A review Monday of the Washington Opera's production of Carlisle Floyd's "Susanna" identified Robert Falls as director. Falls was responsible for the original production; Brenda Nuckton directed the Washington performances. (Published 11/12/99)

Carlisle Floyd's "Susannah," which the Washington Opera opened in a colorful and authentic production at the Kennedy Center on Saturday, is not the sort of work one should see at holiday time, when so many American urbanites confront the vexing question of whether to go home for the holidays.

It is about the brutalities of small-town life, the hypocrisies of authoritarian religion and the thuggish and defensive parochialism of isolated communities. It is one of the greatest American operas--a work in which the nostalgia of Norman Rockwell crashes on the shoals of Old Testament morality--yet the ugliness of its subject matter is cringe-inducing.

"Susannah," which first opened in 1955, is, according to the Washington Opera, the most performed full-length American opera today. It is seen not just as an opera by an American composer, but one that is quintessentially, uniquely American: woven from folk melodies and a few polite nods to the angularities of modernism, structured cinematically and based on small-town life.

But "Susannah" has many close cousins in foreign opera, especially those written at times when the local folk culture was sufficiently decimated to inspire a gush of apologetic nostalgia. The Czech composer Leos Janacek's operas about small-town life deal with similar dramatic themes--such as the thuggish inbreeding--and similar musical problems, such as how to integrate the raw material of folk music into a modernist structure. So, too, works by the English folklorist composers of the early 20th century.

Operas about just plain folks, no matter where they're written, tend to be just plain nasty, especially those written in the last century. "Susannah" is no exception. Its plot is a bitter twist on the biblical tale of Susannah and the Elders. A young and innocent woman is caught bathing au naturel; the guilt of the voyeurs (priggish old evangelicals) is transferred onto her, and suddenly Susannah is a loose woman and wanton exhibitionist. All manner of salacious fantasies develop around her, and she is ostracized.

American composers have no monopoly on noxious tales like this, but they have been particularly devoted to them. Copland's "The Tender Land," Robert Ward's "The Crucible" and, more recently, Tobias Picker's "Emmeline" are derived from similar stories.

American composers, however, tend to mix saccharine longing for an idealized past into the brew, making works like "Susannah" a bit too close for comfort. They are somehow also about us and the things we have lost in the slow, coast-to-coast civilizing of ourselves and nature.

The Washington Opera's new "Susannah" is a co-production with the Houston Grand Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago, and has been seen recently at New York's Metropolitan Opera. Its painted curtain of gnarly and misshapen rustics is based on the work of Thomas Hart Benton, but while the scenes and costumes (by Michael Yeargan) keep some of Benton's color palette, they are more spare and realistic. The well-paced and coherent production, directed by Robert Falls, takes a straight theatrical approach, emphasizing both the stark dramatic conflicts and the telling details of daily life.

Given a recent spike in "Susannah's" popularity (which includes a very fine recording from 1994), one can imagine a production that endeavors to ask just why this 44-year-old score is so appealing once again. There are plenty of easy answers. It is a solid and powerful work, easily accessible and no more taxing timewise than a longish Hollywood flick. Americans are also more used to the idea that while we may not have a great indigenous operatic tradition, we have a good one and it's time to embrace it.

Floyd's score indicates that the story takes place in the present, and in that perhaps lies the real answer to the work's enduring popularity. The issues raised by urban sprawl and a growing discomfort in suburbia are all very much in this work, though perhaps inchoate.

Americans still crave the seemingly irreconcilable opposites of independence and community, privacy and public life. We plow down old farmsteads to build mega-malls with such bitterly ironic labels as the Old Town Square. We still both crave and hate beauty, whether it's natural or sexual.

So one can imagine another production, with Wal-Mart in the distance and small homes dwarfed by satellite dishes and lit with the nervous blue flickering of a television running 24-7. The Washington Opera production is more conscientiously timeless, avoiding obvious references to the present. The singers in the strong cast produce Floyd's folksy dialect with ease and little embarrassment. The costumes are simple and homespun, except for that of Susannah's tormentor and seducer, the Reverend Blitch, who haunts the drama like a catalogue-fancy, small-time Faust.

The production is graced by two inherently believable opera singers, Mary Mills in the title role and Jeffrey Wells as Blitch. Mills looks the part and sings with an easily expressive voice that loses only a small amount of its tonal control in the top register. Her folk-style singing was sweet and direct, and her great aria, "Ain't it a pretty night?," is filled with a struggle for happiness and a yearning for something better.

Wells also looks his part--suave, confident and young enough to make Susannah's submission to his sexual advances almost credible. His bass-baritone is a full-scale voice that has a slight, and penetrating, edge that cuts through with terrifying force during the opera's mesmerizing revival-meeting scene. Also a powerful presence is tenor Richard Brunner, who plays the lovable loser, Susannah's protective brother Sam. His voice conveys both tenderness and fury, the twin demons of hardscrabble American masculinity.

Under conductor John DeMain, the orchestra gave a mostly tight and consistently sensible reading of the score. DeMain's direction disappears into the beauty of Floyd's aching melodic lines, which is to say the conductor's approach is modest and faithful to the text.

"Susannah" will be repeated tomorrow, Friday and Nov. 15, 18, 24 and 27.

CAPTION: Mary Mills's sweet singing captures Susannah's struggle for happiness.

CAPTION: Tenor Richard Brunner conveys both tenderness and fury as Susannah's protective brother Sam.