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Susannah Teases Themes of Groupthink

Opera Review


In its production of Carlisle Floyd's Susannah, Opera Idaho teased themes of groupthink, elites abusing their influence, and how innocence can be lost in the pursuit of abstract notions of purity. If fidelity to those themes was the criterion by which Susannah should be judged, then the production was a success.

But it's an opera that alludes to considerably more than witch hunts; it explores rich characters with high hopes and a social climate informed by more than spiritual insecurities--and it is treatment of these secondary themes that distracts, sometimes productively, at other times not so much, from the opera's otherwise singular vision.

Susannah tells the story of a town where a traveling preacher heightens residents' awareness of the sin lurking in their midst to an unbearable pitch, and the townsfolk--instigated by the catty Mrs. McLean (Suzanne Hansen)--blindly peg their insecurity to Susannah (Jacqueline Noparstak) when she is caught bathing in a stream by village elders. Susannah is subsequently shunned, humiliated and raped.

The titular character dreams of a life outside the tiny community of New Hope Valley, Tenn. Noparstak--while not quite radiating Susannah's virginal innocence--gained some traction playing up her character's rural upbringing and relationship to nature. Lucas Goodrich, as Little Bat McLean, played an unusually convincing repentant wrongdoer searching for forgiveness (when he receives none, his wounded shock is equally convincing).

Other characters got less than the executive treatment. Traveling preacher Olin Blitch, played by Christopher Job, didn't have the fire-and-brimstone charisma of a traveling preacher, instead looking more like a teenager going to prom in a rented suit. Andrew Peck--playing Susannah's brother and lone supporter, Sam Polk--brought his character to life by waddling across the stage and puffing out his chest.

But it was Hansen, as Mrs. McLean, who saved the opera. Mrs. McLean is the play's catalyst who, out of antipathy for Susannah's drunken brother and parentage, turns the town against her. Hansen's portrayal was a deft mix of authority and bitchiness that drew the center of the opera toward the evolution of the townsfolk: from people favorably disposed to Susannah to a hostile and suspicious population.

Director Elise Sandell and scenic artist Katie Branton condensed Susannah's action to fit the stage at the Egyptian Theatre, but also to close the environment around the characters. It was an effective strategy, inducing a feeling of claustrophobia surrounding Olin Blitch and the townsfolk that haunted the audience as it exited the theater.