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DVO presents “Susannah” by Carlisle Floyd
Saturday, August 31, 2024, 07:00pm
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“Susannah” by Carlisle Floyd

Tickets $35 Buy Now on My River Tickets

Susannah is an opera in two acts by the American composer Carlisle Floyd, who wrote the libretto and music while a member of the piano faculty at Florida State University. Floyd adapted the story from the Apocryphal tale of Susannah and the Elders, though the latter story has a more positive ending. The story focuses on 18-year-old Susannah Polk, an innocent girl who is targeted as a sinner in the small mountain town of New Hope Valley, in the Southern American state of Tennessee.

Susannah – a pretty and well-mannered young woman of humble origins – is faced with hostility from her church community. The opera opens at a square dance given by her church; a group of wives, jealous of Susannah’s beauty and the attention it brings from their husbands, are gossiping about her. Mrs. McLean, one of the wives, states that you can’t expect more from someone who was raised by her drunken brother, Sam. Finally, the Reverend Olin Blitch, newly arrived to lead the congregation, enters and asks Susannah to dance despite the gossip. Later that evening, Susannah tells her admirer Little Bat – son of Mrs. McLean and her husband, an elder of the church – about the dance; Little Bat leaves abruptly once her brother Sam returns from hunting.

The next morning Susannah is innocently bathing naked in the creek near her home; she is discovered by the elders, who are searching for a baptismal stream. They conceal their lust with outrage and tell the community of her wickedness. Susannah arrives at a church dinner that evening and is sent away, much to her confusion. Later, as she is pondering why she has been shunned, Little Bat tells her that the elders have denounced her for bathing in the nude, and admits that he was coerced into saying she seduced him.

The opera was awarded the New York Music Critics Circle Award for Best New Opera in 1956 and was chosen to represent American music and culture at the World’s Fair at Brussels in 1958, with a production (by Frank Corsaro) that featured Phyllis Curtin and Norman Treigle. It received its Metropolitan Opera premiere in 1999, with Renée Fleming singing the title role, Jerry Hadley singing Sam and Samuel Ramey singing Blitch. Ramey also recorded the complete opera with Cheryl Studer as Susannah and Jerry Hadley as Sam. Other well-known sopranos who have portrayed the heroine have included Lee Venora, Joy Clements, Faith Esham, Maralin Niska, Nancy Shade, Diana Soviero, Karan Armstrong, Kelly Kaduce and Phyllis Treigle (opposite Michael Devlin as Blitch). Susannah is one of the most performed American operas, second to Porgy and Bess, and celebrated its 50th anniversary with a performance on the very stage where it premiered February 24, 1955, in Ruby Diamond Auditorium at Florida State University. At the first performance, Carlisle Floyd was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Florida State.

The music is largely characterized by Appalachian folk melodies. Also included are some Protestant hymns and some traditional classical music. A particularly prominent part of the opera is Susannah’s soaring and melancholy aria in Act II, “The Trees on the Mountain”, which is similar to Appalachian folk tunes but in fact Floyd’s own composition. In 2019, Rhiannon Giddens released a vernacular version of “Trees on the Mountains” on her album, There Is No Other.

Courtesy of Wikipedia