Customer Review

43 of 43 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fine example of good American Opera, May 17, 2002
This review is from: Floyd: Susannah (Audio CD)
I was first introduced to Carlisle Floyd's opera "Susannah" in an Opera Workshop class presentation, which led me to obtain a copy of this wonderful 1994 studio recording. Floyd composed the score and libretto to this 1950s folk opera, which is an allusion to the biblical story of Susanna and the Elders-found in the apocryphal books-updated to the backwoods of Tennessee of the early twentieth century. "Susannah" is also seen as an allegory for McCarthyism, in which several actors and politicians were accused of having ties to communism. Only in this story, the accusers are the members of a theocracy, and the accused is the least guilty of all. Overall, "Susannah" is a tale of the dark side of humanity and, ultimately, the loss of innocence.
Soprano Cheryl Studer sings the title role of Susannah Polk, a young and lively eighteen-year-old girl. Living on the margins of society with her slightly drunken, though well-meaning older brother Sam (Jerry Hadley), Susannah is the subject of vile gossip from the elders' wives of New Hope Church-led by the vile Mrs. McLean. McLean, along with her husband, paints Susannah to be "evil" and counts on the itinerant preacher Olin Blitch (Sam Ramey) to save her soul at the upcoming revival. The unfounded gossip of the elders' wives is "confirmed" when the church elders-searching for a baptism creek-discover Susannah bathing nude in a stream. Lies and gossip fly as Susannah's name is ruined in the town... What happens further is a tragic story of the loss of innocence and faith in humanity.
"Susannah" is a heartbreaking and powerful story, which I highly recommend to those interested in opera-particularly American opera. For a twentieth century work, Floyd's score remains rather diatonic, simple, and accessible. It also is one of the few scores to be truly married to the plot, helping to move the action along smoothly. Having lived in the south and having been exposed to revival meetings, religious hypocrisy, and itinerant preachers, Floyd really knew how to use the vernacular of the opera's setting and this is reflected in the score which manages a balance of folk song, protestant hymns, revival meetings, with the heavy emotional scenes between Susannah and her brother, as well as Olin Blitch. A perfect example of this is Susannah's second-act aria "The Trees on the Mountains."
Performances on this recording are uniformly solid! Cheryl Studer is a true delight and brings an almost Wagnerian intensity to the young Susannah, especially in the second act when her character has been forced from playful, carefree and spirited girl to a truly changed woman. Her aria "Ain't It a Pretty Night?" shimmers and her second act folk-like aria "The Trees on the Mountains" is simply heartbreaking. Olin Blitch is sung by bass-baritone Sam Ramey, no stranger to this role-he sang Blitch in the lauded 1993 Lyric Opera of Chicago production and will return to the Lyric's revival of "Susannah" this fall. Ramey combines all of the slick, fast-talking, and eventual guilt for a truly human portrayal of this preacher. This is especially seen in his "I'm a lonely man, Susannah." Tenor Jerry Hadley offers an equally strong Sam Polk. Kenn Chester is commendable as the impish and easily swayed Little Bat McLean.
The recording itself is lush due to the efforts of conductor Kent Nagano and Orchestre de l'Opera de Lyon and its chorus. There is also a libretto (in English, French, and German) with insightful notes from Jonathan Abarbanel and Carlisle Floyd himself.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 26, 2013 10:54:28 AM PDT
M. R. Traska says:
Ramey and Hadley are wonderful, true, but we'll have to disagree vehemently about Cheryl Studer -- after having heard Renee Fleming myself at Lyric Opera, I found Studer grossly underwhelming. I just don't like her sound. Yes, it is about loss of innocence, but Wagnerian influence isn't what this opera needs. Lyric did without that completely -- that orchestra's sound was as lush an impressionistic as anything from Debussy, and it was wonderful. A Wagnerian touch would be too heavy handed: Wagner went in for hyperbole and melodrama and needed an editor besides.

Posted on Mar 26, 2013 10:55:04 AM PDT
M. R. Traska says:
Ramey and Hadley are wonderful, true, but we'll have to disagree vehemently about Cheryl Studer -- after having heard Renee Fleming myself at Lyric Opera, I found Studer grossly underwhelming. I just don't like her sound. Yes, it is about loss of innocence, but Wagnerian influence isn't what this opera needs. Lyric did without that completely -- that orchestra's sound was as lush an impressionistic as anything from Debussy, and it was wonderful. A Wagnerian touch would be too heavy handed: Wagner went in for hyperbole and melodrama and needed an editor besides.
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