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Performances

Donna Bateman (Susannah) -- ETO (Photo: Robert Workman)
06 Apr 2008

SUSANNAH – English Touring Opera

The most interesting opera on ETO's Spring 2008 tour was Carlisle Floyd's 1950s tale of religious hypocrisy in the rural Deep South, based on the Apocryphal tale of Susannah and the Elders.

Carlisle Floyd: Susannah
English Touring Opera, 14 March 2008

Above: Donna Bateman
All photos by Robert Workman courtesy of English Touring Opera

 

It has been relatively well served in America in terms of stage productions, but this was its UK professional première.

It was a shame not to see the auditorium full, as it's the kind of piece which people are inclined to find 'easy'. Musically it's attractive and unchallenging, with quasi-Puccinian melodic lines combined with quasi-folk tunes. It's also a straightforward enough setting to evoke easily on a shoestring budget and with a set destined for nine different venues; the height of summer in the southern USA was conjured up most effectively with no more than a few slatted panels and a backdrop of colourful, hazy late-afternoon lighting.

James Conway's production depicted New Hope Valley as a community which is hypocritically selective of its moral battles, ready to torture a person for any hint of extramarital sexuality but tolerant of routine domestic violence and subordination of women. Most of the younger women were either carrying babies or heavily pregnant; many of them also sported black eyes and other battle-scars. Sandra Porter's hard-faced, vitriolic Mrs McLean was a fitting figurehead for a people who profess to live by the loving word of God but in practice equate unquestioning compliance with goodness and unwitting difference with moral corruption. There are echoes of Peter Grimes in the willingness of a devoutly religious congregation to turn upon and destroy an individual.

Donna Bateman gave a lyrical and vocally touching performance in the title role. For Act 2's wistful 'Come back, o summer' she created a moment of highly-charged stillness which she never quite managed to achieve in the opera's best-known aria, 'Ain't it a pretty night'. But she never quite managed to project Susannah's crucial youth and innocence, and her words became constricted and indistinct at the top end of her voice.

As her brother Sam, the American tenor Todd Wilander was powerful in both voice and presence, as was the very young-looking Sean Clayton as the backward Little Bat McLean whose false accusations under pressure from his parents are the catalyst for Susannah's humiliation, ostracism and loss of sexual innocence.

Donna-Bateman_Sean-Clayton.pngDonna Bateman (Susannah) and Sean Clayton (Little Bat)

Andrew Slater (who returned the next evening as Mozart's Commendatore) was not particularly charismatic as the preacher Olin Blitch, but Floyd's music and director James Conway's scene-setting effectively produced an atmosphere of horrific tension in the revival meeting scene in which Susannah is put under public pressure to repent of a non-existent sin. For me, it was one of the most uncomfortable moments I can remember witnessing on a theatrical stage. Slater seemed more comfortable with the demands of the next scene, in which Blitch reveals himself as a lonely and needy person before taking advantage of Susannah at a time when she has neither the strength nor the will to resist him, and in his subsequent hopeless attempt to make right his wrongdoing.

The atmospheric lighting and attention to detail (I liked the women's sunburned shoulders) were complemented by Alexander Ingram's warm yet dramatic conducting; though occasionally the balance wasn't quite right and the singers were overpowered.

Ruth Elleson © 2008

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