Susannah: Woods (l) attracts attention in Susannah.
Cry For Me, Tennessee
George Opera Festival, Spa Little Theater, July 9
It would have been easy, when I lived in an urban area, to
dismiss Carlisle Floyd’s premise for his opera Susannah
as being trite and out of date—but over a decade of rural
living has proven to me that the judgments, the Manichean
dance of good versus evil, the church-based politicking are
very much a part of the fabric of American farm life.
My wife and I painted both of our surnames on our mailbox
when we moved here, but not until I thoughtfully posted a
photocopy of our marriage license on the bulletin board of
the local church did the sour tongues stop wagging.
written in 1955, takes the Apocryphal story of Susanna and
the Elders as its inspiration, but it’s reset in rural Tennessee
and has a distinct flavor of the McCarthy-era witch hunts
It starts innocently enough, at a dance introduced by a melodic
figure that begins like the Preludio from Bach’s Violin Partita
No. 3 and ends with a square-dance lick. But a dark note is
sounded with the arrival of itinerant preacher Olin Blitch,
who discovers that the attractive Susannah is viewed with
suspicion and scorn by some of the village women.
While searching for a baptismal creek, a group of village
elders sees the young woman bathing, naked, and decides to
shun her until she’s “saved.” A simple, musically powerful
scene gives us her discovery of this attitude at a church
picnic, and that’s the kind of scene that makes this opera
such a good one and made this production so successful.
Soprano Sheryl Woods was a powerhouse in the title role, informing
her character with sincere simplicity while triumphing in
the vocal challenges. As the awful realization of the townspeople’s
attitudes became clearer to her, we saw a hardness develop;
by the end of the piece, she’s more than ready to take care
of herself against these fools.
A unit set took on a few props and pieces of stage furniture
to mark the transitions from scene to scene. Director John
Stephens moved the action smoothly, helping reveal key characterizations
in solo moments and bringing characters together effectively
for the ever-more-emotional interactions.
Bass-baritone Donald Sherrill was frightening as Blitch, his
hulking power skillfully realized, the climactic encounter
with Susannah all too credible (and headline-current). Sam,
Susannah’s brother, is well meaning but dulled by alcohol,
and tenor Richard Crawley played the appealing aspects and
correctly trusted that his character’s ineffectuality would
come through and justify his tragic act in Act II.
Susannah’s frustrated admirer, the over-excited Little Bat,
was nicely sung by tenor Joel Sor ensen; his hyperkinetic
excesses contribute to Susannah’s difficulties, and Sorensen
played him full throttle.
Cast and chorus alike were superb, and the orchestra, under
the able direction of Susan Davenny Wyner, supported them
splendidly, paying full measure to the beauty of Floyd’s music.
The opera was sung in its native English without the distraction
of supertitles, and, with minimal concentration, was easy
to understand. The lesson it teaches about tolerance remains
a little harder for many to grasp.
Really Killed ’Em
Opera, Cooperstown, July 13
Continuing their thematic season of exploring the operatic
world of bad dudes, Glimmerglass presents a new version of
the obscure Jacques Offenbach operetta Bluebeard. Offenbach
is probably best known for writing the “Can-Can” song currently
used to sell canned vegetables, as well as much of the music
used in the film Life Is Beautiful. He’s said to be
among those who created the operetta form, providing a link
between opera and musical comedy. He did this in Paris in
the mid-1800s when he decided the Parisian comic operas of
the day just weren’t funny enough. He decided to test the
And this new version is just about the funniest damn thing
I’ve ever seen.
The opera is a light-hearted romp through the lives of Bluebeard,
a not-so-great guy who had a habit of marrying women and then
having them killed, and King Bobeche, a little guy who would
periodically figure out what guys were screwing the Queen
and have them killed. Everything about this production looked
to modern popular culture—from clothes to movement to language—for
inspiration, and everything about this production was hysterical.
Like the very best comedies, Bluebeard stakes out a
unique manic world of energy, and then sustains it for two-and-a-half
I have tried to explain why Bluebeard is so brilliantly
funny a couple of times this week and have failed miserably.
This show uses game-show voices, a greasy mullet haircut (with
the obligatory bad mustache), glass-cutting Canarsie accents,
an Elvis impersonator (fat period, with fake karate moves),
a line of brides doing the wave, a cheesy cocktail lounge,
shiny Sopranos-style suits, six thought-to-be-dead
women stuffed into a padlocked refrigerator, some neon lights,
duct tape, a line of brides on chairs doing cheerleader routines
(with pom-poms), silly string, a chainsaw, and a bunch of
incredibly cheap plastic Halloween costumes. I hope I didn’t
spoil it for you.
The casting was profoundly perfect, and everyone on stage
was so deeply into his or her absurdity that there was not
a single false move (although King Bobeche’s repeated Groucho
references were probably not necessary). Tracey Welborns’s
Bluebeard was, wonderfully, a mild-looking bespectacled Bill
Gates type—in a dorky polo shirt and Dockers, he sang with
his hands in his pockets, occasionally pushing his glasses
up his nose. This understatement only added to his creepiness,
and when he sang (and he sang incredibly) his character became
whole. Peter Nathan Folz’s Prince Saphir was a useless suburban
white-boy mallrat, complete with goofy hiphop hand gestures;
Phyllis Pancella’s Boulotte was a wide-eyed dizzy broad, the
kind that snaps to only when the gravy train is about to tip;
and Kevine Burdette’s Popolani (with the mullet, the ’stache,
the cheap-o white sneakers) somehow stole every scene he was
in with his goofy William Macy loser persona and explosive
Jim Carrey physicality. Everybody had voice and used it—the
songs were, of course, very much of the period and overly
dramatic, meaning that there were a lot of sustained high
notes to thrill the folks in the cheap seats. And the singers
made the most of the opportunities to show off.
The incredibly dead-on and unrelenting modern social satire,
references and commentary were largely nonverbal—and their
success was due largely to the genius of choreographer and
Schenectady-native Helena Binder, whom some of you may know
as Blanche Blotto. This is one of those productions that would
rock the deaf.
The play is done under the auspices of the New York City Opera,
which may now bring it to New York. This play is so audacious,
so pitch-perfect, and so funny, they might consider passing
through Lincoln Center and going straight on to Broadway.
If you think you hate opera, if you think that opera is, as
Spike Jones said, “a fat guy in a clown suit, screamin’ like
we was deef,” you gotta see this. You will be converted.