Floyd’s masterful “Susannah” makes its belated debut at Wolf Trap

August 15, 2022
By Charles T. Downey

Ann Toomey in the title role and Christian Pursell as the Reverend Blitch in Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah at Wolf Trap Opera. Photo: Scott Suchman

Wolf Trap Opera Company is closing out the summer season with its first performance of an American classic, Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah. The distinguished American composer, who died last September, premiered this melodrama set in the American South in 1955, at Florida State University, where he was then a professor. Heard on opening night in the Barns on Friday night, this new production is the first in the area since 2006, when Virginia Opera mounted it.

Floyd penned his own libretto, in the southern dialect he knew from his youth in South Carolina. The Biblical story of Susanna, an apocryphal addition to the Book of Daniel, is clothed in religious hypocrisy, here in a milieu of Southern evangelism. Susannah Polk is a beautiful young woman in New Hope Valley, a tiny town in the Tennessee mountains. Local church elders spy on her bathing in a crick on her own property and accuse her of leading the whole valley into sinful lust.

Ann Toomey dazzled in the title role, from which Floyd demanded both towering vocal power and limpid radiance. Her rendition of Susannah’s celebrated Act I aria, “Ain’t it a pretty night,” glowed with naive wonder, crowned by a rafter-shaking high note at its climax (“to be one of those folks myself”), as she hoped to escape her rural upbringing. Toomey’s Act II aria, “The trees on the mountains,” and her angry, gun-toting response to the town’s hatred in the final scene all rang with dramatic force.

Bass-baritone Christian Pursell roared and crooned as the Rev. Olin Blitch, an itinerant preacher who comes to town to lead a revival. Slender and handsome, Pursell made real the conflicts of the character with vocal prowess, in an especially explosive sermon scene in Act II. In a trope now somewhat familiar in American life, the preacher is guilty of the very sin he condemns in Susannah, lusting after and eventually forcing himself on her (“I’m a lonely man, Susannah”).

The most sincere religious sentiment comes instead from Susannah’s brother, Sam, sung with authoritative strength and sensitivity by tenor Robert Stahley. Looking every bit the good old boy, outfitted with a plaid trapper hat and animal pelts, he and Toomey sang their scenes together with touching emotion, especially the “Jaybird” duet in Act I. Puissant high notes underscored his indignation (“It must make the Good Lord sad”) and murderous anger.

Tenor Joseph Leppek simpered but remained sympathetic as Little Bat, the simple-minded son of the lead church elder, a friend to Susannah until he betrayed her. Wolf Trap studio artists, younger singers in training, filled out the roles of the hateful townspeople with especially pleasing ensemble sound. Mezzo-soprano Winona Martin stood out for her dramatic malice as the wives’ evil-tongued ringleader, Mrs. McLean. The four elders and their spiteful wives refuse to forgive Susannah even after the preacher repents of having accused her.

The Wolf Trap Orchestra produced a bold sound in Floyd’s Puccini-like orchestration, with the brass and woodwinds sometimes overpowering the smaller number of strings. Their position at the back of the stage, behind the set and a curtain, made it difficult to judge the conducting of Stephanie Rhodes Russell. She seemed mostly to follow the lead of the singers, rather than the reverse, but the ensemble and balancing with the voices worked.

With the pit covered by a projecting proscenium, the staging directed by Dan Wallace Miller took advantage of the broad space available, including the floor in front of the audience seating, pushed back a few rows. The single set, designed by Christopher Mumaw, seemed of a piece with the architecture of the Barns, Wolf Trap’s intimate indoor theater built from two restored 18th-century barns. Wood boards of a similar color and size formed the interconnected Polk cabin and the town church, illuminated by a stark white cross.

The opening scene of Act I, a church square dance on a warm July night, filled the stage with rustic choreography by the townspeople (overseen by Felicity Stiverson). Floyd’s ritornello for the dance is a rustic fiddle tune, cheekily derived from the Prelude of Bach’s Solo Violin Sonata No. 3. (Bach’s reuse of this theme in two of his cantatas even gives the jaunty melody a sacred sheen.) Homespun mid-20th-century costumes (designed by Candace Frank) struck an honest, rural tone.

The only staging misstep was the handling of the bathing scene, which took place in a cabin across from the Polk place and in which Susannah was not visible. The aim may have been to underscore the obvious lies of the church elders, since they appeared to be spying on Susannah in her bathtub rather than outdoors, with aquatic blue light the only sign of water. The revision of this scene, however, contradicted Susannah’s own words about bathing in the crick later in the libretto.

Susannah runs through August 20. wolftrap.org

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