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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Little Latté Da presents a powerhouse opera, Susannah

Also see Ed's review of The Swan

Susannah
Meghann Schmidt and Bryan Boyce
Last year, Theater Latté Da earned rave reviews for its Parisian café-styled version of Puccini's La Boheme. And, heck, they've done it again with American Carlyle Floyd's 1955 opera, Susannah. In a strong production, soaring voices and good acting rise to inhabit a riveting story of hypocrisy and self-righteousness in a remote Appalachian valley in Bible Belt Tennessee.

Beautiful Susannah is 19, dirt-poor and she has been raised by her kind but alcoholic older brother since their parents died. Her innocent gaiety rouses fear and jealousy in the moralistic breast of Sister McLean, who sees how the married Elders respond to her. Sister McLean brands Susannah "evil" and warns the visiting revivalist preacher that Satan inhabits the young woman. When the Elders go looking for a suitable baptismal pool along a mountain creek, they stumble upon Susannah bathing, carefree and naked. They take a long, slow look, then blame her for her wickedness. The whole community ostracizes her, and the preacher pressures her to confess and renounce her evil ways. Susannah will not confess for what she has not done. When Olin Blitch, the preacher, follows Susannah home to persuade her to repent, the opera spirals into tragedy.

Leading the 13-member cast, Meghann Schmidt sings Susannah in a warm, full-throated soprano that lofts effortlessly above the musicians, just off-stage. Youthful and beautiful Schmidt lives Susannah's joys and griefs. Equally strong is bass Bryan Boyce as preacher Olin Blitch; in his powerful voice, he calls upon the Lord with absolute conviction. Tenor Roy Heilman sings likeable Sam, Susannah's brother, and finds the sweetness in this good but weak man.

Susannah's only friend is simple Little Bat, the McLeans' son of about the same age. James Plante plays anxious Little Bat who, under overwhelming pressure, betrays his friend. His stern, moralistic parents, Sister and Brother McLean, are sung and well-acted by soprano Imani Anderson and baritone Paul Hindemith. Amanda Broge, Julie-Marie Sundal, and Kristie Tigges sing the perpetually pregnant women of the community, and Peter Vitale, Don Moyer and Jim Ahrens their self-righteous husbands. Young Francesca Dawis and Kate Howell ably play two little girls.

Director Peter Rothstein and music director Joseph Schlefke, who also conducts and plays the piano, worked to scale down Floyd's orchestration to just six instruments, without shedding a note of the original score - violin (Mary Sorlie,) oboe (Wes Huisinga,) bass (Jennifer Rubin,) guitar and banjo (Mark Kreitzer.) The banjo and guitar, in particular, give the music country flair.

Floyd's score is in the modern idiom, expressive but not necessarily tuneful, except for the charming folk song, "Jay Bird," and Susannah's poetic song of longing, "Come Back Lover." His lyrics are in English, but Aaron Gabriel's projected surtitles are necessary to interpret the mercurial delivery that Floyd's music demands and that makes hearing the words difficult.

The music works in tandem with Marcus Dilliard's lovely lighting to map the emotional topography of the opera, darkening in mood as the story moves towards its denouement.

John Clark Donahue designed a deep, naturalistic set of rocky ledges, a shabby porch and groups of trees and grasses that are moved for scene changes. His back-drop features distant, snow-brushed mountains and a huge sky of misty clouds that almost seem to change, like real clouds, under the painterly wash of Dilliard's lighting. Costumes by Kathy Kohl are old-fashioned rural wear with a Puritanical touch.

The Loring Playhouse's stage is small and, during the exuberant dancing scene choreographed by Matthew Janczewski, movement front-stage became visibly cramped around a long plank of wood.

Floyd based Susannah on the Biblical story of "Susannah and the Elders," in which powerful men use a woman's beauty to accuse her falsely. The opera was Floyd's response to the hypocrisy of McCarthyism, and Latté Da's moving production resonates today.

Susannah Theater Latté Da, February 3 March 4, 2007. Theater Latté, The Loring Playhouse, 1633, Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis. 651-209-6689. www.latteda.org.


Photo: Rick Spaulding


- Elizabeth Weir



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