Review: Nashville Opera delivers a powerful and intimate Susannah

Much like the perennial argument over who wrote the “Great American Novel,” there is a parallel debate about the “Great American Opera.” Susannah, a serious contender for the latter crown, was the focus of a Nashville Opera production last week at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center.

Carlisle Floyd’s 1955 opera is set in rural East Tennessee, and it tells the story of a young woman shunned by her community when false accusations of promiscuity are foisted upon her.  The music in Susannah is redolent of the ballads, dances, and hymns of Appalachian folk music, and the singers, who perform in a Southern dialect, deliver arias worthy of Puccini with a twang.

Directed by Nashville Opera veteran John Hoomes, the production was delightfully simple.  The set pieces resembled huge imposing children’s toys, perfect for a microcosm tucked into a valley.  Just a few elements were enough to realize Susannah’s world: a bench, a porch, a church, mountain ridges, and flickering points of starlight.

Soprano Chelsea Basler was perfect for the title role.  Her mellow voice rang with rawness and clarity in her two major arias “Ain’t it a pretty night?” and “The trees on the mountains,” which were profoundly moving. Often there is a disconnect between character and singer when vocalists at the height of their powers sing young roles.  Basler, however, portrayed the 18-year old Susannah with youthful lightness and awkwardness, exaggerated by her transformation into a hardened, shotgun-toting adult.

Gustav Andreassen was the charismatic, fear-peddling preacher Olin Blitch. His bass-baritone voice alternately boomed and purred as Blitch sermonized and seduced.  Andreassen’s thickly caked makeup gave him a plastic visage, rounding out the preacher’s shiny appeal and skin-deep morals.

The supporting characters were just as strong as the leads, each on their own tragic orbital path around Susannah.  Tenor Jason Ferrante played her friend Little Bat with appropriate spluttering and childishness.  Ferrante’s big moment came at the end of Act I, when his character confesses to Susannah that he was forced to lie and say she seduced him.  The opera’s allegory to McCarthy-era paranoia becomes clear as life-long allies are turned against one another.

Just a few scenes later tenor Aaron Short, as Susannah’s kind but world-weary brother Sam, gave a particularly heartbreaking utterance.  Embracing Susannah, he sings about man’s tendency towards senseless persecution, and how “It must make the good Lord sad.”

Conductor Dean Williamson drew a warm and lush sound from the Nashville Opera Orchestra.  The orchestra and vocalists did fall out of sync occasionally during ensemble scenes, and there were moments when the instruments overpowered the voices.

But this was of little matter.  Susannah is a gift, and the superlative cast and production made it as affecting and relevant now as ever.  The opera turns the soil of religion, truth, and lust.  Moments before the story’s most grievous wrong is committed, Susannah hauntingly cries “Don’t believe it! Don’t believe it! /But it’s the truth!”

PHOTO: Michelle Mattox

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About Lila Meretzky

Lila Meretzky is a composer from New York City, currently in her sophomore year at Vanderbilt University's Blair School of Music. She also studies German, and is president of the Blair Composers Forum. Her other musical pursuits include conducting, singing, and playing piano and oboe. Lila is a voracious reader, and once had to dump out an entire backpack full of books while going through security at LaGuardia Airport.

Comments

  1. Loved the review and the opera!