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Production of 'Susannah' succeeds


The Baltimore Opera Company concluded a three-night run of Carlisle Floyd's "Susannah" at Lurman Woodland Theater in Catonsville Sunday with an excellent production that displayed a mastery of this excellent score.

"Susannah" received its premiere performance at Florida State University in 1953. Eighteen months later it premiered at the New York City Opera. Since then it has been performed hundreds of times by college, regional and professional companies. It got its first commercial recording in 1994.

The production by the Baltimore Opera Company proved why this opera has held the stage for more than 40 years. The music speaks directly to the listener, and the composer provides the believable characters with great material.

The highest praise should go to Clare Mueller, as Susannah, and Roy Stevens, as the Rev. Olin Blitch. Ms. Mueller gave sensitivity and poignancy to her role. Her moving aria in Scene 3 of Act 2 was haunting and just short of magical. Her vocal talents are enhanced by first-rate acting skills. Mr. Stevens was a fiery and passionate Blitch. His prayer meeting sizzled, and his voice and physical presence were bigger than life.

The other roles were equally impressive. Christopher Petruccelli was an anxious "Little Bat," with the perfect amount of edge in his delivery. Brad Cresswell gave grandeur and eloquence to the part of Sam Polk, the brother of the persecuted Susannah. The elders and their wives and the chorus were all totally convincing theatrically and vocally.

The orchestra, under the clear and sensitive direction of Ronald Gretz, gets bravos. Mr. Gretz has the perfect podium manner -- in control but also a willing partner to both the singers on stage and the musicians in the pit. The playing was ardent, and the intonation was remarkable under steam-bath conditions. The violin solos in the opening scene, by Bruno Nasta, had the perfect blend of earthiness and poetry.

Stage director Roger Brunyate made a few changes in the stage directions in the score, but everything worked; the opening dance scene was especially jubilant and free. The lighting and set, designed by Thomas Donahue, blended wonderfully with the lush surroundings of the tree-covered park.

It is good that American operas are finding their way back into the repertory. The Baltimore Opera Company and its general director, Michael Harrison, deserve high praise for presenting a first-class production of such a demanding and powerful masterpiece.

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