FLOYD: Susannah

FLOYD: Susannah. Kent Nagano conducting; Cheryl Studer, soprano (Susannah Polk); Samuel Ramey, bassbaritone (Olin Blitch); Jerry Hadley, tenor (Sam Polk); Choeur et Orchestre de l’Opera de Lyon. VIRGIN 7243 5 45039 2 [DDD]; two discs: 41:24, 53:13. Produced by Martin Sauer.

This much-heralded new release prompts reflection on an odd and perplexing phenomenon of American musical life: the repertoire of recorded opera does not accurately represent what is performed by opera companies around the country. There are any number of American operas performed regularly around the country that do not appear on major recordings. One of the most striking examples is Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, here in its first commercial recording (although there were several pirate recordings during the LP era), billed as America’s most widely performed opera, with more than 700 performances during its forty years of existence (although I am quite sure that Menotti’s Amahl tops that figure by quite a margin). Now this important new set provides the opportunity for a somewhat different audience to discover the work, and for its many admirers to enjoy it with the benefit of what might be thought of as a “dream cast.”

Susannah was Carlisle Floyd’s first full-length opera, and was written in 1954, when he was twenty-eight. Although he has composed many fine operas since then, on equally intriguing subjects, none has ever achieved the success of his first (isn’t that just like opera?). Susannah is based on the Biblical story in which a young woman is unjustly accused of adultery by two of the town’s respected elders. Floyd, a product of the rural South himself, transplanted the story to then-modern-day Tennessee, where it could be naturally populated with such familiar American archetypes as vicious and gossipy sexually repressed hypocrites, led by a Bible-thumping preacher, the innocent, free-spirited victim, her unstable, overprotective brother, and a village simpleton. The paradigm is made more complicated by the fact that the preacher, Olin Blitch, is not the conventional personification of evil, but rather a man torn by the irreconcilable conflict between an antiseptically oppressive notion of pure righteousness and the longing for human contact in all its manifestations.

Floyd notes that the then-prevalent scourge of McCarthyist idiocy and villainy was an underlying theme when he conceived the opera. This is true of some other American operas as well — most obviously, Robert Ward’s The Crucible. But it is worth noting that the much-maligned but-in truth — richly rewarding repertoire of American opera is permeated by many of the themes, character types, and settings found in Susannah.Copland’s The Tender Land, Douglas Moore’s Ballad of Baby Doe, Hanson’s Merry Mount, and Giannini’s The Scarlet Letter are just a few more examples to prompt reflection and exploration.

Floyd wrote his libretto in heavy rural dialect, and I must say that the casual ellipses and elisions of such speech, enunciated with the studied precision characteristic of trained singers, can sound a little ridiculous until one becomes accustomed to it. But the plot is straightforward and tightly structured, unfolding at an ideal pace, the emotional focus is intense, and the characters are vividly and clearly drawn.

The music is tuneful and ingratiating, a smoothly integrated fusion of simple American folklike modality and intense Puccinian emotional volatility, all of which is clearly proclaimed by the gripping overture. Although some of the more vernacular moments — the square-dance music and the hymn-tune music in the first scene, for example, and the “Jaybird” song in the following scene — are a bit of a tum-off for me, the proportion of truly compelling material is very high. Susannah’s gorgeous aria, “Ain’t it a pretty night?” (act II, scene 2) is a well-known showstopper; Little Bat’s confession, followed by Sam’s “It’s about the way people is made,” build magnificently toward act I’s heartbreaking conclusion; Blitch’s incredibly intense exhortatory sermon (act 11, scene 2), followed by his visit to Susannah and seduction (act II, scene 3} — all are unforgettable moments that accumulate musical and dramatic momentum and carry the listener along in the manner of opera at its best. Also as in the most popular operas, the integration of elements is simple yet clever:the interrelationship of musical motifs, metrical schemes, and language is neat, streamlined, and clear with even a little familiarity, making the work’s enduring success easy to understand.

Composer Floyd supervised this recording and termed it “definitive,” and it certainly is fine in many ways — most, in fact. The sound quality is great, the pacing is fine, the choral singing and orchestral playing are excellent. Jerry Hadley is wonderful as Sam, as is Samuel Ramey as Blitch. I’m afraid that I do have some reservations about Cheryl Studer, though. On the positive side, her voice has a rich vibrancy that is very satisfying as it expands to fulfill her grandest moments, while her characterization of the more poignant passages is deeply touching as well. But it is consistently difficult to discern the words she is singing (a problem with several of the lesser characters as well) and, if I am not mistaken, she is noticeably flat in two crucial spots. (I checked this out with a couple of colleagues, and I must confess that the verdict was not unanimous.) I understand that Studer was not able to be present at the recording dates, and dubbed in her part at a later time. I wonder whether this fact might explain some of these minor deficiencies.

On the whole, this is a strongly recommended addition to the discography of American opera. Many enthusiastic fans of the standard operas will love Susannah, and I hope that it points the way toward further exploration of this still-much-neglected genre.