Winnipeg soprano shines in dark opera Susannah
Ciekiewicz Transforms Lead Character from Victim to Survivor
Nearly 65 years after it was first penned during the witch hunts of 1950s McCarthyism, and light years before the dawning of cyberbullying and the #MeToo era, it’s extraordinary how Carlisle Floyd’s prophetic tragedy Susannah has grown in power and might. It resonates even more forcefully with its cautionary tale of how mob mentality can slaughter the innocent like sacrificial lambs.
Manitoba Opera opened its 47th season Saturday night with the heavy-hitting verisimo opera that is widely regarded as Floyd’s most celebrated work. The 120-minute (including intermission) production, led by award-winning stage director, dramaturge and choreographer Kelly Robinson, features its latest proponent, Winnipeg soprano Lara Ciekiewicz, as the innocent 18-year-old Susannah. Her tour-de-force performance, infused by her deeply felt compassion and benevolent understanding of her character, proved once again this Canadian opera star’s gifts as a singing actress.
Inspired by the biblical tale of Susanna and the Elders, the two-act opera sung in English (with surtitles) is set in New Hope Valley, Tenn., and tells the story of Susannah Polk, who is shunned and shamed by her tight-lipped religious community as a promiscuous sinner. After being raped by itinerant Rev. Olin Blitch, Susannah rises as an empowered survivor of sexual assault.
In what could only be described as a career milestone, Ciekiewicz transforms before our eyes from a wide-eyed dreamer who gaily skips, sings, and square dances to shell-shocked trauma victim slinging a shotgun, who ultimately triumphs over her perpetrators.
Ciekiewicz performed both of two major arias sung in an Appalachian dialect with assured confidence and maturity, her soaring soprano voice seemingly knowing no bounds. Her interpretation of the second-act The Trees on the Mountain pierces the very heart of this opera that brought many in the opening-night crowd to tears. She likewise cast a spell during Ain’t it a Pretty Night, sung on the heels of the opening act’s It’s a Hot Night for Dancin’, which includes a village square dance that is smartly choreographed by Winnipeg’s Brenda Gorlick, while creating a still point of luminous beauty amid the dark storm clouds swirling about Susannah.
American bass Kristopher Irmiter brought his robust, booming bass to his charismatic, yet deeply troubled preacher, with his larger-than-life portrayal as bone-chilling as dancing on a grave in the dead of night. The South Carolina-born singer commanded attention from his opening act aria I Am the Reverend Olin Blitch, sung while creepily ogling Susannah, as well as during the harrowing second-act revival scenes that grow to fevered pitch.
Irmiter instilled multiple layers of subtext into his character, ably straddling both worlds of pious preacher and calculating, "flesh and blood and bone" predator, thus allowing viewers to see the pathos behind the monster. This is most noticeable during his heart-stopping I’m a Lonely Man, Susannah, sung to an exhausted Susannah as she lies crumpled on the floor like her brother Sam’s hunting prey. The same could be said of the opera’s fateful moment, when the preacher wheedles the young woman into submission while clearly fighting his own demons. It’s a testament to both Robinson’s sensitive direction and Irmiter’s instinctive acting skills that he pulled off this difficult scene so compellingly.
Winnipeg tenor James McLennan plays Little Bat McLean and creates a compellingly awkward sidekick and confidant to Susannah, coerced to lie to the elders that she asked him to "love her up." His forceful delivery, including pure vocals and crisp diction during his syllabic duet sung with Susannah, Little Bat, what you doin’ here?, trembled with fear.
Kudos to a showcase of veteran local performers portraying the town’s elders, with baritone David Watson — marking his 50th Manitoba Opera production — and mezzo-soprano Donnalynn Grills as particular standouts. A quartet of male elders evoked a chorus of mafia thugs, with their saucer-like eyes as they stumble across Susannah bathing nude by a secluded creek adding a jolt of lustful motivation driven by their palpable terror of strong, independent women they deem must be silenced.
The Manitoba Opera Chorus (directed by Tadeusz Biernacki), as the townspeople, performed their second-act revivalist choruses, Are you saved from sin, and Come, sinner, tonight’s the night under a looming cross with the passionate zeal of the newly converted.
The choice to hear a reprise of their first chorus offstage, sung in the outside lobby, which called for slightly opening a portal door at the Centennial Concert Hall, did not work — the crack of light suddenly visible in the hall dispelled the show’s dramatic tension. The same effect could easily have been created with the singers in the wings.
Some other artistic choices could have gone further, including Susannah’s physical responses to certain key moments, including Bat’s plot-turning admission, that at times felt overly muted. Having (more) townspeople rise to their feet during the revivalist scene would have visually ramped up the menacing threat to an unrepentant Susannah, and made this terrifying scene even more nightmare-inducing. Others just tweaked the senses, including the square-dance fiddler essentially miming out of time with the actual WSO fiddler, which could have been easily remedied.
Tyrone Paterson crisply led the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra throughout Floyd’s melting-pot score that weaves together Appalachian folk tunes, revivalist hymns, opera arias and rafter-raising choruses, often instilling a sense of urgency into the orchestral accompaniment that further heightened the narrative’s unfolding drama.
Some real eye candy is provided courtesy of Virginia Opera’s wonderfully stylized sets, including corrugated silhouettes of mountain ranges, grassy ramps and the village church, with Opéra de Montréal and Harlequin Costumes providing simple, pedestrian costumes. Bill Williams’ effective lighting design ensured you felt the haze and heat of the Appalachian sun throughout this archetypal tale that sadly never grows old.
Susannah has never been for the faint of heart, and like opera companies everywhere, Manitoba Opera continues to face its own stark realities of remaining viable in a world of competing demands for the arts dollar. The company continues to offer more accessible fare — Bizet’s Carmen is right around the corner this spring — balanced with grittier works. With Susannah firmly in the latter camp, Manitoba Opera shows its fearless resolve in shining a spotlight on these weightier issues, adding its own voice in an ongoing critical discourse never more sorely needed than today.