Sunday, December 17, 2017
Stage

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

Comments
Tavis Smiley theatrical show canceled at Straz Center in wake of sexual misconduct allegations

Tavis Smiley theatrical show canceled at Straz Center in wake of sexual misconduct allegations

The theatrical tour about the death of Martin Luther King Jr. that Tavis Smiley was slated to bring to Tampa’s David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts has been canceled in the wake sexual misconduct allegations against the broadcaster.Death...
Published: 12/14/17
Updated: 12/15/17
The Phantom never dies, orchestra doings this week

The Phantom never dies, orchestra doings this week

PHANTOM REDUX: LOVE NEVER DIESTurns out, the Phantom survived that angry mob. We know that because the antihero of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1986 musical The Phantom of the Opera re-emerges in the 2010 sequel, Love Never Dies.It opens in 1907 New York, w...
Published: 12/13/17
Is Gilbert Gottfried really that annoying in real life?

Is Gilbert Gottfried really that annoying in real life?

A new documentary about comedian Gilbert Gottfried reveals someone more mild-mannered than his stage persona, married with children, verging on dull.His voice doesn’t grate, dropping half its nasal quality and all of its foul-mouthed bluster. Shy win...
Published: 12/11/17
Updated: 12/13/17
Sting rocks the house with old and new hits in Florida Orchestra gala

Sting rocks the house with old and new hits in Florida Orchestra gala

ST. PETERSBURG — In some ways, the Florida Orchestra’s gala with Sting looked like other concerts of a mega-star. Most of the fans who packed the Mahaffey Theater bought their tickets the day they went on sale. They cheered and sang along at the open...
Published: 12/10/17
What’s on stage this week: Florida Orchestra happy hour concerts are back, Book of Mormon lottery

What’s on stage this week: Florida Orchestra happy hour concerts are back, Book of Mormon lottery

BACK ON TAP: HAPPY HOUR CONCERTSWith an opening year on the books, it looks like Happy Hour Concerts are here to stay. The Florida Orchestra figured last year it was time to create a user-friendly atmosphere geared to 9-to-5 commuters who could use t...
Published: 12/06/17
Updated: 12/08/17
Live Oak Theatre Company presents Christmas show Dec. 15-16 in Brooksville

Live Oak Theatre Company presents Christmas show Dec. 15-16 in Brooksville

BROOKSVILLE — Singing Christmas carols, listening to stories while sitting in front of the fireplace, watching twinkling Christmas lights. For many, these are the feelings that trigger memories of Christmases past.Such memories will be reignited when...
Published: 12/05/17
Updated: 12/09/17
Musical take on miserly classic

Musical take on miserly classic

Photo courtesy of Jimmy FerraroThe new Millennium Theatre Company will present a musical production of What in the Dickens Happened To Scrooge? weekends, Dec. 9-17, at 10005 Ridge Road, New Port Richey. Show times are at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and...
Published: 12/05/17
Updated: 12/06/17
How to get $25 tickets to ‘Book of Mormon’ at the Straz Center

How to get $25 tickets to ‘Book of Mormon’ at the Straz Center

The Book of Mormon’s producers have made lower-priced tickets possible for a few lucky fans.To win a $25 ticket (that’s less than half of the starting price for seats), it’s safest to show up two and a half hours before curtain. One lottery entry per...
Published: 12/05/17
Orchestra delivers a stirring Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2

Orchestra delivers a stirring Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2

TAMPA — Sometimes it’s nice to just sit back and enjoy a concert. I mean really, you can work yourself to death trying to figure out every nuance, as a critic or music aficionado. I don’t think Sergei Rachmaninoff, who described music as nonverbal po...
Updated one month ago
Our music critics wonder, how will Sting mesh with the Florida Orchestra?

Our music critics wonder, how will Sting mesh with the Florida Orchestra?

I was working construction the year Roxanne peaked on the Billboard charts and was playing all the time. With some of the more monotonous jobs, such as grading slabs, the radio is an important part of getting through it. I wasn’t into the Polic...
Updated one month ago