To compete for entertainment dollars, opera has focused on acting, staging, and dramatic arc to raise the attractiveness of their product for the general public; but the magic of transformative theatre remains an elusive quality, particularly in contemporary work.

Elder McLean and the townspeople listen to Reverend Olin Blitch. (Left to right): Robert Gardner as Elder McLean and Grant Youngblood (Reverend Olin Blitch)
Elder McLean and the townspeople
listen to Reverend Olin Blitch. (L to R):
Robert Gardner as Elder McLean and
Grant Youngblood as Reverend Olin Blitch.
Photo: Mark Kiryluk
Take Central City Opera's current production of Carlyle Ford's Susannah. Operatic aficionados adore it, citing its intermittent period music, drawn from the 1950's Tennessee setting, as evidence of its melodic credentials, and its adaptation from an Old Testament story as its dramatic pedigree.

Emily Pulley as Susannah
Emily Pulley as Susannah Polk
Photo: Mark Kiryluk
For general audiences, however, such accoutrements are unlikely to provide enough value: other than Susannah's lovely "Ain't it a pretty night," and a dusting of folk songs, hymns, and hoe-downs, all the arias are atonal prose recitations; while the story, despite its dramatic moments, has no catharsis.

Unlike Arthur Miller's The Crucible, to which it has been compared, the truly righteous in Susannah never fulfill the requirements of tragic heroes; instead, they are left in limbo, neither martyred nor fallen.

Vale Rideout as Sam Polk
Vale Rideout as Sam Polk
Photo: Mark Kiryluk
The performances, however, are first rate. Emily Pulley is fetching and engaging in the title role, and, where melody permits, mesmerizing with her seamless soprano. Vale Rideout, as her brother, Sam, fully realizes the colorful extremes of the story's most enigmatic character—protective of his sister, morally strong in opposing the hypocrisy of the fundamentalists, yet prone to drink and strangely encouraging when it comes to Susannah's church attendance. Grant Youngblood, as the Reverend Olin Blitch, is impressively convincing in this difficult role of the finger-pointing preacher whose skin-deep spirituality fails him when alone with the attractive and vulnerable Susannah.

Ford's points about self-righteous pseudo-Christians are nothing new—their greed and bloodthirsty ambitions dominate our domestic and foreign policy and are responsible for much of the slaughter throughout the world. If such criticism is to be effective, it requires better storytelling dynamics and more emphasis on musical lyricism.

Central City Opera's presentation of Carlyle Ford's Susannah runs in repertory with Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, through August 10th. 303-292-6700.

Bob Bows


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