The Landmark Theater (the old Mosque) in Richmond holds so many treasured memories: Toscanini and the NBC Symphony in 1950, the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy several times, the Met Opera touring company, the New York Philharmonic with Bernstein conducting, Victor Borge, and even appearing on this stage once as a member of the chorus in a production of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. To return to this storied theater, even with its notoriously dry acoustic, for the Virginia Opera production of Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah filled this reviewer with great anticipation.

Susannah was first presented at Florida State University in 1955, then created quite a stir at its New York premiere by the New York City Opera in 1956 and in 1957 won the New York Music Critic’s Circle Award. Other works by Floyd include Of Mice and Men, Bilby’s Doll, and Willie Stark, based on the Robert Penn Warren novel All the King’s Men. Several of his operas have been performed with some frequency across America and abroad. Floyd, now 80 and in vigorous health, was in attendance at tonight’s performance and acknowledged generous applause at the curtain call. 

The story of Susannah, inspired by the story of Susannah and the Elders from the Apocrypha, is set by Floyd in eastern Tennessee in an era when piety and physical morality were valued above honesty and justice. Susannah is a beautiful and pure young woman who because of her comeliness is the object of the unseemly lust of the young men and church elders as well and is seen as a threat and is scandalized by the women. While looking for a site for baptisms, the elders come across Susannah bathing nude in a creek on her own property. Their simmering lust is inflamed and they return to the church congregation to condemn her as immoral and lascivious. The visiting revival preacher goes to her intending to offer salvation and comfort but loses control of his own loneliness and lust and sexually assaults her. Realizing she was indeed pure, the Reverend Mr. Blitch is torn by guilt and remorse and tries unsuccessfully to convince the community of her innocence. Learning of the assault, her brother Sam, just home from hunting, walks out the door with his gun in his hand and murders the offending revivalist. Susannah is left changed, embittered, and alone as the opera ends.

Thematically reminiscent of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (and Robert Ward’s operatic setting of it) and the operas of Benjamin Britten focusing on those perceived and treated unjustly as outcasts, Susannah is powerful theater. The music is accessible with square dance, hymns, and Appalachian folk ballads woven into the score and influencing the impact of the story. The characters are well drawn and connect with a deep consciousness most of us share: the conflict between what we wish we were and what we actually are in our acting out.

Under the artistic direction of Peter Mark with sets designed by Erhard Rom and stage direction by Dorothy Danner, the production captured the moods and dramatic conflicts of this tragic piece of Americana. The orchestra, directed by Joseph Walsh, brought Floyd’s imaginative score to life nicely. 

Lillian Sengpiehl as Susannah was quite believable as an innocent, playful and fetching nineteen-year-old. Her first act aria “Ain’t it a pretty night?” and in the second act “The trees on the mountains are cold and bare” were both sung beautifully and reflected the changes Susannah was going through as the community misunderstood and rejected her. The first was lilting, charming, and full of hope and dreams. The second was sad and longing for a time which would never return. They were mileposts on the way from the carefree girl in the square dance at the beginning to the sad and bewildered woman at the final curtain. The young soprano did a persuasive job both dramatically and musically.

Marc Embree was impressive as Olin Blitch, an itinerant evangelist, not quite the hell and brimstone type but very earnest and effective in his task of winning souls through inflicting fear or offering comforting promises. He came across as fully human, never menacing, but weak. Embree’s rendition of his second act prayer for forgiveness was heartrending in its effectiveness as he truly realizes the tragic consequences of his thoughtless act and his total inability to atone for it.

Sam Polk, Susannah’s brother, was sung by Patrick Miller, who projected the character as strong and at peace with the rejection he has also obviously experienced. His coping was through an air of indifference.  His central affection and concern was for his sister, so it is understandable when he loads his shotgun and dashes off to kill the one who despoiled his “little robin.”

The role of Little Bat was nicely portrayed by Eric Johnston. A reflection of Susannah’s innocence in the beginning, he is forced into betraying her and ends up also a bewildered victim of the tragedy as she cynically invites him to “love her up some” and then slaps him and sends him running off. 

The rest of the supporting roles were well cast and well sung. The chorus, sort of a Greek tragedy chorus as the church congregation, was fine though it experienced some ensemble difficulty a couple of times. 

As drama this is powerful and moving stuff. As opera it was an entertaining and pleasant evening, though not rising to the level of masterpiece. It seemed to this reviewer more a series of set pieces that moved the story along well enough but required frequent scene changes, some rather abrupt, leading to the one obvious, though minor, glitch of a backdrop failing to rise properly.  All in all, this is a work and production well worth seeing. Virginia Opera and Peter Mark deserve high praise for their continuing efforts to provide innovative and high quality opera across the state that attracts hungering opera lovers from neighboring states as well.

This performance was the opening in Richmond after a five-performance run in Norfolk. Two more performances are scheduled in Fairfax at the George Mason University’s Center for the Arts on Dec. 1 at 8:00 p.m. and Dec 3. at 2:00 p.m. See CVNC‘s’ calendar for more details.