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Although it is relatively unknown and unperformed in the UK, Carlisle Floyd's "Susannah" is actually the second most commonly performed English opera in the US, losing out only to Porgy and Bess. Set in the mountains of Tennessee in the 1950's, it tells the story of Susannah Polk, a young girl brought up by her drunken brother after both parents died, and her clash with the strongly Christian community. When Olin Blitch, a travelling preacher comes to town, suspicions are high amongst the villagers as they try to root out sinners for confession, and Susannah finds herself suddenly wrongly accused of sinning by the entire community. Her refusal to confess for something she is innocent of brings about a shocking, dramatic and tragic series of events. The story is based very loosely on the Bible story of Susannah and the Elders, but like most American witchhunt stories, is thought to be a nod to McCarthyism.
There are only two available recordings of the full opera so anyone looking to purchase the full length version is not exactly spoilt for choice. The first recording features Phyllis Curtin, the original Susannah, but is a live recording and the sound quality is truly terrible. The second is the l'Opera National de Lyon recording, conducted by Kent Nagano, which has Cheryl Studer in the title role, renowned bass Sam Ramey as Olin Blitch, and Jerry Hadley as Susannah's brother Sam, and is a studio recording, so much better quality. Apparently this recording was originally supposed to feature Renee Fleming in the title role, but scheduling conflicts meant that this couldn't happen. Apparently there is an impossible to get hold of bootleg recording from when she sang the complete role, but for available and legally legitimate recordings we have to be content with her absolutely gorgeous recordings of Susannah's two arias on her "I want Magic" CD. So if you're looking for the complete opera then this is really the only recording to go for.
The music itself is wonderful - Floyd uses simple folk-like melodies alongside Protestant hymns and under Nagano's baton, the music ensures that the tight plot is propelled forward at an astounding pace - the opera seems to literally unfold before your ears in an unstoppable fashion. Unlike many twentieth century operas, the music is incredibly tuneful and really accessible to the listener.
As Susannah, Cheryl Studer perhaps lacks some of the girlishness that could be brought to the role, but her big voice is capable of bringing out the drama at every opportunity and means that as the drama builds towards the end of the opera she doesn't become overpowered by the orchestra as so many lighter voices would in this role. Her two arias are beautifully sung: 'Ain't it a Pretty Night' is such a wonderfully shimmering and beautiful piece of music, revealing Susannah's loyalty and love for the place where she's grown up, as well as her intense desire to know what lies beyond the mountains and to learn how others live. It builds to such a wonderful climax and is utterly exhilarating to listen to. 'The Trees on the Mountain' is a poignantly sad Appalachian style folk song which comes later in the opera, providing a welcome break from the drama around it. My disappointment with Studer is that there are numerous occasions on this recording where she sings flat which is a real disappointment for me.
Sam Ramey is fantastic as Olin Blitch - charismatic and vocally compelling with an intense richness and focus to his sound, a very 3-dimensional, human character, making you really wish you could see him on stage - and Jerry Hadley sounds wonderful as Sam. The minor characters and chorus are all well sung and nicely self-righteous, turning fantastically in the revivial scene from pious Christians to angry mob.
My only real criticism with this recording is that the accent seems overdone and at times interferes with the beauty of the music. Apparently, as Jerry Hadley sang the role more and more, his accent became more and more overdone to the point of being comical - this recording doesn't get anywhere close to that, but some of the Southern dipthongs do produce some rather ugly sounds at times.
All things considered, this is a wonderful recording and well worth investing in, although if you're a potential Susannah looking just for recordings of Susannah's arias, I'd probably recommend Renee Fleming's version over this one! As a CD recording the cost for this will vary from about £23-£40, but I bought my copy from the itunes music store for £14.99.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Opening Music - Stuart Kale
2 It's a Hot Night for Dancin' - Michael Druiett, Jean Glennon, Anne Howells, Della Jones, Stuart Kale
3 I Am the Reverend Olin Blitch - Steven Cole, Michael Druiett, Anne Howells, Della Jones, Elizabeth Lawrance, Samuel Ramey
4 Was Y'ever at Such a Nice Square Dance, Little Bat? - Kenn Chester, David Pittsinger
5 Ain't It a Pretty Night? - Kenn Chester, Jerry Hadley, David Pittsinger
6 Don't Go to Bed Right Yet, Sam - Jerry Hadley, David Pittsinger
7 That Crick Oughta Be Right About Here - Steven Cole, Michael Druiett, Della Jones, Elizabeth Lawrance, Cheryl Studer
8 I Ain't Surprised - Steven Cole, Michael Druiett, Jean Glennon, Anne Howells, Della Jones, Della Jones, Stuart Kale, Opera De Lyon
9 Little Bat, What You Donin' Here? - Kenn Chester, Cheryl Studer
10 Feeble-Minded Idjet! - Jerry Hadley, Cheryl Studer
Disc #2 Tracklisting
1 How Long's It Gonna Last, Sam? - Jerry Hadley, Cheryl Studer
2 Are You Saved from Sin - Samuel Ramey
3 I'm Fixin' to Tell y 'Bout a Feller I Knowed - Samuel Ramey
4 Come, Sinner, Tonight's the Night - Samuel Ramey, Cheryl Studer
5 Trees on the Mountains Are Cold and Bare - Cheryl Studer
6 That's Mighty Pretty Singin, Susannah - Samuel Ramey, Cheryl Studer
7 I'm a Lonely Man, Susannah - Samuel Ramey, Cheryl Studer
8 Hear Me, O Lord, I Beseech Thee - Samuel Ramey
9 Brethren an' Sister'n - Steven Cole, Michael Druiett, Anne Howells, Della Jones, Stuart Kale, David Pittsinger, Samuel Ramey, Cheryl Studer
10 Hey There, Little Robin, I'm Back Agin - Kenn Chester, Steven Cole, Michael Druiett, Stuart Kale, David Pittsinger, Samuel Ramey, Cheryl Stude