Popular tale 'Susannah' combines good story, lush music

Courtesy of Toledo Blade, 2015

- Published Sunday, February 8, 2015
by Sally Vallongo

The Toledo Opera will boldly venture into contemporary American opera next weekend when it mounts its first production of Carlisle Floyd’s landmark work, Susannah.

Performances are set for 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Feb. 15 in the Valentine Theatre.

As All-American as Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess or Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land, this 1955 work is set in rural Tennessee, peopled with country folk, and infused with the values of old-time religion.

It’s among the most frequently produced American operas, popular with companies from collegiate to New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

“It’s a sensational piece of music,” said Robert Mirakian, who will make his Toledo Opera conducting debut leading the Toledo Symphony and cast in the production.

“It has the basic traits all operas have: A good story and music that matches the drama brilliantly. It’s got some writing for the singers that is very beautiful and powerful for their voices. It has a lush, appealing orchestral score.”

Written by Floyd while he was head of the piano faculty at Florida State University, the opera echoes the tale of Susannah in the Book of Daniel, part of the Apocrypha — although Floyd has said he never read the story before writing the words and music.

Still, it’s a familiar tale: an innocent, beautiful woman unwittingly sparks jealousy and winds up becoming a victim.

In Floyd’s version, local wives and their husbands, plus a visiting preacher, Olin Blitch, ostracize Susannah, for complex and all too human reasons. She relies on her reclusive brother, Sam, and a young neighbor, Bat, for friendship and solace.

Blitch, in town to win converts, ramps up the conflict until he succumbs to his lust. Then, he blames his victim, Susannah. The entire affair ends tragically.

Toledo Opera’s current season floats on tales of women betrayed by men in one way or another.

Puccini’s Tosca, brilliantly performed last October, explored abuse of power and trust with tragic consequences. In April, Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti will depict the heroine’s ultimate self-destruction because of family interference in true love.

What an operatic Valentine, right?

That’s opera, it seems.

Love, in all its manifestations, generates powerfully emotive tales, which inspire great music. In this, Susannah is no different.

But for romance seekers, the cast offers some interest.

Jennifer Goode Cooper, who will sing the title role of Susannah Polk for the first time – fulfilling what she calls a career dream – will be taking stage direction from her husband, Sean Cooper.

Both husband and wife are on the faculty of Bowling Green State University’s College of Musical Arts and in demand for other local and national productions.

Goode Cooper has made a name for herself in crossover roles with the New York City Opera; Opera Memphis (she is a Tennessee native); in Carnegie Hall, and on Broadway in a Baz Luhrmann production of La Boheme. She has performed with Neil Diamond, Patti LuPone, Jerry Herman, and Doctor Dre.

For Sean Cooper, who directs at BGSU and covers character roles memorably for the Toledo Opera, directing a major production is a new step upward.

Also in town for Susannah is another operatic couple: Alta and Drake Dantzler.

Alta, a mezzo, has used her warm voice and great comedic skills impressively in previous local productions. This time, she will play one of the finger-pointing women, Mrs. McLean.

Tenor Drake, a faculty member at the University of Oakland north of Detroit, and busy performer, will portray Elder Gleaton.

Christopher Scholl, a BGSU music faculty member who has sung through Europe for two decades, will take the role of Elder Hayes.

More Toledo Opera debuts will be by Alex Richardson, as Susannah’s brother, Sam, Edwin Vega as Little Bat McLean, and Charles Temkey as Elder McLean.

Casting the pivotal role of Olin Blitch, the passionate pastor, made for some drama of the executive kind late last month.

Originally, bass-baritone Samuel Ramey, who has claimed this role for decades, was to appear. Abruptly, he canceled, citing health issues.

Toledo Opera executive director Suzanne Rorick calls the event “a glitch with our Blitch. It’s always out there as a possibility. We book people a year out and hope everyone’s healthy enough when the time comes.”

Rorick, Mirakian, and James Meena, artistic director of the local company, quickly located a worthy substitute in Mark Delavan.

“Mark was willing and eager to come sing at Toledo Opera,” Rorick said. “Our location, our regional impact, our reputation helped get someone so fast.”

Delavan also has made the role his own and grabbed the opportunity to further polish it.

“We are fortunate that he can perform in Toledo, as he is en route to rehearsals at Lyric Opera of Chicago immediately following Susannah,” Rorick said.

The production will be on the Valentine’s stage, with the orchestra upstage, the singers downstage. Props and set pieces plus images projected on the screen behind the orchestra should help create the sense of place.

Also different will be the absence of supertitles. Once controversial, the projected lines of text have become the norm for operas sung in other languages. But because Susannah is sung in English, none are needed.

“It will be a satisfying experience to NOT be drawn out from the action on stage,” Mirakian said, adding, “It’s one of the wonderful things that happen in doing an opera in English.”

For Toledo Opera, this production signals a return to better financial times. It’s the first time since 2009 that the 62-year-old company has been able to mount three operas in its season instead of just two, with a gala filling the third slot. This year’s gala, Men in Black, is May 9 at the Toledo Club.

Tickets for Susannah are $30-$75 at 419-255-7464 or www.toledoopera.org.

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