Floyd’s Susannah From St. Petersburg Opera

Review by: Robert Levine

Susannah

Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 7

The story of Susannah and the Elders is from the Book of Daniel: Susannah, the beautiful wife of Jo’akim, is a lovely, innocent, God-fearing woman, whose appealing looks have come to the attention of a pair of lecherous town judges. She loves to stroll and work in her garden, where she also bathes, naked. Spied there by the judges, they offer her a deal: either she will submit to them or they will slander her. She refuses, is tried and condemned to death, saved only by divine intervention. The story has been treated in paintings by Tintoretto and Rubens (among others); in music, Susannah is the subject of a 1748 oratorio by Handel.

Wrought in a distinctive, tonal, American idiom, with arias that are wonderfully Italianate and a true sense of a necessary dramatic arc, Carlisle Floyd’s 1956 opera, set in rural Tennessee, is a beautiful and enormously effective stage work. There is no divine intervention; Susannah is slandered and shunned and then raped by an itinerant preacher whom her brother shoots dead. The opera ends with her alone and bitter. This performance was filmed at the young St. Petersburg (Florida) Opera in January and February, 2014.

The bare bones production is truly that: a few benches and three stairs going up to a platform on which the orchestra plays under the outlines of a skeletal house/church make up the production itself. The costumes are simple hill country, with overalls or suspenders galore for the men (the better to hook their thumbs in) and ill-fitting, plain dresses for the women. Michael Unger’s stage direction is as good as it can be given the small, shallow playing area and the quasi-local feel of the singing actors, most of whom have sung small roles in relatively small houses.

Finest among the soloists is Todd Donavan as the lusty Reverend Olin Blitch. Donavan is the most experienced of the singers, having sung Scarpia, Leporello, and the four Hoffmann villains with the company, and it tells. His voice is a grand bass baritone, solid from top to bottom, and he acts up a storm, whether preaching or seducing. I was not surprised to read that his other job, when he is not singing, is as a Baptist pastor.

The Susannah of Susan Hellman Spatafora is vocally a bit too big-boned. It lacks vulnerability, and her acting relies on large gestures, but the voice is an impressive instrument, and her anguish in the second half of the opera is palpable. Anthony Wright Webb’s bright, big tenor is just right for Susannah’s drunken, loving, impetuous brother, Sam; and Scott Wichael, as the somewhat mentally challenged Little Bat, exhibits a gigantic voice. He’s saddled with the worst wig in the show, by the way.

The remainder of the cast–a particularly fine quartet of the gossipy, judgmental wives of the Elders–is very good, and the chorus, with plenty to do, is mightily impressive. So, I might add, is the 35-member orchestra, all of them under the passionate direction of Mark Sforzini. The composer was in attendance for the performance, and a bonus track offers a fascinating interview with the charming 87-year-old Floyd, who talks about the genesis of the opera and the McCarthy era and its scapegoating.

This is the only video available of the work, and it is most welcome, but the quality is nowhere near HD, with both picture and sound somewhat garish. As good as this performance is, a thoroughly staged, perhaps complete production with sets and proscenium is still needed.



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Recording Details:

  • Susan Hellman Spatafora (soprano); Todd Donavan (baritone); Scott Wichael, Anthony Wright Webb (tenor)
  • St. Petersburg Opera Orchestra & Chorus, Mark Sforzini


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