Dallas — In the search for the Great American Opera, there are a few ways to look for contenders. There are the experimental ones, like Philip Glass’ Satyagraha. Then there are the descendants of Italian opera like Menotti’s The Consul, Barber’s Vanessa or Dominick Argento’s The Aspern Papers (so beautifully produced by The Dallas Opera a few years ago). You would also have to consider Broadway/opera fusions like most of Sondheim’s works. But for real American operas, you have to look elsewhere. There are the folk operas, like Kurt Weill’s Down in the Valley. But better contenders are works like Copland’s The Tender Land and Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, the subject of this review.
The Meadows School of Music at Southern Methodist University mounted a credible and involving production that was worthy of any small, regional opera company, which ran Feb. 5-8 and was viewed at the final performance.
Like most university opera productions, this one was double cast and it is unfortunate that there was only time to see one of them. However, the quality was so high that there is little doubt that the other cast was just as excellent.
Let’s briefly talk about those parts of the production that remained the same throughout the run.
The orchestra sounded like any professional opera pit band and was better than some of them. Paul Phillips, who teaches conducting at SMU, is a fine professional with major credits. He set excellent tempi, was on top of the text and kept a firm hand on both the orchestra and the stage without micromanaging.
Speaking of the stage, the direction by Hank Hammett, who was also the producer, always kept interest and concentrated on the relationships of the characters. His movements were focused and grew out of the text rather than moving around just for something to do. In contrast to this reserve, the choreography by Danny Buraczeski was exuberant and believable as dancing that regular folk might do. Too frequently, ordinary townspeople suddenly look like they studied at the Bolshoi Ballet.
Sara Brown’s set and Amanda Capshaw’s costumes captured the reality of small town America in the 1930’s. The set used sections, such as a porch and deconstructed house, set against a marvelously modest backdrop reminiscent of chalk drawings. Luther Frank’s lighting knit all these disparate elements together and set the ever-changing mood of the tragedy as it unfolded.
Briefly, Susannah is a local girl who becomes the target of shunning because she was seen bathing nude in a local stream. A local mentally challenged man is forced to say that she seduced him, which seals her reputation as a harlot. She catches the eye of the newly arrived revivalist minister. He comes to visit her to pray for her soul but, catching her at home alone, rapes her instead. In the process of this act of violence, he discovers that she is a virgin so all of the gossip about her is just that: gossip. She refuses to forgive him and her brother heads out to avenge her betrayal by shooting the minister. The townsfolk arrive to chase her out of town but, armed with a shotgun, she chases them off. However, her relationship with everyone in town is now severed and an isolated life stretches before her.
All of the roles were well cast and the singers were of a quality that, like the orchestra, could grace the stage of any regional company in the country. As Susannah, Auda Methvn was completely believable as the innocent Susannah. Rather than being a great beauty or cute and bouncy, Methyn’s Susannah is plain looking and wearing an ordinary housedress. What is irresistibly attractive in her portrayal is the inner strength combined with modesty that she radiates. These qualities are rare and they are always attractive to a despoiler.
The preacher, who is more of a sinner than any in his flock, was vividly portrayed by Langelihle Mngxati. Compact and wiry, his disintegration is terrible to watch. At first, he is natty and crisp in a buttoned up three piece suit. Later, reflecting his personal decent, his suit becomes rumpled, he loses the jacket and his shirttail is hanging out below the remaining vest. This is an unthinkable dishevelment to the man we met earlier.
Jordan Hammons brought a pathetic beaten-dog countenance to the part of Little Bat and Myles Pinder as Sam (Susannah’s brother) hid his insecurities under a layer of bravura.
As it appeared to this writer, Hammett’s overall concept for this production kept bringing the dramas of Tennessee Williams to mind. Williams’ women also spiral towards disaster by circumstances that are only partly their own fault, even though they may have inadvertently set them in motion. Like this incarnation of Susannah, they have an innocence-fed magnetism that draws them into a dangerously wrong sexual situation that, once started, is impossible for them to control.
Whether this speculation was the case or not, Hammett’s Susannah has a grip on the reality of what is gong on around her. She becomes increasingly frustrated at the disastrous turn of events and her inability to intervene. She is not confused, as she is more frequently played, but incredulous at how every event, no matter how innocent, is interpreted as something sordid and base.
This production was riveting. We were drawn in and involved in the story as it progressed. From there, in Phillip’s hands, Floyd’s fresh neo-romantic music took over and swept us along to the final moments and even beyond. The opera stuck with me all the way home.