University of Colorado Opera’s “Susannah”

Can you name the two most-performed American operas? What if I give you the hint that Porgy & Bess is number one? In second place, but much less-known, is Susannah, by Carlisle Floyd. Last week, the University of Colorado produced a solid performance of Susannah, as part of CU Opera’s all-American schedule this season.

Susannah is based on a story from the Bible’s Book of Daniel. Two elders falsely accuse a pair of young people, Susanna and Joakim, of premarital sex, and the pair are sentenced to death. But Daniel saves the day, by separately cross-examining the two alleged witnesses about where they claim the assignation took place. One says “Under a mastic tree,” and the other says “Under an evergreen oak.” Perjury proven, the two elders are executed, while Susanna and Joakim are freed.

The Susanna story is part of the Apocryphal, or Deuterocanonical (second canon), books that were written in the intertestmental period, between the close of the Old Testament and the first books of the New Testament. Jews and Protestants do not consider these books canonical, but Susanna (which is appended to the canonical Book of Daniel as chapter 13), is included in the Catholic, Greek, and Slavonic Bibles.

Carlisle Floyd transplants the story to a small town in a rural Tennessee valley. At a town dance, Susannah’s high spirits annoy the wives of the church elders. With a new preacher arriving in town, the church elders head down to the river to find a good spot for baptisms, and find Susannah bathing naked. Scandalized, they coerce her slightly retarded male friend, Little Bat, into “admitting” that Susannah seduced him. Things do no turn out nearly so well for the operatic Susannah as they did for the biblical Susanna.

The lyrics are in the idiom of the early-mid 20th century rural South: “I danced and danced ‘till I was plumb wore out.” Vocally, Susannah is a difficult opera. The cast of college students met the challenge, although one could see that it wasn’t easy. Emily Martin as Susannah sparkled, taking the audience on a journey from naïve happiness to exhausted despair to nihilistic revenge.

As Susannah’s good-hearted but irresponsibly drunken brother Sam, John Robert Lindsey and his powerful voice were never overwhelmed by the gorgeous music from the orchestra—a problem sometimes not surmounted by other singers. Lindsey also has the most impressively sculpted biceps that one may ever see on an opera stage, which almost forces one to construct a back story of Sam doing pushups all day when he’s not out hunting or drinking.

Susannah’s male friend Little Bat (James Baumgardner) matched his voice to his demeanor, believably remaining loyal to Susannah even after his false accusation. Wei Wu, as minister Olin Blitch, did not fully embody the emotional energy of revival preaching, but his later scenes at Susannah’s cabin—where he seduces her and then repents—were poignant.

Fortunately, CU Opera chose to perform Susannah in the period and costumes for which it was written, rather than following the trend of some companies to get their costume ideas from Lady Gaga and their set design from Tron. Peter Dean Beck’s set and lighting supplemented the performances without being intrusive; the twinkling stars and Sam’s cabin were especially good. 

Susannah is entirely negative in its portrayal of the townfolk, and in that sense, unrealistic. But dystopian visions of American small towns are a tradition among American artists, as in Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 collection of short stories, Winesburg, Ohio.

Written in 1954, Susannah evokes its period’s fear of McCarthyism and false charges, as both Stage Director Leigh Holman and Music Director Nicholas Carthy wrote in the program notes.

Joe McCarthy and his reckless, unsubstantiated charges certainly gave anti-Communism a bad name in the history books. Which is too bad, because there really were American Communists working to turn the United States into a Soviet-style tyranny. Among them was Dalton Trumbo, who attended the University of Colorado for two years before becoming a Hollywood screenwriter, and writing novels and screenplays that always followed Joe Stalin’s political line (anti-war until Hitler attacked Stalin, then militantly pro-war).

As a Communist Party member, Trumbo was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and eventually spent 11 months in jail. Bizarrely, CU’s School of Journalism built a “Dalton Trumbo Free Speech Fountain,” at CU, dedicated to a man who devoted his life to a cause which would eliminate freedom of speech and the press.

False accusations though, are as old as the Bible, and as modern as the selectively edited video of Shirley Sherrod. So kudos to CU Opera for a fine presentation of a great American opera on a timeless theme.