Toronto City Opera
Dylan Wright, a “tour de force”

by | Mar 12, 2024 | Featured, Reviews

Carlisle Floyd’s 1955 opera Susannah is performed less often than it deserves. It’s dramatically well constructed and has an excellent score full of interesting musical details and with some terrific showpiece arias like Susannah’s “The Trees on the Mountain”. So, it was good to see it produced by Toronto City Opera as an alternative to the very short list of “saleable” operas that dominate the GTA scene.

The story is adapted from the Apocryphal story of Susanna and the Elders and, like the original, involves a young woman observed bathing naked by prurient Church Elders. The opera translates the story to rural Tennessee and complicates the bathing incident with the arrival of a hellfire preacher in town. Susannah is ostracised by the townsfolk; especially the “respectable” women, and is eventually sexually assaulted by the new preacher. Tragedy ensues.

Dylan Wright takes a bow after performing in Toronto City Opera Susannah  Photo Credit; Dahlia Katz

Musically it’s quite unusual. It’s largely tonal but with enough chromaticism to keep it interesting. It also makes use of Appalachian folk music elements both in the initial square dance scene and in Susannah’s arias. Perhaps if it had been written fifty years earlier it might have created a genuine national American opera idiom such as Janáček and Dvořák established in the Czech speaking lands.

Toronto City Opera presented the work in the Al Green Theatre and it was fully staged. The limited scenery handling capability of the theatre was more than made up for by very effective use of high quality projections designed by Vojin Vasovic. These effectively created both exterior scenes (mountain stream, night sky etc) and a stunning church interior. During transitions details from some of the canonical paintings of the Apocryphal story, like the Veronese and the Gentileschi, were used which was actually quite disturbing!

Melissa Morris’s direction is straightforwardly effective. The story is moved from the 1950s to 2024 but I’m not sure that makes much difference in rural Tennessee, especially in the age of Trump. The themes are as relevant now as they ever were. The principal characters are sharply drawn and their relationships portrayed with clarity. The “crowd scenes” are handled well; especially as there are a lot of people on a modest sized stage. The square dance is fun to look at and the revivalist church service is quite chilling.

The performances of the principals is very good. Lauren Estey Jovanovic, in the title role, creates a believable portrait of a very young, inexperienced, woman. She moves beautifully, acts extremely well and has all the notes. The two big arias are very nicely done. Joshua Clemenger, as her brother Sam, produces the best performance I have seen from him. He too creates an entirely believable character and sings accurately and pleasantly. The star of the show though is Dylan Wright as the preacher Olin Blitch. It helps that he’s a tall, imposing figure but he can also act and he has a booming bass voice that fills the theatre and then some. He is truly scary in the scene where he preaches and really rather revolting in his “seduction”of Susannah. It’s a tour de force.

The large supporting cast; Elders, Wives and Susannah’s rather pathetic “boyfriend”, Little Bat, are all sung with conviction and accuracy. The chorus is an amateur one and not the most polished but when their music consists in large part of singing at a Revivalist service that hardly matters and they are certainly enthusiastic! The work is basically presented with piano accompaniment, ably supplied by Ivan Estey Jovanovic, but there’s also a solo violin to help out for the square dance. Jennifer Tung conducts efficiently and effectively.

This is definitely the best TCO show I’ve seen. Production values have improved markedly and if they continue to present less well known operas as effectively as Susannah they will fill a much needed niche in the Toronto opera scene.

Reviewed on February 25, 2024

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John Gilks

Formerly a management consultant and ehealth guru, John’s interests in the classical arts range from recitals to straight theatre via opera and other classical vocal genres. He is particularly interested in the intersection of Indigenous issues and the arts.



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