Reviewed by Myron Meisel
Pasadena Opera at A Noise Within
It was curiously revealing to have encountered Carlisle Floyd’s opera Susannah the prior weekend, performed twice by a new outfit, The Pasadena Opera, at A Noise Within. Both Susannah and Candide premiered the same year (1956), to significantly different receptions. Susannah, reviewed by classical music critics, won their award for Best New Opera, while Candide was assessed by theater critics more by Broadway musical standards. Both operas can be readily interpreted as critiques of the prevailing anti-Communist hysteria, handmaidens to films like Johnny Guitar.
The less inspired if still talented Floyd was nevertheless onto something: attempting to make an innovative opera in American terms consistent with the established, accepted European models, he spoke to a receptive audience, and for years, this work was among the most performed of any indigenous U.S. opera. Drawing on similar folk wellsprings as Rodgers & Hammerstein, or the 1954 Jerome Moross-John LaTouche The Golden Apple, Floyd worked on the most conservative edges of modernist vocabulary.
Musically, despite a true gift for melody, Floyd and Susannah fell from fashion for lack of formal adventurousness, although he had later success with Cold Sassy Tree, and I am personally fond of his thematically ambitious Willie Stark (from Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men), which has rarely been performed, and never here.
Even so, this robustly sung Pasadena revival carries its share of surprise relevance in its frankly feminist argument that was a good decade or more ahead of its time, and in its pernicious depiction of religious intolerance driven by mob conformity and inbred hypocrisy.
Based, rather closely, on the biblical tale of Susannah and the Elders (a passage added to the Book of Daniel by Christian Greek compilers, and regarded by Jews as Apocrypha), the libretto tells of a backwoods innocent (Chelsea Basler, a compelling Boston soprano in her West Coast debut, assaying the part expertly for a third time), isolated from the sardonically named village of Hope Valley, Tennessee, who becomes easy prey for the suspicious minds of gossiping churchgoers in thrall to a charismatic itinerant preacher.
Falsely accused of being a sexual temptress and molested by the preacher in the guise of saving her soul, Susannah must ultimately learn to defend herself, shotgun in hand, from the ravages of the vengefully judgmental, resolutely un-Christian, righteous.
It’s in essence a simple opera, easily assimilable, luscious on the ears, with unchallenging themes, but it does have courage, and power, with deft arias that express the drama far more intensely and satisfyingly than the ancient plot. Basler excels in particular with the signpost song, “The Trees on the Mountain.”
Director Sara Widzer keeps the blocking simple and clear and allows the singers full rein to limn Floyd’s quite pretty vocal lines. She makes excellent use of the top-grade technical facilities of the new A Noise Within space, which happens to boast superlative acoustics for musical performance: it’s a better than viable opera house.
Pasadena Opera was formed last year by conductor (and former engineer) Dana Saldava, together with Dr. Indre Viskontas, soprano and neuroscientist (and cover for the lead). They hope to focus on operas with pertinent themes in a manner to encourage a broader audience to respond to the art form. Next year they plan to stage two works, likely of newer vintage and in English, and they certainly look to complement the local opera scene, which can most certainly support another company, particularly one that keeps up with the standard set by the university programs at USC and UCLA. Not coincidentally, their only prior offering was a sellout of Candide.
Susannah, Pasadena Opera at A Noise Within (closed).