Susannah in St. Petersburg

It’s an odd quirk of opera broadcasting that relatively few video recordings of operas get made in North America and those that do are almost all recorded at the Met.  This means that works that are standard rep on the west side of the pond but rarer in Europe may be very slow to get a video release, if they get one at all.  Now Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah is just such a work.  It’s the second most performed US opera after Porgy and Bess but has only just appeared on video for the first time.


So Susannah is, broadly, the Apocryphal story of Susannah and the Elders transported to a valley in the Tenessee hill country.  A beautiful, poor but virtuous young woman is subjected to hypocritical persecution by the “religious leaders” of the community, who all fancy her, and their jealous wives.  Although it was partly inspired by McCarthy persecutions around the time it was written it’s a timely description of blind prejudice and hate hiding behind the mask of religion.  It’s a tightly structured libretto that works really well supported by a colourful score that incorporates folk and hymn motifs without ever descending into pastiche.  It’s also written and sung in dialect.  Take it or leave it!  My views on the that subject don’t need repeating.


The DVD is a 2014 recording from St. Petersburg opera which is relatively obscure, even by regional company standards.  Indeed it’s an “only just professional” company with a chorus which is not fully professional.  The video itself was also something of a last minute effort with the decision to film being made the day before the Final Dress.  It was filmed with five cameras and two mikes at the back of the auditorium.  All of which is a long winded way of saying this is not as slick a production as one would get from the Met or Salzburg!


The production was filmed in the Palladium Theatre at St. Petersburg College which is a converted church and basically a concert hall with a small stage, no pit and no scenery handling capabilities.  Susannah was staged with the 35 piece orchestra at the back of the stage and a unit set consisting of a skeletal building with a few ladders.  Mark Unger’s production, as usually seems to be the way with smaller companies in the US, essentially follows the libretto instructions to the letter.  No Regie here!  It’s effective enough though the “crowd scenes” such as the opening square dance do feel like they have been shoe horned into the space.


Musically it’s a bit mixed.  The orchestra gives conductor Mark Sforzini a surprisingly full blooded sound for such a small band and really makes the most of Floyd’s really rather good instrumental writing.  Some of the soloists are really quite good.  Todd Donovan as the sleazy preacher Olin Blitch has a powerful and flexible instrument which he uses well.  Anthony Wright Webb as Sam is also very lyrical.  The Elders and their wives are a bit of a mixed bag.  The men generally come off better than the women who produce some rather acid singing.  Maybe this was intended?  Then there is Susan Hellman Spatafora in the crucial title role.  Her performance is something of a mixed bag.  She’s an excellent actress and she looks the part.  Her voice is fine in the lower and middle registers but it tends to become quite squally when she has to sing high and loud. It makes a set piece aria like The Trees on the Mountain are Cold and Bare a bit hard to listen to.  The chorus is enthusiastic but a bit ragged.  Overall I’d say musically it’s about the same standard as a UoT or GGS student production.


I’m not sure there was a video director in the conventional sense though I think the stage director Michael Unger was responsible for the final cut.  In the circumstances it’s not bad though some of the chorus scenes are rather oddly framed.  The picture quality itself is fine.  Given the constraints, the sound (Dolby 2.0?!?) is not bad.  The soloists come off best.  The choral scenes are a bit muddy.  It’s quite listenable but unsurprisingly nowhere near demonstration quality.  The only subtitle option is English.


Generously for a budget offering there are extras.  There’s a very good fifteen minute interview with the composer as well as a few minutes of back stage footage which rather conveys how hand to mouth some aspects of this show were.  The booklet contains a track listing, synopsis and useful essays on the work and the production.


Susannah is a work that fully deserves to be in the repertoire and to be available on video.  One might have preferred a starry cast in San Francisco or New York and fully professional production values.  We don’t have that and this Florida recording does surprisingly well at filling in the void.  So, with obvious reservations, worth a look.


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