, call (714) 830-6361.
Photos by Nick Koon.