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Carlisle Floyd's Susannah is one of those pieces that manage to be eternally topical — rather pointedly so when heard in the midst of the 2012 political primaries, as so many of the social themes fielded by the composer's libretto burn up the airwaves on a daily basis. Florentine Opera's mounting of this perennial American classic, here in its company premiere on March 18, verified once again Susannah's power to challenge complacency in its listeners.
Florentine's Susannah was Betty Waynne Allison, whose promising young soprano boasted a vibrant gleam above the staff in "Ain't it a Pretty Night" and a goodly amount of heft in the middle register. "The Trees on the Mountain" was particularly well done. There is a need for heightened interpretive nuance, and one sensed that the climaxes took her to the limit of her dynamic range at present, but it is a good voice, and it will be interesting to see where it goes.
Bass-baritone Wayne Tigges presented Olin Blitch through an effective amalgam of vocal velvet, sex appeal and vainglorious smarm, all cut with a surprisingly moving splash of vulnerability in his final scene. Rodell Rosel's tremulous rabbit of a Little Bat provided an interesting take on the character, and while he may not need to work quite so hard interpretively as he thinks he does, he was tremendously musical and fresh of timbre. The most enjoyable of the principals was Jonathan Boyd. The tenor very aptly captured Sam Polk's essential kindness of heart, whatever the man's human failings, and delivered his music in a tone that seemed a good half-size larger than when I last encountered this singer, as Don Ottavio in Nashville's 2008 Don Giovanni.
Jesse Enderle and Katherine Pracht, as Elder and Mrs. McLean, led a committed if decidedly youthful cadre of religious hypocrites. Tenor Matthew Richardson's Gleaton pealed above the crowd appealingly. The chorus did a lovely job with "Come, Sinner."
The settings by Erhard Rom, here on loan from Virginia Opera, nicely captured the rustic simplicity of the story with their olive and sepia-toned corrugated cutouts of the church and surrounding mountain terrain. Noele Stollmack's lighting was predictably atmospheric. William Florescu's direction was generally straightforward and thoughtfully considered. The group scenes wanted some fine tuning; in the crucial square-dance interlude, as the biddies commented on Susannah's allegedly flagrant presence, it was impossible to distinguish her from the rest of the crowd, and when she (now the most notorious person in the valley) walked into the church in Act II, nobody took the slightest notice of her. The Susannah–Sam interactions were very touchingly handled.
Conductor Joseph Mechavich knows his way around this music, and he proved it with an orchestral performance that was a satisfaction in itself. The very exposed brass writing in Floyd's score admittedly posed its challenges, and it must be said that the stage–pit balance unfairly favored the instrumentalists, but the ensembles were thrilling. In the final sum of its considerable parts, Florentine's Susannah made for a "pretty night" indeed.
MARK THOMAS KETTERSON