A Purty Night at the Met: Susannah ‘s American Charms

In what is surely an unintended coincidence, the city’s two leading opera houses have made highlights of their spring seasons out of a pair of American works that go straight to the heart of our incurable puritanism: the New York City Opera’s revival of Jack Beeson’s Lizzie Borden , about a pious young woman-turned-ax-murderer, and the Metropolitan Opera’s first staging of Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah , about another victim of American repressiveness. Among other things, the productions raise two issues of perennial interest to operagoers-the suitability of the respective houses and the durability of American opera.

Although there is much to be said for the current creative partnership of Glimmerglass Opera and City Opera, one of its

unfortunate consequences is that productions which looked so vibrant in the intimate confines of Cooperstown, N.Y., have tended to get a bit lost in the opera-unfriendly expanse of the New York State Theater. Way out there on the shores of Lake Otsego, Rhoda Levine’s delicately claustrophobic production of Lizzie Borden had a theatrical intensity that swept aside my reservations about the Hollywood modernism of Mr. Beeson’s 1965 score and the Playhouse 90 squareness of Kenward Elmslie’s libretto. Thanks to the production’s bleak but pure clapboard setting, by John Conklin, and its committed, understated cast, led by Phyllis Pancella in the title role, I found myself not only drawn into the unlikely suspense of a story whose ending was a foregone conclusion but feeling nostalgic for that time, three decades ago, when genuine American opera seemed like such a promising new genre.

All those ingredients and more came to the State Theater-the more being the presence of City Opera’s adroit music director, George Manahan, in the pit and the powerhouse soprano Lauren Flanigan as the dreadful stepmother. Mr. Conklin’s frozen Hopper set and Ms. Pancella’s volcanic Lizzie were as impressive as before, but projected into the State Theater’s wide, arid valley, the voices sounded distant and passionless. Perhaps because I was hearing the opera for a second time, I found Mr. Beeson’s music, which seemed to come both from everywhere and nowhere, depressingly inadequate to the events on stage, and the harsh reductiveness of Mr. Elmslie’s libretto less simple than simple-minded. Once again I wondered, as I so often do at City Opera: With all this Big Money floating around town these days, can’t some of it be pooled to build this valiantly revitalized, seriously needed company a new house of, say, 1,500 to 1,800 seats, designed strictly for opera?

The Met is a real opera house, but it’s not the house for everything, and I had grave doubts about how well Carlisle Floyd’s only marginally elevated folk-opera would carry in the vastness behind the Chagalls. But Susannah , even more than the most celebrated American opera, Porgy and Bess , has traveled remarkably well. (It had its premiere in 1955.) Thanks to its composer’s canny blending of the plot-driven mechanics of Italian verismo opera (think I Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana ) and the sure-fire theme of bigotry versus nonconformism (think Peter Grimes ), Susannah has an easygoing lyricism that doesn’t tax the ear harmonically, stays resolutely behind the action (not on top of it, as in Verdi or Wagner) and pauses at strategic moments to let the leading singers show off their voices.

On its own exceedingly limited terms, Susannah is, as they say, a completely realized work (Mr. Floyd also wrote the libretto). Which is not to say that its demands are slight. Vocally, the non-American work it most resembles (though not in length) is Madama Butterfly , requiring in its leading roles a full-bodied, long-floating soprano voice for its ripe, 18-year-old heroine, a robust bass-baritone for its charismatic but weak-willed Rev. Olin Blitch, and a plangent, Pinkerton-like tenor for the heroine’s wayward but stalwart brother, Sam.

For this Susannah , the Met went to its A-list. Although the ripe-figured, ripe-voiced Renée Fleming can hardly pass for an ingenue, she exploited her well-honed wide-eyed sweetness to maximum effect, while employing the fabulous Sarah Vaughan-like colors in her sun-streaked soprano to bring out Susannah’s more than nascent sexuality. Her two set-piece arias-“Ain’t it a pretty night?” and “The trees on the mountains”-were, in the best Broadway sense of the word, showstoppers.

Jerry Hadley also commands more than the usual share of well-honed innocence, which he put to good use as a consistently appealing Sam Polk-though I got a little tired of the studied hokeyness of his Grand Ol’ Opry twang. (Is it unkind of me to suggest that he start hitting the Stairmaster in preparation for his next big Met assignment as the not-so-innocent title character in John Harbison’s new opera of The Great Gatsby ?)

Samuel Ramey’s portrayal of Olin Blitch goes back at least as far as 1982, when I saw him in a City Opera revival of Susannah . Now that he is a good deal older and weirder , his fallen minister is tremendously potent, although during his air-clutching agonies of guilt I had the feeling that I was watching his death scene in Boris Godunov all over again.

On opening night, the conductor James Conlon seemed determined to give this Susannah the tragic grandeur of, say, La Forza del Destino , pumping up the orchestra’s volume to levels that threatened to drown out even Ms. Fleming’s richly furnished sound and did nothing to conceal the fact that Mr. Floyd’s score, for all its well-learned theatrical effectiveness, is seldom more than fluent and tuneful. Unlike in Britten’s Peter Grimes , for example, the music never enlarges on the drama, never takes us to places where the words can’t go; instead, in the manner of a terrific Broadway score, it stays on the support level of decoration, embellishment, accompaniment.

Robert Falls’ staging of the piece, using a set that could have been borrowed from an early production of Oklahoma! , was as clean and to the point as everything is in Susannah . To see it amid the Met’s gaudy opulence was to experience the odd frisson of coming upon a Norman Rockwell in the Louvre. It all made for an entertaining no-brainer of an evening. For once, it was nice to see Americans singing and acting like Americans on the Met’s stage. But a great contemporary opera Susannah ain’t. For that, the Met, to my immense pleasure, has just brought back the real thing-another, far more powerful operatic tale of a social victim, Wozzeck .

A Purty Night at the Met: Susannah ‘s American Charms