Catholic University’s new opera production Susannah more than does justice to this American classic with a world premier of a new chamber version of the music by CUA alum Brian Rice. He adapted the original score by Carlisle Floyd, who also wrote his own libretto.
Written in the 1950’s, this tells the story of a Tennessee valley revival meeting and the young woman the town turns on. There’s echoes of the McCarthyism Floyd lived through which are unfortunately as relevant as ever with today’s wild fire social media when one tiny rumor can ruin lives.
The cast and crew make the opera special. The cast includes freshman all the way to doctoral students, most from the prestigious vocal performance program.The crew is a mix of award-winning professionals, alums, and other students, including student conductor Nathan Blair, who seems to inhabit the music and not just conduct it. The three musicians for this chamber arrangement are pianist Dr. Nicholas Castravas, harpist Maria Harrison, and Mario Ramsey on percussion.
The music is a charming mix of Appalachian folk, hymns, and classical music, which makes for a distinctly American score. The libretto is written in a Southern dialect, which works surprisingly well. So does the staging by Director James Hampton. He makes great use of the intimate Ward Hall, particularly for the second act revival when he turns the theater into the church and lines up the ensemble around the audience for a gorgeous sound on “Are You Saved From Sin?” and “Come, Sinner, Tonight’s the Night.” There are two casts – with stars taking part in the ensemble on alternate nights – which makes Hampton’s direction particularly impressive.
Eight singers play the hateful church elders and their wives, but there’s nothing hateful about their voices. Suhyun Kim, Madeleine Curtis, Michelle Kelly and Kristin Green (Mrs. Gleaton, Mrs. Ott, Mrs. Hayes, and Mrs. McLean) triumph on “I Ain’t Surprised, Ain’t a bit surprised.” Green especially has a voice that easily fills the theatre and pitch-perfect characterization.
Joseph Thordarson, Alexander Ruhling, Jerrod Laber, and William Powell III (Elders Hayes, Ott, Gleaton and McLean) play the accusers, who clearly have something other than religion on their minds when they see Susannah, even as they sing, “The woman is of the devil.”
Joseph Chee (Olin Blitch) plays the true villain in a piece replete with evil characters, but he outshines them all. His malevolent presence as the charismatic preacher is effective especially for the ominous, “I’m a lonely man, Susannah.”
Greg Lima and Jeffery Springer (Little Bat McLean and Sam Polk) are two standouts with stellar voices, one as Susannah’s sweetheart and one as her brother. Springer’s “Jaybird sitting on a hickory limb” is a delight but he can also handle the much more serious, “It’s about the way people is made, I reckon.”
But the star of the show in every sense is Emily Risley (Susannah). Her voice does not seem to have an upper limit on this challenging soprano role. The journey she travels and the strength required to stand against a town of people (and the talented performers playing them) requires a special actress. Risley shines and there are so many opportunities for her to do so with arias like, “Ain’t it a pretty night?” in the beginning and the very different “The trees on the mountain are cold and bare” near the end.
The set by Dominic Traino is minimalist, but it did make for a lot of scene changes, unfortunately. Fortunately, it left most of the heavy lifting to the white backdrop and the lights by Brian S. Allard. No one can do a sky like him. It is set in the ‘50s, when it was written and the costumes by Robin McGee are authentic period pieces that work well.
Susannah is a powerful and compelling opera that is as relevant as ever. As Susannah sings, “They say, they say…Who’s they?” Carlisle Floyd has written with rare insight into humanity and Catholic University mounts a very special production of this masterpiece with a new arrangement and a diverse and passionate cast of young opera stars.
Running Time: 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission.