Susannah, Theatre Royal, Wexford Festival
Thursday 27 October 2005
Carlisle Floyd composed Susannah in 1955, just after the McCarthy era, and it moves in similar territory. Like The Crucible, it focuses on a witch-hunt: here, the community, stirred up by a tub-thumping preacher, sets out to act as judge and jury, pillorying a girl, Susannah Polk, who liberates herself from choking convention to indulge in a modest, chaste form of free expression.
Susannah quickly caught the public imagination, notching up some 800 performances to become one of the most popular American operas ever. Watching Wexford's taut new staging by John Fulljames, it's easy to see why. Floyd's libretto clings to his premise that plot should be "simple to the point of simplistic". Its 10 sequential scenes are crisply enacted, sketched in a folksy doggerel that is apt for its Tennessee mountain setting.
Floyd's music is tuneful, resourceful and admirably orchestrated, with a similar folk-like immediacy. Wexford's audience adored the directness of drama and music alike, perhaps heightened by a huge Stars and Stripes, hinting at modern-day, New Right parallels. I wasn't so convinced. Because Floyd weaves in entrancing, Coplandish folk melodies to serve as arias, opportunities for penetrating character are lost.
Little was added by Conor Murphy's plainish stepped set, or by the way the music was approached. Anna Burford and Glenn Alamilla produced nice vignettes as the censorious Mrs McLean and son. Frances McCafferty (Mrs Ott) was largely wasted. The four elders are more or less cardboard ciphers. The Evangelist, robustly sung by Stephen Kechulius, was strong on declamation but thin on motivation. Scarcely Arthur Miller standard.
Emily Pulley made a touching, innocent (if oldish) Susannah, especially in a beautiful blues-like aria. Lubomir Matl's Czech chorus sang handsomely in English. The best music came from the Irish tenor Simon O'Neill's splendidly sung Sam. Yet, except in one gorgeously handled woodland interlude in which cellos and brass shone, the conductor Christopher Larkin laid the music on with a trowel, with largely monochrome results. If naive big noise is what counts, that's what we mostly got.
Wexford Festival to 6 November (00 353 53 22144; www.wexfordopera.com)
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