At this late date, it’s probably pointlessto bash Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, although many still resent its success. Cheap melodrama and tawdry music, they complain. But since the opera was first seen in humble surroundings 44 years ago in Tallahassee, Florida, it has had more than 230 productions here and in Europe. Even the Metropolitan has finally bowed to the inevitable, having just imported a production first seen at the Chicago Lyric Opera in 1993. The composer was only in his twenties when he wrote the piece, and none of his subsequent operas, not even Of Mice and Men, has remotely approached Susannah in popularity. Which suggests that Floyd, instead of becoming the American Puccini, as some had once hoped, is now our Mascagni: a one-opera composer who hit the jackpot early on (Cavalleria Rusticana), wrote many other interesting works, but never struck gold again.
Europeans have problems with Susannah in part because the plot strikes them as utterly improbable. How could a beautiful, naïve young girl, even in rural Tennessee, be socially ostracized and ruined simply because the church elders spied her bathing nude in the creek? Even in the apocryphal tale on which the opera is based, Susannah is exonerated by the prophet Daniel and the elders are executed. Of course, that doesn’t take into account our penchant for witch-hunts – the opera, after all, was written during the days of the McCarthy investigations, when suspicion and accusation were enough for proof of guilt. Yes, it could happen here, as any American audience that sees Susannah instantly recognizes. Floyd, who writes his own texts, may not have handled the subject with any great subtlety, and the opera’s broad theatrics can sometimes seem stagy, but its dramatic honesty registers powerfully every time.
The score has an appealing innocence that Floyd seemed to lose as his operatic craft became more sophisticated. His ear for the rhythms of valley language is unerring, and the score is filled with the lilting melodies, square-dance tunes, and revival-meeting hymns of Appalachia – all original, by the way, and not borrowed folk material. Yet for all its attractive surface, the music remains more illustrative than truly dramatic. In this respect, Susannah suffers when compared to the work it most closely resembles and that was written only a few years earlier: Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, an opera with similar concerns and situations, by a composer who went on to write one operatic masterpiece after another.
The Met’s borrowed production is effectively staged by Robert Falls, who elects to play down the sexual issues – the elders’ repressed lust for Susannah and her rape at the hands of the Reverend Olin Blitch – and concentrate instead, often with frightening accuracy, on the opera’s themes of social harassment and alienation. Michael Yeargan’s stylized sets reinforce that emphasis with sharp-edged structures that evoke both a backwoods flavor and a rigid community that neither forgives nor forgets. Other productions may get closer to the characters – those at the City Opera, for example, which has been performing the work regularly since it was new – but this staging has its own integrity.
Never especially electric performers onstage, both Renée Fleming in the title role and Samuel Ramey as Blitch seem rather pallid. Fleming, however, sings her two big arias with the floating, creamy tone that is her hallmark, even decorating the second with an appropriate and gorgeously placed high C. Jerry Hadley is far more comfortable these days with character roles like Sam, Susannah’s hard-drinking brother, than the standard lyric-tenor repertory, and John McVeigh has a touching moment as the brain-damaged Little Bat, another of Susannah’s hapless admirers. If the singers are occasionally drowned out, I would put the blame on the opera’s tinny orchestration rather than conductor James Conlon.