Back to Metroland's Home Page!
 Columns & Opinions
   The Simple Life
   Myth America
 News & Features
   This Week's Review
   The Dining Guide
 Cinema & Video
   Weekly Reviews
   The Movie Schedule
   Listen Here
   Art Murmur
   Night & Day
   Event Listings
   View Classified Ads
   Place a Classified Ad
   Online Personals
   Place A Print Ad
 About Metroland
   Where We Are
   Who We Are
   What We Do
   Work For Us
   Place An Ad
Oh! Susannah: Woods (l) attracts attention in Susannah.

Don’t Cry For Me, Tennessee
By B.A. Nilsson

Lake 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been easy, when I lived in an urban area, to dismiss Carlisle Floyd’s premise for his opera Susannah as being trite and out of date—but over a decade of rural living has proven to me that the judgments, the Manichean dance of good versus evil, the church-based politicking are very much a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.

Susannah, 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 woven in.

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.

He Really Killed ’Em

Glimmerglass 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 boundaries.

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 hours.

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.

—Paul Rapp

Send A Letter to Our Editor
Back Home
Jazz Dogs
Copyright © 2002 Lou Communications, Inc., 4 Central Ave., Albany, NY 12210. All rights reserved.