Simply Stunning Susannah
The Metropolitan Opera
03/31/1999 - and April 3, 6, 9, 13, 16*, 22, 1999
Carisle Floyd : Susannah
Renée Flemming (Susannah Polk), Samuel Ramey (Reverend Olin Blitch), Jerry Hadley (Sam Polk), John McVeigh (Little Bat), Joyce Castle (Mrs. McLean), Jane Dutton (Mrs. Gleaton), Jennifer Welch (Mrs. Hayes), Jane Shaulis (Mrs. Ott), James Courtney (Elder McLean), Jonathan Welch (Elder Hayes), LeRoy Lehr (Elder Ott), Jerold Siena (Elder Gleaton), Howard Richman (Square Dance Caller)
The Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Raymond Hughes, Chorus Master, James Conlon, (Conductor)
The Metropolitan Opera has finally given due acknowledgement to a certified American classic. Carlisle Floyd's Susannah has enjoyed more productions than any other American opera, to date over 200. That these productions have taken place predominantly at universities and smaller regional companies is more of a comment on the operatic establishment than on the quality of the work itself.
Floyd's dramatically concise and exceptionally powerful libretto relocates the apocryphal Biblical story of Susannah and the Elders to the rural New Hope Valley, Tennessee. For those who have been deprived of exposure, the story revolves around Susannah Polk, a vibrant teenager whose youth and beauty earn her the jealous scorn of the matrons of the town, and the guilty admiration of their husbands, the church elders. While looking for a baptismal stream for the use of the itinerant preacher Olin Blitch, the elders stumble across the young woman bathing in a stream on her property, and hypocritically decry her lack of morals to the community. Blitch begins by trying to save Susannah's "sin sick soul", but ends by taking sexual advantage of her vulnerability. Ironically proving Susannah's innocence by taking it himself, the preacher tries, but fails, to convince the townsfolk to give up their persecution of the girl. Susannah's protective brother Sam murders the preacher and goes into hiding. She is left alone, utterly ostracized by the only society she knows.
The cast was as near perfection as one could hope. Renée Flemming's radiance in the title role was instantly recognizable in the initial crowd of the square dance before she sang a note. When she did sing, it was as phenomenal as anything she has ever done, which is as phenomenal as operatic singing has ever been. One would think that "Ain't It a Pretty Night" had long since been reduced to irredeemable schmaltz by the inexpert warblings of multitudes of young sopranos who dutifully haul it out whenever they need an aria in English for an audition. But in the masterful hands of Ms. Flemming, its largely untapped beauty and pathos is absolutely fresh and heart-rendingly sincere, as if it were being sung for the first time. Ms. Flemming did not restrict her artistry to Susannah's two glorious arias. From curtain to curtain, she graced the audience with a fully conceived and painfully realistic portrayal of the destruction of a beautiful soul.
Samuel Ramey was at the height of his considerable powers as the Reverend Blitch. His always incomparable vocal gifts were augmented by a thoroughly believable characterization of the flawed preacher. The revival scene which opens Act 2 gave him an ideal showcase for his fiery magnetism and larger-than-life stage presence, while his prayer of repentance was delivered with subtlety and sincerity to wring the heart. His "Hear Me, Oh Lord" spoke directly to every soul that has ever felt distanced from the voice of God by its own guilt. Most impressive was Ramey's final scene on stage. After failing to convince the townsfolk of Susannah's innocence, Blitch promises the girl that he will make it up to her. To her scornful "How?", he is forced to admit "Susannah, I don't know how". With those words, Mr. Ramey makes the audience understand that the preacher has just realized that he is not the forceful man of God bringing salvation to the masses he thought he was, but merely an exciting diversion for entertainment starved hayseeds. He is crushed by the epiphany that he has no real influence.
The rest of the cast more than held their own with the astounding performances of Flemming and Ramey. Jerry Hadley was absolutely convincing as Susannah's doting brother, the drunken, critter-trapping Sam. The seemingly ubiquitous Joyce Castle was appropriately loathsome as the matron ring-leader Mrs. McLean. Her sealing of Susannah's social fate at the church picnic, with a poisonous "I wouldn't tech them peas a' hern", will not soon be forgotten.
While American opera will no doubt continue to develop with or without the recognition of the major houses, there can be no doubt as to the benefits to the development of a uniquely American repertoire of the approbation of great institutions and high profile artists. This co-production among The Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Houston Grand Opera, so ecstatically embraced by the public, could well prove to be a historical turning point in the general acceptance of American work as great opera.