Review: SUSANNAH at Opera Theatre Of Saint Louis

Carlisle Floyd's opera plays at OTSL through June 24.

By: Jun. 14, 2023
Review: SUSANNAH at Opera Theatre Of Saint Louis
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Review: SUSANNAH at Opera Theatre Of Saint Louis
Frederick Ballentine (Sam)
Janai Brugger (Susannah)

The Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has opened Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah.  It is another splendid offering, well in keeping with this company’s world-class reputation.  It brings to the OTSL stage for the first time the breathtakingly beautiful voice of soprano Janai Brugger in the title role.

The opera Susannah is very loosely based on the story of Susannah and the elders, from the Book of Daniel (or the Apocrypha, depending on one’s Bible).  In the biblical story two tribal elders spy on a young woman as she bathes naked in her private garden.  When she resists their lustful advances they accuse her of adultery.  Only through the intervention of Daniel is the truth revealed and the girl spared death.  This was a popular theme for many painters, sculptors, and poets of the Renaissance.

Carlisle Floyd’s version of the story seems more directly inspired by a famous and controversial 1938 painting by Missouri artist Thomas Hart Benton.   (Benton "Susanna and the Elders")

Floyd sets his opera in the 1930’s in the tiny backwoods town of New Hope Valley, Tennessee.  The town is centered on the church, and the townsfolk eagerly await the arrival of an exciting new preacher who, they expect, will save many many souls.

The set is a gorgeous amalgam of simplicity, theatricality, and imagination.  We see a vast mountain-scape, imbedded in fog and mist—pearl gray touched with lavender.  At times we find ourselves in deep woods—dark and dim.

Review: SUSANNAH at Opera Theatre Of Saint Louis
Janai Brugger (Susannah)

The entire center of the stage floor is the face of a church with lit windows; it’s slightly raked.  High on the stage left wall is a narrow arched window.  Stage right, under a great bare tree, is a small shabby door, some old tires used as a planter, a barbecue.  This is home to young Susannah and her older brother Sam, who raised her.   He supports them by hunting and trapping in the forest.  Yes, he drinks a little, but he is fiercely devoted to his sister.

Under the gifted hands of set designer Andrew Boyce, video projections designer Greg Emetaz, and lighting designer Eric Southern this New Hope Valley is deeply beautiful, graceful, fluid, magic.  It is the most inspired projected scenic environment I’ve ever seen.  Vastly dramatic shafts of golden light pierce the mist in the dark woods.  It’s somehow reminiscent of Adolphe Appia, whose work on Wagner’s operas in the 1920’s transformed the world of stage design, lifting it above the limits of reality.

Maestra Gemma New raises her baton!  The music swells.  On the dark stage an orange gleam shines along the bottom edge of that church.  Is it Hell-fire?  It spreads up, up … and becomes merely, but gloriously—an Appalachian morning.

The townspeople enter—in slow motion, and to the somber music of celli.

Carlisle Floyd’s music is richly orchestrated and very like a fine film score.  It supports in detail every flourish of emotion, every crisis, every gentle peaceful moment.  There are elements of folk tune, of folk dance.

Review: SUSANNAH at Opera Theatre Of Saint Louis
Janai Brugger (Susannah)
Christian Sanders (Little Bat)

Janai Brugger, as Susannah, is very, very fine indeed.  Her aria “Ain’t it a pretty night” is stunning, her voice sweet and true, and that remarkable high note reaches up into the flood of stars filling the sky (and even the ceiling of the auditorium).  A pretty night indeed.

Tenor Frederick Ballentine is simply perfect as Susannah’s brother Sam.  He has a commanding voice, much grace in movement, and he is as fine  an example of utterly masculine physical beauty as you’ll likely ever see.

“Little Bat” is an awkward, almost feral young lad.  Susannah is his close and only friend.  Christian Sanders fills the role with quick, lithe nervous action—and with guilt over a lie he’s been forced to tell about Susannah.  He reflexively ducks and crouches in fear like a stray dog expecting yet another kick.  A marvelous performance.

And now for the baddies:

Review: SUSANNAH at Opera Theatre Of Saint Louis
William Guanbo Su (Reverend Blitch)
Janai Brugger (Susannah)

The accusing elders are led by Bat McLean and his wife (Little Bat’s parents).  Bass- baritone Keith Klein brings power and menace to the role of Bat.  Mrs. McLean is sung by Elissa Pfaender, who fills her with a vicious eagerness to condemn.  What a witch!  Other elders and wives are sung by César Andrés Pareño, Joseph Park, River Guard, Melissa Joseph, Rachel Barg, and Anastasia Malliaras.

The charismatic Reverend Blitch is sung by William Guanbo Su.  His bass voice is dramatic and powerful.  Surprisingly—and to the benefit of the drama—he shows a very sincere repentance for the great wrong he’s done this innocent girl.

It’s a wonderful production, with major triumphs of music and design. 

I did feel, however, that a significant error was made in placing the story in the 1990’s rather than the 1930’s.  Carlisle Floyd wrote a beautiful small southern gothic tragedy.  This story could have been written by Faulkner.  I have the greatest admiration for stage director Patricia Racette, but to place Susannah  in the 1990’s destroys one great asset of the story: it’s historic tone—its gothicness.  In the church picnic that we see at OTSL there are modern coolers and card tables.  There is, of all things, a boom-box.  (And I’ll just bet there is a fair amount of Tupperware in those picnic baskets.)  And when Sam sits outside his little shack in the woods he sits not on an old wooden rocker (as the libretto specifies), but on a folding aluminum lawn chair.  The costumes are correspondingly less rustic, less graceful—and more suburban—than Floyd intended.  The libretto calls for a square dance with fiddler and caller; this was replaced with—what?  Perhaps it was a Texas two-step.  The preacher appears in a shiny bright-blue suit and silk shirt, with a huge western belt-buckle.  Wrong!  Wrong!

Floyd’s New Hope Valley, in the ‘30’s, is insular and remote.  In the deeps of mountains and woods it’s even claustrophobic.  Fear thrives there—fear of God, fear of sin, fear of Satan.  There is a confluence of evils—close-mindedness, mob mentality—that sets Susannah’s tragedy in motion.  And at the end—alone and shunned, her brother a fugitive—where can she go?   In the 1990’s it is a changed world.  Changed in our views of woman’s place, in our links to the outside world.  Highways, television, and cellphones have destroyed any sense of isolation, of remoteness.  Even New Hope Valley cannot have remained untouched by these changes.  Susannah cannot now be so alone and helpless.

If one senses that today we are facing a similar confluence of evils—if today’s world resonates with the same dangers that people faced in Floyd’s village—then the audience will perceive that resonance without transposing the story into our times.  Trust your audience, Ms. Racette.

Do we need to update The Scarlet Letter?  Do we need to update The Crucible?

Go!  See Susannah at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.  The chorus work alone is worth the trip, and the voices of the principals are world-class wonderful.  It’s a glorious show!

(And be sure to read Gemma New's insightful program notes.)

(Photos by Eric Woolsey)




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