In its second season, the Long Leaf Opera Company is beginning to establish a track record for well-produced performances of 20th-century American and British opera. It’s a niche category for a niche market, to be sure, but one that deserves a hearing. Last weekend, Long Leaf brought together some fine voices for its first full-length production, Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, in Durham’s Carolina Theatre.
Classified as a “folk opera” because of its inclusion of authentic Appalachian melodies, Susannah is a recasting of the apocryphal story of Susannah and the Elders, in which the beautiful Susannah unwittingly and innocently provokes the notice of the community elders who come upon her bathing in the buff. In an archetypal tale of thwarted lust turned hypocritical, the elders condemn her as a sinner, only to get their comeuppance in the end as her innocence and constancy shine through.
Floyd’s take on the story, however, has no happy ending. Susannah, beaten by emotional exhaustion and community ostracism, succumbs to the Rev. Olin Blitch, the new preacher whose home visit to bring her back to the fold goes predictably awry. Despite Blitch’s remorseful attempt to reinstate her good name, Susannah confesses her lapse to her brother Sam, who shoots Blitch as he baptizes his flock in the very stream where the elders first spied Susannah bathing. Hunted down by the faithful, Susannah desperately holds them off with a rifle, presumably to pursue a life of bitter isolation and perhaps madness.
Susannah is one of the few American operas that has held the stage with repeat performances since its premiere in 1955. Composed at the height of the McCarthy-era madness, this tale of repression, hypocrisy and self-righteousness fell on receptive ears. Though the story is dramatically compelling, the music is weak, particularly in the first act. Floyd is unable to provide musical depth to his simple source melodies, and little or no harmonic direction or coherence in its tonal, but often dissonant, orchestration. With all due respect to the composer, part of the problem last weekend lay with an orchestra that never quite got itself in tune and was often too loud, drowning out the singers. Threatening tremolos trying to attempt continuity between the many short scenes didn’t do much for a musically coherent accompaniment to the drama.
The singers, however, were far more successful both dramatically and vocally. Long Leaf’s musical director Benjamin Keaton was wise in perhaps spending a little more to go outside the area and employ pros with first-rate voices for his leads. Georgia McEver had a perfect voice for the title role: liquid and on the light side but still capable of dramatic depth. (This role is not one for a big-voiced diva.) Unfortunately, Floyd maintains the tessitura of her voice so high during highly dramatic moments that it would be difficult for any singer to enunciate well enough to be understood. McEver’s rendition of Susannah’s Appalachian lament, “The Trees on the Mountain,” was a showstopper. Another fine performance was put in by Susannah’s community nemesis, Mrs. McLean, sung with appropriate malice and spite by mezzo soprano Mary Gale Greene. A recent favorite in the Triangle, Greene is always welcome.
The two major male roles, Susannah’s brother Sam, sung by tenor George Humphrey, and baritone Rick Piersall as the Rev. Blitch, also made creditable performances. Blitch is a complex character, clearly sincere but weak, and yet willing to attempt to right the wrong he has perpetrated on the innocent Susannah. Piersall was particularly impressive in the church revival scene–perhaps also the most effective scene in the opera–in which he has to come off as a credible example of a suspect breed.
Tenor Jason Swope had a hard time convincing us that Little Bat McLean wasn’t playing with a full deck. The double quartet of community elders and their wives were for the most part vocally up to par, but the orchestration underlying their voices was often overpowering. All eight characters, conceived more as archetypes of ignorance, repression and hypocrisy, were more symbolic than realistic. The scenery and costumes, on loan from Opera Fort Collins, where Susannah was produced last year, were effective and appropriate for the period. Here is a situation, however, in which rotating stage machinery–which Carolina Theatre does not have–would have been ideal for the many scene changes.
A serious problem for Long Leaf Opera overall is that while many worthy operas in English have been written, few have become widely popular and created a real following. Thus, in addition to the challenge of creating fine productions, the company has to contend with creating a house-filling audience.