opera with impassioned music and
subject matter not only engages its
audience but meets them where
they live now. So it was with
Carlisle Floyd's 1955 opera Susannah written in reaction to McCarthyism and as produced in the Barns at Wolf Trap Foundation for the Arts (Vienna, Virginia) by Wolf Trap Opera under the baton of Stephanie Rhodes Russell and direction of Dan Wallace Miller. This company premiere included three performances. The reviewer enjoyed the August 14, 2022, performance.
Floyd based his libretto on the Apocryphal tale Susannah and the Elders which can be found in the Catholic version of the Book of Daniel.
Set in rural Tennessee, Floyd's
story deals with church-going men
who malign an innocent girl to cover
their lust after they spy on her as
she bathes in a stream on property
owned by her brother and herself.
The men feel self-righteous because
they have been sent to find a creek
where the visiting preacher Olin
Blitch can baptize the town's
In Act I we meet Susannah Polk as sung by soprano Ann Toomey at a town
dance where all the men, including the visiting preacher, take turns dancing
with her (the prettiest girl in town), much to the disapproval of the married
women. Later she jokes with her friend Little Bat (bass Joseph Leppek) about
the Reverend Olin Blitch (Bass-baritone Christian Pursell), who stepped on her
The next evening, she is turned away from a church supper. For comfort, she
begs her older brother Sam Polk (tenor Robert Stahley), who has raised her
after their parents died, to sing the comic Jaybird Song like their father would
do for her at bedtime. Sam's willingness to sing it demonstrates his love for his
sister. In the duet "It's about the way people is made," Sam consoles Susannah
as she puzzles about the cold treatment she experiences from the town's elders.
Toomey and Stahley deliver Floyd's most poignant music of this opera with
moving tenderness. Later that evening, she gets a visit from Little Bat who tells
her that the town elders saw her naked as she bathed and now demand that she
repent for her sins. Little Bat, who is mentally challenged, also confesses that he
has been forced to say that Susannah had seduced him. Outraged, she orders
Little Bat to leave.
As Act II opens, Susannah begs Sam not to leave her alone. He says he must go
and attend to his traps, and she asks him to return swiftly and not to drink. He
urges her to go to town to the preacher's meeting and stand up for herself.
Pursell as Blitch gives an energetic sermon where many come forward to
confess and he especially urges Susannah to confess her sins. With effort, she
pushes him away and returns home. However, Blitch follows her and when he
can't persuade her to bend to his spiritual will, he declares he is a lonely man.
He forces himself on her and she gives in, too exhausted to fight him off. He is
surprised to learn she is a virgin and innocent as she had claimed. He tells the
townspeople she is innocent of sin, but they refuse to hear it.
The next day while Blitch is baptizing the confessed sinners, Sam returns and
learns what happened to Susannah. He asks her why she let him molest her.
She answers she is "tired o' livin'/ In a world where the truth has to fight/ So
hard to git itself believed," Sam grabs his shotgun and runs to the creek where
he shoots Blitch dead. Little Bat appears to tell Susannah to run. The angry
townspeople descend on Susannah looking for Sam, but she greets them with
her rifle, and they leave. Then she mockingly invites Little Bat to make love to
her but sends him on his way with a slap.
The music for Act II ratcheted up many levels in sound and intensity. The cast
ably performed at this emotionally charged pitch, with standout performances
by Toomey, Stahley, and Purcell.
The 38-piece orchestra of strings, woodwinds, horns, percussion, and harp was
hidden from view on stage behind the stationary set. Built of dark wood, the set
had a variety of doors and windows. It worked for most of the scenes except
when the elders discover Susannah bathing nude, and they peer into a door as if
they are seeing the creek inside the Polk house.
Floyd's Susannah presents as a cautionary tale in today's troubled and troubling
times where lies, hypocrisy, and misogyny dominate our headlines and threaten
the American dream for equality, justice, and the pursuit of happiness.