Another outing to 20th/21st century opera, this time to Carlisle Floyd's 1955 opera Susannah, performed by Hampstead Garden Opera at the pub up the road (yes, really). Like La Cabeza del Bautista, which we saw in the rather grander surroundings of the Liceu at Barcelona (see my previous blog), this is a dark, dramatic work. Floyd takes a bleak biblical story of false witness, rape and abuse of power, and makes it even bleaker by surgically removing any attempt at redemption.

Helen Bailey and Derek Henderson as Susannah and Blitch © Laurent Compagnon
Helen Bailey and Derek Henderson as Susannah and Blitch
© Laurent Compagnon

Unlike La Cabeza, Floyd's music is instantly accessible. Susannah is apparently one of the most performed operas in the USA, and you can see why: the music is engaging, thrilling, sublimely beautiful at times, and omnivorous in gathering up American musical styles, taking in folk songs, Appalachian fiddle tunes, revivalist hymns, a hint of Broadway and many others. It's not that this feels like a musical - the work is coherently classical, singing styles are operatic, and there's even a generous helping of 20th century critic-friendly dissonance - but that American idiom infuses the music throughout.

The musical tour-de-force in the piece is Susannah's aria, "The Trees on the Mountain", which was sung with stunning grace and power by Helen Bailey. The aria is very much inspired by folk music, although a folk singer untrained in opera would struggle horribly. It reminded me that earlier in the week, BBC Radio 3 broadcast a short recording of the late lamented Kathleen Ferrier singing her most famous number "Blow The Wind Southerly". Now I have a confession to make. My musical performing career, inasmuch as it has existed, was in folk clubs in my university days, and I'm very fond of folksong. But Ferrier's style was too smooth, too rounded, too mannered, too, well, just plain posh for my ears. It was very splendid, but it wasn't folk. In contrast, Bailey's performance of The Trees on the Mountain took my breath away: she gave out the clarity of diction and conversational feel of a folk singer, while hitting the high notes and runs with plenty of operatically trained power.

I'm sure there are classical singing purists who would disapprove, but it works for me, as did the considerable authority that Derek Henderson stamped on the character of Olin Blitch, the itinerant preacher who falls into temptation. The opera's strength is that the story and characters are so chillingly credible: Floyd is the son of a methodist minister in South Carolina, and clearly knew the people he was dealing with. The chamber opera format works well (the Gatehouse only seats around 100) because you're so directly involved in the action: my next-door neighbour in the audience, who saw Susannah recently on a considerably larger stage in the US, told me he was getting more out of this production. There are imperfections, of course: the singing from the minor characters didn't come close to matching that of the two principals, and the 14-piece orchestra were clearly having problems with their balance, with the intonation of the brass section wavering badly at times.

But the imperfections did little to spoil my overall enjoyment. Because the drama works and because the music is so vivid and accessible, I'm convinced that Susannah is a great opera to attract new audiences to the genre, and I'm surprised that it's hardly ever been performed here in Britain.

1st May 2009

If you read this in time to catch the remaining performances at Hampstead Garden Opera, you'll see them on this link of performances of Susannah.