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Review: St. Petersburg Opera gives fresh depth to 'Susannah'

Susan Hellman plays the title role in St. Petersburg Opera Company’s  Susannah.

Susan Hellman plays the title role in St. Petersburg Opera Company’s Susannah.

Carlisle Floyd's Susannah is the simplest and deepest sort of morality play, illuminating the difference between God's will and man's — and how some people will turn their own idea of God into a weapon to justify their prejudice.

The opera's story of hypocrisy and social shunning is as old — and as American — as Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter. It is also as fresh as a news story. A teenage girl's beauty evokes jealousy among her peers, who spread false accusations about her, finally driving the girl into depressed isolation, if not suicide.

It's a dramatic story with dramatic music. And the St. Petersburg Opera Company gave a compelling, if vocally uneven, performance at the Palladium Theater on Friday night. (There was a second performance Sunday afternoon and a third is scheduled Tuesday evening.)

Floyd, who wrote both the music and libretto for Susannah, took a bow with the performers at the close of the show. Now 87 and still writing, Floyd lives in Tallahassee, where Susannah had its premiere in 1956. Another link to that first performance, John Zilles, sang the part of the square dance caller and in the chorus. Zilles was a student at Florida State University in 1956 and was part of Susannah's original cast.

The two leads were both St. Petersburg-based singers with international credentials. Of the two, Todd William Donovan, gave the stronger performance as the visiting evangelist, the Rev. Olin Blitch. Donovan's Blitch is a swaggering rooster, his baritone voice full of confidence. Women of the small mountain community look up to him; their husbands defer to him. But Donovan also gives fuller dimension to the character when he softly seduces the innocent Susannah, and when he cries out in genuine anguish after he realizes he has just deflowered a virgin. And yet, Blitch cannot admit his own failing when he tries to absolve Susannah of the town's wanton impression of her. "How do you know she's innocent, preacher?" asks one of the elders. The preacher cannot say.

Blitch could be a cardboard villain. Floyd's writing and Donovan's performance make him something more.

Susan Hellman, in the title role, has a rich, dramatic soprano voice. In the beginning, as she portrays the innocent young woman, marveling at the starry skies and kindly treating an adolescent admirer, the voice seems too powerful for the part. But she needs it later, when she must convey the anguish of being falsely accused, then being abused by the preacher and finally forced to accept her abandonment and isolation. In these latter moments, Hellman is chillingly effective.

Among the supporting cast, Melissa Misener, as the leading elder's wife, and Anthony Webb, as Susannah's older brother, stand out. Misener, with her crossed arms and sneering judgments, is the epitome of sanctimonious intolerance. Webb provides the opera's moral balance in his aria about the mean things people do in God's name: "It must make the good Lord sad."

To a contemporary audience, especially the sort of people who attend operas, the message of Susannah may seem too obvious. It's good to remember that when the opera premiered, misogyny in religion was much more prevalent, and the whole country was caught up in one prejudice after another. Imagine how the bracing tragedy of Susannah must have resonated then.

But the power of confusing our own judgments with God's remains a source of strife and injustice. Which keeps Susannah relevant in today's world as well.

Review: St. Petersburg Opera gives fresh depth to 'Susannah' 02/01/14 [Last modified: Sunday, February 2, 2014 9:09pm]

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