Spotlight: Susannah


Carlisle Floyd's astringent opera takes the biblical story of Susannah and the Elders (from the book of Daniel, for those keeping score at home) and plants it in the soil of Tennessee during the Cold War and McCarthyism. It works fine as political or social allegory, but for my money the core myth works best as a pure dose of psycho-sexual insanity. Our heroine (Meghann Schmidt), who lives alone with her besotted big brother (Roy Heilman), has a predilection for bathing nude in a stream (or crick, as the townspeople put it). Fine, until a group of village elders wanders along and catches sight of her beauty ("It's a shameful sight to behold," the older guys sing. Then they linger for a while). Susannah is swiftly ostracized amid trumped-up charges of wanton licentiousness, a process abetted by new town preacher Olin Blitch (Bryan Boyce). Peter Rothstein directs this dozen-plus cast with a light precision. And while Floyd has a tendency to reiterate his dramatic points, his score is bright and complicated, his lyrics dense and sophisticated for all the down-home trappings. Schmidt is appropriately radiant, though she also brings a steely note to her character, and sings with a lovely mix of idealism and, eventually, resignation. Boyce looks young for his part, but delivers the preacher with the right tone of booming vocal authority. Joseph Schlefke conducts the five-player musical ensemble, as well as devising a new orchestration to fit the show's stripped-down staging. While there are certainly moments when the ear strains for symphonic dimensions that aren't in the offing, Schlefke does deft work, giving us the entire opera without making cuts. What stands out by the (bleak) end is how such a small-scale staging allows the drama to emerge: the church meeting in which Susannah stands up to her neighbor's hypocrisy, the sting when Susannah is betrayed by Little Bat (James Plante), Boyce's oily seduction scene with Schmidt, which leads, naturally, to his earnest self-loathing the next morning. Ruining innocent lives, after all, will produce a nasty hangover.