Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Kelly Cae Hogan and Jon Garrison turn in heartfelt performances as sister and brother Susannah and Sam.

HOT’s ‘Susannah’
explores timeless hypocrisy

Gossip, hypocrisy, self-righteousness -- these are as prevalent today as they were 2,000 years ago, when the story of "Susanna and the Elders" was first recorded, or 50 years ago, when Carlisle Floyd's opera updated the story to a searing indictment of McCarthyism. Hawaii Opera Theatre brought the powerful drama to the Blaisdell Friday night before a small but receptive audience.

"Susannah": Presented by Hawaii Opera Theatre at Blaisdell Concert Hall. Repeats at 7:30 p.m. today. Tickets are $29 to $100. Call 596-7858.

The opera takes the apocryphal story to the mountains of Tennessee, where the naive and beautiful Susannah lives in poverty with her brother Sam. While bathing in the creek, she is seen by church elders looking for a spot to hold baptisms. Ashamed of their lust, the elders condemn Susannah for provoking them, and she is ostracized.

In the original story, Susanna was vindicated when the prophet Daniel questioned the elders and disproved their story. In the opera, Susannah is seduced by the itinerant preacher Olin Blitch, who is then murdered by Sam. Susannah stands in isolation at the end.

The story revolves around the hypocrisy that drives the town to gossip about Susannah. When her friend Little Bat tells her what the townspeople are saying, she asks, "They say. They say. Who's 'they?'" to which he replies, "Everybody." In her climactic scene near the end of Act 2, she tells Sam that she is "Tired o' fightin' an' tired' o' livin' in a world where the truth has to fight so hard to git itself believed."

In the 1950s, when it premiered, the opera had special resonance with an artistic community that had been wracked by the accusations of Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

Susannah, a complex character both defiant and vulnerable, was portrayed effectively by Kelly Cae Hogan. Her voice was at its best in the soft high passages in her two arias, when it took on a rich, velvety quality. Floyd wrote these arias first, and they stand out in the score for their poignant beauty.

Jon Garrison turned in a strong performance as Sam. His powerful tenor and direct acting style complemented Hogan's talents perfectly; their scenes together were the high points.

Thomas Trotter's lighter tenor was well suited to the role of Little Bat, a childlike man. Blitch was played by bass Mark McCrory, whose physical presence was authoritative but whose voice was often lost in the ensemble.

Among the four Elders and their wives, mezzo-soprano Dorothy Byrne stood out as Mrs. McLean. She infused the spiteful character with palpable venom, and her voice also had a venomous edge. In an interesting directorial touch, Mrs. McLean returned to the stage at the very end, allowing Susannah to face her accuser defiantly.

The cast featured a significant number of Honolulu singers in "comprimario" roles. Of these, tenor Erik Haines and soprano Mary Chesnut Hicks sang especially well.

The Honolulu Symphony, directed by William Fred Scott, played the dissonant and challenging score powerfully but too loudly. Floyd intended the opera to be relatively easy to mount, and it is hard to believe he ever imagined an orchestra of this size. Even the strongest singers were frequently overwhelmed, and at times it devolved into a shouting contest.

This opera marked the HOT directorial debut of Executive Director Karen Tiller. Her staging was most effective in scenes that featured a small number of performers; when Susannah was onstage with Little Bat or Sam, for instance, their movements were lively and well paced. Crowd scenes were less effective, featuring long periods of static positions or unmotivated milling around.

Scene changes, which took place in silence in the dark, were unusually long. The audience could not decide whether to talk or stay quiet and so resorted to nervous giggling. When the lights were up, though, the audience was enthralled by the powerful music and universal themes of this uniquely American opera.

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