A bit more than 50 years ago, the young, relatively unproven composer Carlisle Floyd drew upon his youth as the son of a minister in the American South to translate the apochryphal Bible tale of Susanna and the Elders into a 1950s rural setting. The opera, Floyd's third, was tremendously well received; initially staged in Talahassee, Florida in 1955, Susannah came to New York City Opera in September 1956. The work garnered a number of prestigious prizes and quickly earned a place in the standard repertoire, establishing Floyd among the most important and successful American opera composers -- as well as a founder of the American verismo school that lives on in recent works by William Bolcom and Tobias Picker.
Dicapo Opera, a gutsy little company that performs in a handsome 204-seat theater under a church on Manhattan's Upper East Side, revived its popular 1995 production this month to mark the work's 50th anniversary, and it was there that I caught the opera on Saturday night. (One last performance will be presented on Sunday afternoon at 4pm.) As Jim Oestreich noted just a little over 11 years ago in his enthusiastic New York Times review, Susannah is a work that can be performed powerfully using modest means, and the Dicapo performance was rather more than that. John Farrell's stark, angular set design was striking in its elegant economy. Despite a dry, unresonant acoustic, Steven Osgood's orchestra made much of Floyd's colorful, melodious and often mysterious score, delivering a beautifully paced and balanced performance.
In the title role, the vibrant soprano Laura Pedersen began the evening as the only sunny, smiling countenance in the opening church-sponsored dance, surrounded by uptight neighbors suspicious of her beauty and seemingly carefree ways. She moved lithely and acted with distinction, and boldly bared her backside for the scene in which the Elders catch her bathing in the creek; her voice rang out strongly and sweetly throughout the evening, hardening only slightly in climactic passages. Pedersen convincingly portrayed her character's initial innocence, pained disillusionment and eventual decline; her performance of the second act's "The trees on the mountain are cold and bare" was a show-stopper.
As Olin Blitch, the traveling preacher who offers salvation to the community but preys upon Susannah in her moment of weakness, Matthew Lau was a towering presence. His thundering voice conjured God's wrath, from which he offered salvation with a greasy smile, yet he brought genuine humility to Blitch's pained plea for divine forgiveness after his own night of trespass. Coke Morgan, as Susannah's hot-tempered, often-drunk older brother Sam, tempered a hard-edged swagger with tenderness toward his sister. Now and then, Morgan's passion preyed upon clear ennunciation, which posed some difficulty since Dicapo did not employ its surtitles. Robert Hoyt's portrayal of Little Bat as a hulking simpleton was reminiscent of another Floyd role in this singer's repertoire, Lennie in Of Mice and Men.
Among the secondary cast, the four Elders and their wives were portrayed with sanctimonious menace, and the chorus provided powerful climaxes. As the Times review noted, Michael Capasso's direction serves the story admirably; like Oestreich, I was especially impressed with the subtlety of Capasso's conception when the outcast Susannah comes to church in the second act.
After the performance, it was a pleasure to see the gregarious impresario greeting regulars in the lobby, often by first name. Founded by Capasso and Diane Martindale in 1981, Dicapo has performed a genuine service to New York operagoers for a quarter century now, presenting fresh talent in smartly conceived, well executed productions like this one. Recent productions have included Sergei Rachmaninoff's Francesca da Rimini and Robert Ward's Claudia Legare; in its 2003-04 season, the company offered an especially impressive undertaking, mounting all three versions of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. (Anne Midgette's New York Times article about that event is here.)
No surprise, then, that the company's 2006-07 brochure, circulated tonight, included not only crowd pleasers such as Lehár's The Merry Widow and Puccini's Manon Lescaut (as well as a connoisseur item in the latter composer's Le Villi) but also, in February 2007, the New York premiere of Tobias Picker's Thérèse Raquin in the composer's own recently completed reduction for chamber-opera forces.
Osvaldo Golijov - Ainadamar - Dawn Upshaw, Jessica Rivera, Kelley O'Connor, Jesús Montoya, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus / Robert Spano (Deutsche Grammophon)
Taking Back Sunday - Louder Now (Warner Bros.)
Balun - Something Comes Our Way (Brilliante)
Mono - Walking cloud and deep red sky, Flag fluttered and the sun shined (Temporary Residence)
Richard Wagner - Siegfried - Deborah Polaski, John Treleaven, Graham Clark, Falk Struckmann, Günter von Kannen, Eric Halfvarson, Symphony Orchestra of the Gran Theatre del Liceu / Bertrand de Billy (Opus Arte DVD)
Deidre Rodman/Steve Swallow - Twin Falls (Sunnyside)
Richard Wagner - Götterdämmerung - Gwyneth Jones, Jeannine Altmeyer, Manfred Jung, Franz Mazura, Hermann Becht, Fritz Hübner, Bayreuther Festspiele / Pierre Boulez (Deutsche Grammophon DVD)