By Mark J. Estren
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
The stage is shallow here at Virginia Opera's home base, the Harrison Opera House. It's the performances that have depth, as was clear on Sunday in a striking rendition of "Susannah," a less-than-familiar American opera inventively staged by Dorothy Danner. Washington-area music lovers can explore the work's intensity when this first-class company brings its production to George Mason University's Center for the Arts next month.
Carlisle Floyd's 1956 opera is based very loosely on the biblical tale of Susanna and the Elders. The opera follows the tale of a young and innocent woman who loves life and the church in rural Tennessee, but by the end of the story has lost both church and innocence. In the Book of Daniel, part of the biblical Apocrypha, direct divine intercession saves the innocent Susanna from the lies and lust of the Elders. God is frequently called on but never present in Floyd's opera, a McCarthy-era meditation on "how people like to believe what's bad," as Susannah's brother and protector, Sam, puts it.
As Susannah, Lillian Sengpiehl projects a wonderful mixture of charm and ill-fated naivete. Her big Act 1 aria, "Ain't It a Pretty Night," has her optimistically hoping to see the big world of Knoxville and Nashville -- as the ominous orchestral accompaniment suggests she will not. In Act 2, after being falsely accused of wantonness, she is equally effective as she tries to console herself with the folk-songy "Trees on the Mountain."
The libretto, also by Floyd, makes it clear that the villagers resent Susannah's youth and beauty from the start. Her undoing comes after the Elders see her bathing naked in a stream on her own property -- spying on her, then accusing her of shamelessly showing her body. Susannah gains stature as she loses her comfortable world, eventually facing down the townspeople with a rifle. Her brother uses another rifle to kill the itinerant preacher who had first demanded Susannah's repentance, then raped her.
As the Rev. Olin Blitch, Marc Embree preaches in stentorian tones -- which become wheedling when he approaches Susannah, then genuinely anguished as he repents his treatment of her. Patrick Miller brings real complexity to Sam, the gruff and good-hearted brother who drinks to distance himself from the narrow-minded townspeople. There is special poignancy when Sam sings "Jaybird," another folklike tune, to cheer up Susannah -- because he calls her "little sparrow" and "little robin," and she, failing to understand the town's animosity, responds plaintively, "I never even killed a bird." Also effective is Eric Johnston as Little Bat, a rather simple boy tossed hither and yon by events for trying to be Susannah's friend.
Floyd's work is primarily tonal, with effective use of dissonance from time to time, and Joseph Walsh conducts it effectively, keeping this short opera -- two hours including intermission -- moving strongly ahead. "I can't wait till pretty things look pretty again," Susannah says, but they never do for her. And intolerance, religious and otherwise, is still very much with us, making Floyd's work strongly resonant on its 50th anniversary.
Performances at George Mason University are scheduled for Dec. 1 at 8 p.m. and Dec. 3 at 2 p.m. For information and tickets see http://www.vaopera.org.