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Revival Time

Unlike many of the operas that have been composed in the second half of the 20th century, Carlisle Floyd's Susannah is very accessible. It features some lovely arias, touching duets and stirring choruses -- elements often lacking in other modern operas. The music is pure Americana, drawing its inspiration from the folk tunes of the rural South. But perhaps most important, the story is straightforward and easy to follow -- which isn't to say that it's simple. Like the best operas of any age, it pulls on primal emotions and makes them resonate in a way that the audience can feel.

Floyd, a longtime instructor at the University of Houston, wrote what has become his best known work in 1954, basing it on the Apocryphal account of Susannah and the Elders but updating the action to modern-day Appalachia. In Houston Grand Opera's current production, the staging is simple but effective, with sets reminiscent of the art of Thomas Hart Benton, who was fond of painting scenes from American life and the Bible. In fact, Benton's painting, Susannah and the Elders, is depicted on the curtain to set both mood and scene before the first performer sings a note.

But though Floyd's opera is set 40 years ago and is based on a tale two centuries old, it still rings current. All one has to do is think of the televangelist scandals of a few years back to realize that some things never really change. That touch of the eternal is among the reasons that Susannah is one of the few modern operas to gain a foothold in the standard repertoire.

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The story of Susannah is that of a young woman wrongly accused of being a bad influence on the community after several church elders watch lustfully as she bathes naked in a secluded creek near her home in the church-oriented Appalachian community of New Hope Valley, Tennessee. The community and a traveling evangelist, the Reverend Olin Blitch -- who is in town for a revival -- put pressure on Susannah to repent of her alleged transgressions. But Susannah, aware that she's done nothing wrong, refuses. In an attempt to convince her to repent, Blitch comes to Susannah's home, only to end up seducing her. When Susannah's brother Sam returns from a hunting trip and learns of this, he shoots Blitch dead. Susannah is left alone, ostracized by the community.

At last Thursday's premiere, soprano Nancy Gustafson was outstanding as Susannah Polk, the heroine wrongly accused of corrupting a tightly knit town's morals. Gustafson sang beautifully, and her portrayal of Susannah, who is transformed from a happy, high-spirited teenager to a shunned and embittered young woman, was excellent.

Susannah sings the opera's two best known arias. The first, "Ain't it a pretty night," occurs in the second scene of the first act. In it, Susannah dreams about the day when she will see the world beyond her mountain home; Gustafson sang this beautiful melody with longing and compassion. The opera's other famous aria, "The trees on the mountain are cold and bare," occurs in the third scene of the second act. In this touching ballad, Susannah expresses her loneliness and sorrow, and here Gustafson was particularly warm and moving.

But the standout performance came from Samuel Ramey as the Reverend Olin Blitch. Widely regarded as one of the leading operatic basses in the world, Ramey's versatility is truly amazing. He has previously wowed HGO audiences with his performances in such disparate parts as the title roles of Verdi's Attila and Boito's Mefistofele. On opening night, Ramey was just as magnificent in this new production of Susannah, making himself thoroughly convincing as the all-too-human itinerant preacher who succumbs to the sins of the flesh. He even sported a pompadour hairstyle reminiscent of that of a televangelist. Ramey's performance alone is reason enough to see Susannah.

He is ably aided, though, by tenor Mark Baker, whose portrayal of Sam, Susannah's slightly inebriated but benevolent brother, is marked by zest and enthusiasm, and tenor Richard Markley, who turned in a fine performance as Little Bat, the slightly retarded youth who is infatuated with Susannah. And the Houston Symphony, conducted by Richard Bado, offered a crisp interpretation of Floyd's hauntingly beautiful score.

Susannah's most powerful moment occurs in the second scene of Act Two, which takes place inside the community church. Blitch exhorts the faithful to repent, eventually directing his message solely toward Susannah. Ramey and the HGO chorus were in top form here, offering a stirring rendition of the hymn "Are you saved from sin" to open the scene. Ramey followed with an impassioned interpretation of "I'm fixin' to tell you 'bout a feller I knowed." Ramey, Gustafson and the chorus then combined for a breathtaking rendition of "Come, sinner, tonight's the night" to bring things to an emotion-charged conclusion.

Ramey was also in top form in the fourth scene of the second act when he sang "Hear me, o Lord, I beseech thee," an aria in which Blitch asks for forgiveness for seducing Susannah. And Ramey's interpretation of "I'm a lonely man, Susannah," where Blitch admits to his longing for a woman's love, was equally moving. Only his interpretation of "I am the Reverend Olin Blitch" at the very beginning of the opera may have been a little understated. Otherwise, Ramey's performance was flawless.

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