The UNCG School of Music and the UNCG Theatre double cast most roles in four recent performances of Carlisle Floyd's Susannah . The opera, initially mounted in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1955, was then taken up by the New York City Opera in 1956. Garnering numerous awards, it has become one of the most frequently performed American operas. It has been particularly popular in college productions such as the one attended in Aycock Auditorium, April 2.
Producer, conductor and music director David Holley's productions are always intriguing and thought provoking. After a few tentative moments in some of the brass, the student orchestra turned in a generally fine performance, but in many of the more intense and climactic points, particularly in Act I, the brasses were too loud, covering the young singers' voices and even that of an experienced faculty member. Cellist Gina Pezzoli and bass clarinetist Lauren Winkens turned in good extended solos. The chorus, prepared by R. Benjamin Hutchens II, was excellent, its members effectively meshing with the cast, as for example in the opening square-dance scene and in the church meeting during which Susannah is denounced. Hutchens was also the able onstage square dance fiddler.
Andrew Liebchen's simple set design was effective when combined with flawless lighting by Joshua A. Reaves. A basic house with an added belfry served as the New Hope Valley Church, located in the mountains of Tennessee. Without the belfry and with a shingled porch added, it became the shack where Susannah Polk and Sam, her frequently drunken brother, lived. When its background was filled with projected photos of trees, a deep forest was effectively evoked. For the famous scene in which the church elders catch sight of Susannah bathing nude in their abandoned baptizing pool, a backlit screen produced a large silhouette, reminding one of the famous episode of Seinfeld in which George watches the shadow of a nurse sponge-bathing a nubile woman. Yes, lust raises its ugly head in Floyd's retelling of the apocryphal tale of Susannah and the Elders.
Guest Stage Director Mark Ross Clark made striking use of freezing part of the onstage action while allowing commentary from elsewhere, as in the scene where gossiping wives of the church elders disapprove of the square-dancing youth. The treatment of large groups was as efficacious as the more natural blocking of important individuals. The production's square-dance choreography was by Greensboro native Rhiannon Giddens, who also sang the role of Susannah in the April 2 and 4 performances.
From her initial easygoing nature to her endurance of slander and seduction, with its terrible cost, Giddens was outstanding in her portrayal of Susannah Polk. Her body language was handled perfectly, as one would expect from someone with choreographic experience. Her diction was generally very good, and her high soprano was even and true, although sometimes she sacrificed the text for the sake of pure musical lines. The loud brass didn't help. During the delightful big hit, "Ain't it a pretty night?," the set was framed by projected stars that continued beyond the proscenium. "The trees on the mountains," written in the style of a traditional ballad and sung to console her loneliness, was heartbreaking in its sense of loss and foreboding. She was totally in character every moment she was on the stage.
Dustin Ousley perfectly imbued the complex tics and mannerisms of the social outcast, Little Bat, befriended by Susannah and was fully convincing in a variety of settings - in "I had to come tell y', Susannah" (Act I, s.5) and in the opening scene at the square dance, when he was sullen and withdrawn. His complex and moving relationship with her goes from Platonic sharing between outcasts to a sadly unpromising one at the end. In this production, in contrast to the stage directions in the libretto to the Virgin recording, he crawls back to her like an uncomprehending dog after she has slapped him cruelly in the last scene of the opera.
Faculty member James Bumgardner, baritone, made a convincing amalgam of the struggling contradictions of the evangelist Olin Blitch. He was full of bravado building up church membership and leading the elders' censure of Susannah, then torn over wanting to redeem her before ultimately seducing her. His most moving solos were "Hear me, O Lord, I beseech Thee" (Act II, s.4), when he is racked with guilt, and the ensuing "Brethren an' sister'n" when he tries to convince the church elders of Susannah's innocence.
Nathan Kling was dramatically effective as Susannah's brother, Sam Polk, good-natured when sober. His hair-trigger temper was subtly hinted, preparing the audience for his murderous attack on Blitch, his sister's seducer. His tenor was fine in his sung portions but I had reservations about the more-spoken-than-sung approach taken in the aria at the end of Act I, "It's about the way people is made, I reckon," which is key to the composer's main concerns in the opera.
The rest of the cast varied greatly, and many were often unclear, heard from the front mezzanine. Of the four gossiping wives, soprano Meghann L. Vaughan (Mrs. McLean) had the most extensive role. The clarity of her voice was quite directional: when she faced the audience and, even better, when she aimed for the balcony, she came across well but her key spoken lines -"She'll come to no good, mark my words," and especially, her sneering "I wouldn't tech them peas o' her'n" - were "hit outta the park." Shana Riley sang Mrs. Hayes, Louisa Gabriele Muller was Mrs. Gleaton, and Carolyn F. Hall Sang took the role of Mrs. Ott. Of the Elders, baritone Jeffrey Carlson (Elder McClean) was the most consistent singer and actor. Tenors Matthew Lawing (Elder Gleaton) and Daniel C. Stein (Elder Hayes) could be understood more often than not. Unfortunately, I couldn't make out a single word uttered by Matthew P. DiCamillo (Elder Ott).
*Edited 4/8/04 to incorporate additional material & 4/13/04 to correct errors in last paragraph.