Tom Strini
The Florentine’s “Susannah”

Intense as opera gets

By - Mar 17th, 2012 02:57 am
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Betty Waynne Allison, as Susannah, accused by the congregation in Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah. Florentine Opera photo by Kathy Wittman.

The sustained dramatic intensity the Florentine Opera achieved in Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah Friday evening is unmatched in any Florentine production I recall. Its emotional force and narrative momentum overwhelmed but did not manipulate. The story, set in the 1930s, is primal. A hypocrite preacher manipulates a gullible congregation by means of hellfire and fear of sex. An innocent woman becomes their scapegoat.

Floyd’s lush score pushes the narrative forward urgently. It pauses only to allow the title character and her antagonist, the Rev. Olin Blitch, to reveal themselves in soliloquy arias. Conductor Joseph Mechavich could have quieted the Milwaukee Symphony some in Act 1, to balance it better with the voices, but his pacing and his sense of direction over entire scenes were just right. Mechavich, the MSO, the principals and Scott Stewart’s Florentine Chorus showed great communal understanding of the big scenes and their enormous rising tensions. The choristers danced, acted and sang with extraordinary conviction and contributed a great deal to this production. Director William Florescu artfully concealed dramatic artifice; the acting and group dynamics were as close to naturalism as you can get in an art as stylized as opera.

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Wayne Tigges as Olin Blitch. Florentine Opera photo by Kathy Wittman.

The principals felt no need to overact, as they could ride the sentiments and urges that are so clear in Floyd’s music. Something ominous in the music pushes the big scenes ahead; we feel the force of fate in it.

Fate and time stopped when Betty Waynne Allison sang “Ain’t it a pretty night” and, later, “Trees on the mountain.” Allison possesses a big voice, and both arias go high and loud. But even at these peaks, a luscious sweetness permeated Allison’s sound. In “Pretty night,” she sounded like a dear little light soprano writ miraculously large, scaled up with no change in quality or color. Remarkable. “Trees on the mountain” is Floyd’s virtuoso dream of an Appalachian folk ballad or lullaby. Here she showed off her intoxicating darker timbres and elegant legato. But these songs do more than show off the voice. They convey Susannah’s sensitivity, first as aesthetic ecstasy at the beauty of the night sky and second as a tragic attempt to recover that sense of beauty after her loss of innocence. Allison made both songs deeply moving as well as beautiful.

Allison acted the part with utterly disarming innocence. This was her first Susannah, but Allison already owns the role.

Superb men surrounded her.

Little Bat is an odd little guy, maybe just a bit off in the head. He hangs around with Susannah because she won’t taunt him. Tenor Rodell Rosel courageously played him as a bent, scuttling, fearful fellow with a tremulous, nasal tenor. All of which builds the weakness of character that makes his betrayal of Susannah plausible.

Bass-baritone Wayne Tigges’ Olin Blitch has more than one dimension. He’s a tragic figure because he believes what he preaches but can’t live up to it. His preacher’s voice has a volcanic quality, the result of back-loaded phrases that suggest barely-controlled impulses within the man. His public upright posture gives way to sagging shoulders in his private times.

Tenor Jonathan Boyd, as Susannah’s dear brother, Sam, held himself in the way of a man comfortable in his own skin, with his own flaws and with the chronically tragic state of the world. He has no use for church people, but understands why his sister wants to be one of them. Boyd sang his folk-inflected music straight, plain and true. Perfect.

Mezzo Katherine Pracht played Susannah’s chief tormentor as a vicious little church lady. She had to pop out of the crowd, and she did, with her big voice and an energized presence that made her petite form formidable.

The cast inhabits Erhard Rom’s curving, stylized mountains and winding paths. They conjure the Tennessee landscape, the paintings of Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood, and the 1930s. Rom’s sets, though borrowed from Virginia Opera, the fit Milwaukee production perfectly.

But then, all the parts fit and mesh. Which explains why this Susannah is so gripping from start to finish.

Display photo: Betty Waynne Allison and Jonathan Boyd, as Sam Polk. Florentine Opera photo by Kathy Wittman.

Cast and Credits: William Florescu, Stage Director; Joseph Mechavich, Conductor; Betty Waynne Allison, Susannah; Wayne Tigges, Blitch; Jonathan Boyd, Sam; Rodell Rosel, Little Bat; John Tiranno, Elder Hayes;Jesse Enderle, Elder McLean; Katherine Pracht, Mrs. McLean;Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

Performance Information and Tickets: The show runs March 16 at 7:30 p.m. and March 18 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets start at $30; call (414) 292-5700 or visit the Florentine’s website to order.

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0 thoughts on “The Florentine’s “Susannah”: Intense as opera gets”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I found this performance to be totally moving and mesmerizing. It stayed with me for several days– the wrap-around experience of the beauty and then the despair, anger and bleakness. But the beauty of the singing and music override it all. I am just SO SAD they didn’t record this. It would have brought them another Grammy Award, I am sure.
    What a loss we won’t have this in archives.

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