Floyd: Susannah

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Floyd
LABELS: Virgin
WORKS: Susannah
PERFORMER: Cheryl Studer, Samuel Ramey, Jerry Hadley; Lyon Opera Chorus & Orchestra/Kent Nagano
CATALOGUE NO: VCD5 45039 2 DDD
Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah has the reputation of out-performing even Puccini in America since its premiere in 1955 (see last month’s Counterpoint). This new recording from the award-winning partnership of Kent Nagano and Lyon Opera provides pointers as to why. Its libretto updates the Biblical story of Susannah and the Elders to Fifties Tennessee and narrates a Brittenesque ‘destruction of innocence’ tale of a woman persecuted by a small-town fundamentalist community merely for being different – ‘too pretty’ for her own good. The church Elders, shocked at finding Susannah bathing naked in the baptismal creek, concoct a tale of promiscuity to hide their lust, a fiction blasted only when a visiting preacher succumbs to her beauty and realises he is the one who has taken her virginity. A product of the McCarthy era, the plot is just as pertinent today, when religious fundamentalism is attempting to rule the morals of American society.

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The music, though powerful, is conservative in idiom, but none the worse for that, and fluctuates between folk-like simplicity – ballad-style arias, a witty square-dance tune – and more dissonantly dramatic links.

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Nagano has assembled the cream of American singers for the lead roles and they distinguish themselves with great aplomb, Studer superbly expressing Susannah’s progression from innocence to defiance. Fine as the performance is as a whole, though (and the orchestral playing in particular is pungent and atmospheric), it lacks a real sense of the theatre, sounding too clinical and studio-bound. Matthew Rye