Last night I went to OCPAC's showing of Susannah not quite knowing what I was to expect from an American opera by Carlisle Floyd. I was, however, certain of one thing: my deep, unwavering passion for opera in another language. There's something about stories set to foreign songs that is mysterious and indecipherable. It sends me reeling into a magical world where I forget what time it is. I actually despise having to get up to use the ladies’ room at intermission, lest I lose that magical feeling that washes over me when I finally, regretfully, detach from my seat.
Unfortunately, I just couldn't seem to wrap myself around Susannah. I did shift around though – in my chair, uncomfortably I’m afraid, all through the first act.
Maybe it’s just me (though clearly it wasn’t) but twangy opera done entirely in a Southern drawl isn’t my cup of tea. I'm sure it is for somebody, somewhere – just nowhere within a 30-foot radius of myself and my date for the evening, editorial assistant, Amanda Parsons. We gave way to whispering important commentary into one another’s ear: “Is the conductor one beat or two beats ahead of the orchestra when directing them?” “I don’t know. I’ll have to Wikipedia that shit.”
The story revolves around Susannah, a sweetheart of a girl, set smack dab in the middle of depression era-Tennessee who is consumed by the zealotry of a corrupt preacher and his followers. She gets shit for her love of having a good time, square dancin’ n’ such with the local boys. Apparently, the other women of the church think she’s filled with the devil. I guess they have a point: square dancing can be pretty darn sexual. And with the visiting preacher bellowing, "The Lord ain’t gunna put up with none a yer sinnin’," to the small town church-goers, the righteous towns people turn on poor Susannah.
But what’s wrong with Susannah?
I’m sure everyone has been skinny dipping, right? No? Well good for you…really. But for those of us who have, it’s pretty fun. A bit naughty. Whatever. For Susannah, played by Pamela Armstrong, it was different. The poor girl just wanted to take a bath. I mean c’mon – she lives in rural Tennessee, they have stars in their sky (I’m afraid we can’t say the same) and she loves when her drunken brother Sam sings her songs about jaybirds. She didn't mean anything by it.
It wasn't her fault that the church elders came looking for a spot to baptize their congregation right where she was getting clean. Seems more like they were the ones who were thinking dirty.
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Regardless, the witch-hunt begins. Suddenly, the sweet virgin girl morphs into an outcast when rumors - completely fabricated ones that she's been whoring it up - begin to surface. Even the preacher who seeks to save her soul, preys upon her like a wolf. Overnight she is handed over to his carnal desires, consumed and devoured by the town's beloved holy man, played by Dean Peterson.
Susannah's story reflects the underbelly of Christianity brought into the light. It illustrates the frenzy of real and imagined sin and how the abuse of power festers within a church system. Yet, for all its intensity, I felt at times that the scores did not measure up to the situations. A sort of slow and drawn-out pace instilled itself throughout the entire performance. Interrupted briefly by Susannah's superb, brilliantly clear voice, tumbling her anguish into the audience. Perhaps the tone in and of itself could be seen to represent the pace of life in the South: sweet and slow as molasses. And bored, anxious audience complaints could be overheard (quite loudly in fact) all around the theater as a result.
This didn't take from the actual performances though. Each and every cast member did wonderfully for what they were given to work with. I was particularly impressed with the lighting and stage design – it was lovely in it’s intricate simplicity.
Last word: It may not be my favorite opera, but it's opera to somebody, somewhere.