The popularity of Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah rests in part on its conservative musical style: part Puccini, part Copland, and part Baptist hymn. But the continuing resonance of its major theme–the condemnation of the rush to judgment, urgent when Floyd wrote the libretto during the McCarthy era–is another important factor, as is the fervor with which American sopranos have championed the work. (Lyric Opera’s 1993 local premiere featured a young Renee Fleming.) Floyd, the son of a Methodist minister, transplanted the biblical tale of Susannah and the Elders to a rural Tennessee valley. Susannah, the subject of other women’s gossip, is spied bathing nude and publicly censured. The town’s new preacher, the Reverend Olin Blitch, offers to pray for her but ends up sleeping with her; when her brother finds out, he vows to avenge her honor. The opera has its share of melodramatic flourishes and southern cliches, but the tender confessions of Susannah and Blitch (particularly her aria “The Trees on the Mountains” and his “I’m a Lonely Man, Susannah”) are psychologically nuanced. The hymn-spiked music evokes a picturesque and devout, but flawed, America. For the Lyric’s revival of the strikingly austere Robert Falls production, bass Samuel Ramey reprises the role of Blitch. He should be effective again in conveying the preacher’s conflicted emotions if he can resist the temptation to coast, as is his wont lately. The Susannah this round is up-and-comer Sondra Radvanovsky, and the conductor is Julius Rudel, who first conducted Susannah in 1957. The production runs through October 29. Monday, September 30, and Friday, October 4, 7:30 PM, and Sunday, October 6, 2 PM, Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker; 312-332-2244.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Don Hunstein.