Theatre Reviews
Frederick Ballentine and Janai Bridges. Photo by Eric Woolsey courtesy of Opera Theatre

The late Carlisle Floyd’s 1955 opera “Susannah” had its Opera Theatre of St. Louis premiere on June 10th and it is, on every possible level, a resounding success.

Janai Brugger, William Guanbo Su, and the chorus
Photo: Eric Woolsey

Winner of a New York Music Critics’ Circle Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and several other honors, “Susannah” is Floyd’s most popular opera and it’s not hard to see why. The score is wonderfully evocative of both the beauty of the Appalachian setting and the poisonous ugliness of the spiteful “Christianity” practiced by the local community.  Based on the story of Susanna and the elders in Chapter 13 of the Book of Daniel, the opera (with both libretto and music by Floyd) generates so much dramatic tension that when it arrives at the final catastrophe it’s almost a relief.

 The composer knew the fundamentalist obsession with the Three Ss (sex, sin, and Satan) well. His father’s career as a traveling Methodist minister in South Carolina guaranteed that the young Floyd would become intimately familiar ritual of the revival meeting. In a 1998 New York Times interview he talked about how this experience had affected his life and art. ''The thing that horrified me already as a child about revival meetings was mass coercion,” he recalled, “people being forced to conform to something against their will without even knowing what they were being asked to confess or receive.''

The contemporary relevance of this is, I would think, obvious enough to require no additional comment.

Janai Brugger, Christian Sanders
Photo: Eric Woolsey

So, yeah, “Susannah” is a harrowing experience, although probably not more so than (say) standard repertoire items like "Rigoletto" or "I Pagliacci." Besides it is, in this flawless production, an overwhelmingly powerful one. It boasts spectacular performances by soprano Janai Brugger in the title role, bass William Guanbo Su as preacher Olin Blitch (whose sanctimony and lust ultimately combine to destroy him), tenor Christian Sanders as Susannah’s friend Little Bat McLean (whose weakness ultimately leads him to commit shameful act of betrayal), and tenor Frederick Ballentine as Susannah’s loving but hotheaded brother Sam.

Brugger is especially effective at showing the wide range of her character and her journey from victim to triumphant defender of her home. ''Opera had for so long been about pathetic heroines, heroines as victims,” observed Floyd in the Times interview, “that not everyone was quite ready for a woman this strong.'' Which, in some ways, puts it a notch above those standard repertoire items I mentioned in the last paragraph.

The large supporting cast is equally strong. Bass-baritone Keith Klein and mezzo Elissa Pfaender are standouts as Elder McLean and his equally reprehensible wife, the ringleaders of the spiritual lynch mob, but even the smallest roles are given a depth that makes their moral bankruptcy that much more chilling.

This is, in short, a production that grabs you by the throat from the beginning and never lets go.

Janai Brugger
Photo: Eric Woolsey

Former St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Assistant Conductor Gemma New, who remains a great favorite with local audiences and critics (including yours truly), returns to lead her former colleagues in a splendid performance of Floyd’s score. Under the direction of Andrew Whitfield, the chorus radiates menace.

Director Patricia Racette (whose own performance of the title role won her high praise in San Francisco in 2014) creates a sense of tragic inevitability that perfectly mirrors Floyd’s intentions. Greg Emetaz’s video projections help maintain the relentless pace. The flattened church that is the centerpiece of Andrew Boyce’s set serves as a perfect visual analog for the congregation’s spiritual collapse.

“Susannah” is not an easy work to watch—great art sometimes isn’t. But it’s brilliantly done and is not to be missed. And its story of hypocrites using religion as protective cover for their own inner demons could hardly be more timely. Performances, in English with projected English text, continue through June 24th at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. For more information, consult the OTSL web site.

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