Thursday, June 14, 2012


SUSANNAH    New Production
10 June 2012

© Sam H. Shirakawa

Musikalische Leitung: Bernhard Steiner
Inszenierung: Roman Hovenbitzer
Ausstattung: Jan Bammes
Choreographie: Andre Baeta
Dramaturgie: Jan Henric Bogen
Licht: Ulrich Schneider
Chor: Wolfgang Müller-Salow
Abendspielleitung / Regieassistenz: Guta Rau

Susannah Polk: Jaclyn Bermudez
Sam Polk, ihr Bruder: Charles Reid
Olin Blitch, ein Prediger: Rainer Zaun
Little Bat McLean: Jeffery Krueger
Mr. McLean: Raymond Ayers
Mr. Gleaton: James Wood
Mr. Hayes: Richard van Gemert
Mrs. McLean: Marilyn Bennett
Mrs. Gleaton: Dagmar Hesse
Mrs. Hayes: Tanja Schun
Mrs. Ott: Rena Kleifeld
Susannah faces her accusers
American and British opera companies mount Italian, German and French operas all the time.  European companies mount English-language operas less often, primarily because there are fewer (far fewer) risk-worthy works to choose from.   

So it was with curiosity and a little skepticism that I visited Hagen to see a new production of Carlyle Floyd’s Susannah, reportedly the most frequently performed American opera world-wide after Porgy and Bess:  Curiosity, because Susannah is so quintessentially American; skepticism because I dreaded hearing the text uttered with German accents. 
Rainer Zaun, Jaclyn Bermudez

Shame on me.  I should have realized, in the first instance, that people outside the U.S., especially Germans, probably are more familiar with the broad spectrum of American culture than Americans ourselves, thanks to films, television series, Yankee pop culture and the global tyranny of what's left of the English language. Secondly, many in the Hagen cast are American or British.  So the Tennessee twang that imbues the text was produced without much effort and fell naturally on the ear. 
Jaclyn Bermudez

Most pleasing to the ear was Jaclyn Bermudez in the eponymous role.  She purveys a large lyric voice that imparts intensity as it rises toward her upper register.  From a distance, her smooth oval face and brunette hair recall the young Phyllis Curtin, who created the role (and was my first Susannah in Frank Corsaro’s idiomatic production (1958) at New York City Opera).  Bermudez’ account of Susannah’s lovely second act aria “The Trees on the Mountain” was especially moving. 
Clockwise:  Rainer Zaun, Jeffrey Krueger, Raymond Ayers, Charles Reid

She was surrounded by a formidable quartet that distinguished itself by working as an ensemble. Among equals, Rainer Zaun (the only German native among the principals) stood out as the fiery preacher, Olin Blatch, whose needs promptly lead him to fall prey to his own weaknesses.  Jeffrey Krueger was sympathetically twitchy as Little Bat, the challenged outsider, who fails at his only aim in life: to be Susannah’s friend.  Raymond Ayers is commanding in both height and vocal size as the church elder Mr. McLean.

I've occasionally wondered what Charles Reid has been doing since I heard him sing Tony at the Met's premiere of William Balcom's A View from the Bridge ten years ago.  He's doing quite well, it seems. As Susannah’s drunken brother, his voice has accrued clarion heft that hints at the violence Sam ultimately commits.   

The batch of old biddies is led admirably by a nasty Marilyn Bennett, who reveals Mrs. McLean’s envy of Susannah’s youth and vivacity with incisive distemper. 
 Dagmar Hesse (Mrs. Gleaton), Marilyn Bennett (Mrs. McLean), Tanja Schun (Mrs. Hayes), Rena Kleifeld (Mrs. Ott)
Bernhard Steiner culls tension from the attentive chorus and orchestra and parses out the musical disclosures with an assured hand. 

The atmospheric production by Roman Hovenbitzer places the mise en scène on a wide planked platform, neatly designed by Jan Bammes, which rises to serve by turns as a wall and a hanging rock.  
Theater Hagen

Balcom composed the opera he set to his own libretto during the McCarthy witch hunts.  Its story of an innocent girl scapegoated by her church community bears a marked affinity to Wilhelm Kienzl’s Evangelimann, which also deals with false accusations and their consequences.  Following Germany's defeat in World War, the latter had tremendous resonance among the German public, who identified their collective humilation with the scapegoat-hero.  50 years after its world premiere, the Get-the-Girl theme of Susannah is gaining new relevance for some opera-going Germans, now grappling with their nation’s role in Europe's economic anxieties.  A German lady I spoke with after the performance in Hagen told me she identified with Susannah's ordeal because she felt that ordinary hard-working Germans are being scapegoated for a monetary crisis they didn’t create.  She added, she hopes the government will, like Susannah, stare ‘them’ down.

Oddlly, Susannah also spawns greater societal significance in light of the recent documentary Bully, which deals with arbitrary cruelty in American schools, a social plague whose virulence continues unchecked and is rapidly becoming bubonic.  Susannah may find its musical substance through the comforting harmonies of indigenous American music, but its melodies thinly conceal a cautionary tale about the attenuated fabric of a society that validates malice.  It is, ultimately, a deeply disturbing work.

Production / publicity photos courtesy Theater Hagen
Other photos and graphics: Sam H. Shirakawa 

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