Vocalist - Tenor
Potent production pulls out all the stops on backwoods fable
No happy ending, no final glimmer of hope softens the searing impact of Carlisle Floyd's "Susannah," an unflinching look at the darkest sides of human nature.

Serving in the highly unusual double capacity as composer and librettist, Carlisle Floyd lays out this timeless morality tale with unerring clarity, economy and truthfulness.

Based on the biblical story of Susannah and the elders and set in the 1950s backwoods of Tennessee, the opera lays bare the hypocrisy, false judgments and pack mentality that are an unfortunate yet seemingly inevitable part of what it means to be human.

The full dramatic potential of this opera, which debuted in 1955, is realized in Central City Opera's revival of the company's well-received 1997 production. It opened July 5 and runs for 11 more performances through Aug. 10.

Director Michael Ehrman, a frequent Central City collaborator who staged the 1997 realization, returned for this revival. He created a raw, intensely realistic and devastatingly affecting version of this now- standard American work.

Besides shaping believable, empathetic characters, Ehrman brought visceral energy and immediacy to the crowd scenes, especially the church revival, deftly fitting the 37- member cast and chorus on Central City's unusually compact stage.

The only blemishes were his somewhat awkward staging of the four elders' discovery of Susannah bathing nude in a creek, and the weirdly exaggerated characterization of Little Bat McLean (tenor Brian Downen), a kind of emotionally stunted naif.

David Harwell's refurbished sets from 1997 are straightforward, naturalistic evocations of Susannah's rustic cabin, the rural Gothic church and the surrounding woods. They are nicely complemented by C. David Higgins' fitting, period costumes.

As the title makes clear, the opera revolves around Susannah, who has lost her parents and lives with her older brother. She suffers a total emotional breakdown as her world is shattered, a devolution made vividly real in soprano Emily Pulley's powerful, poignant portrayal.

Bubbly and filled with youthful innocence at first, Susannah becomes confused and fearful, then angry and finally utterly numb as she is wrongfully labeled as evil and later raped by the town preacher, Olin Blitch, who takes advantage of her weakened state.

Pulley, an alumna of the Central City's apprentice program, has a strong history with the company, but this might be her best performance yet, both dramatically and vocally.

Grant Youngblood, a big, deep-voiced baritone, ably conveys Blitch's complicated duality, a well-intentioned man who is unable to control his fleshy urges, a weakness the singer adroitly telegraphs right from the character's first appearance.

Rounding out the principals is tenor Vale Rideout, who captures -- both in his acting and singing -- the homespun nature and elusive complexity of Sam Polk, Susannah's loving yet often drunken brother. Rideout brings an aptly folksy, understated vocal approach to the character.

Central City's committed chorus plays a key role in this opera dramatically and musically, handsomely performing the hymns and other ensemble numbers and, as noted already, animating the all-important crowd scenes.

Conductor Hal France, another Central City regular, is something of an American specialist, with extensive experience leading Floyd's other operas. He makes fine use of that expertise in what, surprisingly, is his debut with the composer's best-known work.

France provides a taut, keenly paced account of Floyd's evocative, often ominous score, in which the composer has overlaid square-dance tunes and folk-tinged elements on a traditional Italianate foundation.

This potent production shows why "Susannah" has become one of the few true American operatic classics.
Kyle MacMillan, Denver Post
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