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Susannah
St. Petersburg Opera Company

Also see Bill's review of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Now in its 8th season, the intrepid St. Petersburg Opera Company under the Artistic Directorship of Mark Sforzini is presenting Carlisle Floyd's Susannah. This company has made a name for itself with mix of musical theater pieces, American opera and operas from the standard repertoire. This season includes Romeo and Juliette, Norma and West Side Story alongside the current offering. This piece was premiered at Florida State University in 1956 where Mr. Floyd was on the faculty and has become one of the most regularly performed American operas. It was considered for a Broadway production, but was never to be. Mr. Floyd writing his own libretto has transposed the tale of Susannah and the elders to rural Appalachia.

Despite its setting, the piece makes full operatic demands on all three of its leads. Susannah has two arias, "Ain't it a Pretty Night" in act one and "The Trees on the Mountain Are Old and Bare" which require a voice with a solid top capable of singing over a thick orchestra as well as piano. The role of Reverend Olin Blitch is similarly demanding. Susan Hellman as Susannah delivers the goods; she is fearless at the top of her range and delivers the quiet ending of the second act aria beautifully. Todd William Donovan sings strongly as Olin Blitch the traveling preacher. According to his biography he has a degree in Biblical Studies from Dallas Theological Seminary as well as multiple degrees in Music and Vocal Performance, an interesting confluence for this part. He dominates the stage as the charismatic preacher, reaching his apex in the act two revival scene, calling Susannah up in front of the community to save her soul. Anthony Wright Webb as Susannah's brother Sam does a fine job, acting and singing a part that pales in comparison to the other two leads. Scott Wichael sings strongly in the second tenor part, Little Bat. There are eight other supporting roles: a quartet of male elders and their wives, which act as kind of a Greek chorus. These are tricky parts and all are well taken. The St. Petersburg Opera Chorus and Children's Chorus all made important contributions.

Director Michael Unger gets strong acting from everyone on the stage. Both Ms. Hellman and Mr. Donovan deliver acting performances almost as strong as their vocal. The St. Petersburg Opera Orchestra, excellent under Maestro Sforzini, is set up at the rear of the stage, behind the outline of a church, which also is made to represent Susannah and Sam's home. The action takes place at the front of the stage, helping the voices a bit with balances. Considering that the singers and conductor cannot make direct eye contact, the coordination among everyone is remarkable. Choreographer Jennifer Paulson Lee, set designer Steven Mitchell, costume designer Patricia A. Hibbert, wig and makeup designer Nottingham Design, and lighting designer Keith Arsenault all contribute to make Susannah a memorable show.

Carlisle Floyd's Susannah is not an easy opera to do well. It has been performed at the Metropolitan Opera and many other Opera Companies commanding far greater resources than St. Petersburg Opera. The results are an outstanding achievement.

St. Petersburg Opera presents Susannah through February 4, 2014, at the Palladium Theater, 253 Fifth Ave. N., St. Petersburg, FL. For more information see www.stpeteopera.org.

--William S. Oser



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