Susannah, Hackney Empire, London

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The Independent Culture

It took 44 years for America's most performed opera to reach the New York Met, so what's another decade (or best part of) to make it to Hackney, Sheffield, Truro and all the other UK cities that English Touring Opera will introduce to Carlisle Floyd's Susannah?

It's a shrewd choice by ETO's general director James Conway. It's populist opera – plain speaking, with big gestures for big feelings. American verismo. Seconds into the prelude and you're swept along by a tune that Jerome Kern might have written. Susannah is one of a string of "Broadway operas" reflecting the pride of America's so-called "serious" composers in the country's musical theatre heritage. In a different climate, it might have been renamed "Susannah Get Your Gun".

The opera came out of the shameful McCarthy era, when its hectoring Southern gothic will have struck a chord with anyone who saw the Republican senator for what he was: corruption masquerading as self-righteousness. The opera's central character, the Reverend Olin Blitch, is just such a hypocrite. Loosely based on the apocryphal tale of Susannah and the Elders, Floyd's opera may not be subtle, but it's honest. Its language is that of back-to-basics Americana. It behaves like a Fifties B-movie, its narrative direct to the point of crassness.

Simply set against a puritan church interior, Conway's staging does what it says on the tin. They might have worked harder on the square dancing, but the tale is told clearly, with the Bible-bashing extending to domestic violence.

In the title role, Donna Bateman doesn't hold back. But the lack of an enticing top to the voice robs her smash-hit aria, "Ain't it a pretty night", of its radiance.

As Susannah's brother Sam, Todd Wilander was the genuine article, a thoroughbred American – and it showed; Sean Clayton made an enthusiastic juvenile of Little Bat McClean; and Andrew Slater's Olin Blitch was the stronger for being so reasonable.

Conway left us in no doubt that this closed community had turned the wholesome Susannah into the thing they had vilified her for being – a fallen woman.

Touring to 15 May ( www.englishtouringopera.org.uk)

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