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FLOYD: Susannah

DVD Button Spatafora; Webb, Wichael, Donovan; St. Petersburg Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Sforzini. Production: Unger. Naxos 2.110381, 106 mins., subtitled

Cry for Me

The first home-video release of Carlisle Floyd’s seminal work is powerfully raw.

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Satan is real: Donovan and cast in Saint Petersburg
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Recordings Susannah CD Cover 917
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OH, SUSANNAH—you’re out on DVD! It’s not hard to see why Carlisle Floyd’s first opera, as we’re told three times in the liner notes, is the second most-performed American opera, after Porgy and Bess. It’s famous for its eminently tuneful, Americana-derived score, anchored by a regularly rhythmic libretto (Floyd’s own) that tells a clearly delineated, well-paced drama about good versus evil. Floyd’s brand of listener-friendly music was out of fashion when the piece had its premiere in 1955. Since then, unabashed tonality has cycled in and back out of favor a few times; now is an opportune moment for this DVD release—Susannah’s first—to remind us of the opera’s virtues, as well as its surprisingly relevant themes. As the title character sings, “I’m tired o’ livin’ in a world where the truth has to fight so hard to git itself believed.” You can say that again!

As Susannah, the innocent girl whom the village elders deem a sinner when they spy her bathing naked in a creek, Susan Hellman Spatafora at first overflows with unsullied youthful exuberance, unaware that her beauty inspires lust in the village’s men and jealousy in their wives. In “Ain’t It a Pretty Night,” the opera’s most popular number, her soprano has the perfect yearningly optimistic coloring—golden and radiant—intensifying Susannah’s imminent tragedy. Spatafora’s desperation at the end of Act I is heartrending; she truly cannot understand why anyone would say such terrible things about her. By the time she sings her Act II aria, amid the deterioration of Susannah’s life, Spatafora’s voice has grown raw with emotion and richer in overtones. Because she embodied such innate goodness at the beginning, it’s startling to see her in the final scene defiantly holding a rifle and laughing bitterly at the hypocrisy of the villagers who have come to confront her.

As Olin Blitch, the town’s newly arrived preacher, baritone Todd Donovan is frighteningly charismatic while conjuring the fiery torments of hell for his cowed, wide-eyed congregation. Some of the role lies below his comfort zone, but he powers through with conviction. Donovan is quietly ominous when he shows up at Susannah’s house (“That’s a mighty pretty song you’re singin’, Susannah”), then maximally creepy as he tries to seduce her. Once Blitch realizes that Susannah was a virgin until he got to her, Donovan transforms: his smarminess disappears, and he becomes earnest, almost winning our sympathy. 

As Sam, Susannah’s ultraprotective brother with a tendency toward drunkenness, tenor Anthony Wright Webb has an unmistakable sweetness in his tone as he consoles his sister—all the more touching juxtaposed with Webb’s formidable physical stature. Later, when he hears what Blitch has done to Susannah, he explodes with full-blooded tone, reaching a high B. Little Bat, seemingly devoted to Susannah but guilty of fabricating a sexual encounter with her, is sung by tenor Scott Wichael, who spouts his lines with intensity and crisp diction, plus a touch of wildness. He and Spatafora are very good in their fraught back-and-forth, and Wichael looks devastated at the end when Susannah pretends to seduce him and then cruelly mocks him.

For St. Petersburg Opera, a small company in Florida, Michael Unger directs with clarity and imagination. Conductor Mark Sforzini and the orchestra are well attuned to the sweeping lyricism, encroaching dissonances and confrontational drama in the score. This is a thoroughly satisfying, top-notch production.   —Joshua Rosenblum 

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