The Eastman Opera Theatre and the Eastman Philharmonia, conducted by Benton Hess, presented Steven Diagle’s production of Carlisle Floyd’s opera “Susannah” last Thursday. The program and posters widely advertised the topics of this “American opera – hypocrisy, lies and betrayal.” However, the work deals with ever-important issues such as personal treachery, dishonesty and maliciousness, and not merely American issues. Floyd’s composition is set and premiered in the 1950s. The story centers around the outgoing girl Susannah. After accidentally seeing her bathing, the four male elders prefer to condemn her as a sinner rather then to admit their own lust. One of them even convinces his son, Susannah’s friend Little Bat, to admit being seduced by her. Susannah refuses preacher Olin Blitch’s demand to publicly admit her sins. Later he follows her and seduces her while her brother Sam is on a hunt. Realizing she “was untouched before,” the repentant Blitch tries to convince the elders of her innocence, but naturally fails. When Sam understands what had happened, he murders Blitch and escapes from New Hope Valley. Susannah manages to scare the angry crowd away, and is left completely alone. This work has a very powerful message against malevolent petty talk and selective Biblicism. The community’s outrage against Susannah is based on nothing but gossip and rumours. In Act 2, Scene 1, Blitch claims that God had told him to call upon all sinners to confess. In Scene 4, trying to cover himself up, he claims to the elders that God had revealed to him that Susannah is innocent. Yet he doesn’t remember God when seducing a desperate girl. Another important theme in this work is the never-occurring forgiveness. Susannah is so degraded that when Blitch begs her in Act 2, Scene 4, “Forgive me, please, forgive me,” she leaves him by snapping back, “Forgiveness? I have forgotten what this word means!” At the end Little Bat approaches Susannah, hoping she will pardon his lies. She allows him to come close and slaps him in the face. At the end the community is just as close-minded as at the beginning, the contrite Blitch is shot without receiving a second chance, honest Sam becomes a murderer, innocent Susannah is condemned to loneliness and little Bat is unforgiven. Floyd’s musical setting for this tragedy exemplifies a diatonic and rather modal approach. The music tends to lack tension, but is incredibly dynamic.Act 2, Scene 2 is the best-scored part of the composition. Blitch’s most disturbing line, “The Lord… he spoke with me this afternoon,” is said. His vocal solo is accompanied by a four voice vocal humming, which gradually accelerates when the composer introduces actual words. The effect of the preacher’s cruel aria is very successfully intensified by the chorus’ vigorous humming and later singing. This performance of “Susannah” was a well-deserved success. The young singers projected potently to the very back of Eastman Theatre, even though some of the diction was lost in the abundance of velvet in the hall. Tiffany Blake, who performed Susannah, earned a deserved applause after every aria with her focused pitch and clear intonation. All of her multiple high B’s in Act 2, Scene 4 were in tune, with no excessive vibrato to obscure them. Her dynamic contrast was never bigger than required by her character’s predicament at the moment. Ted Christopher’s interpretation of Blitch was very convincing, especially because he did not overuse his powerful voice. His plea for forgiveness in Act 2, Scene 4 was sung in piano, yet both words and music carried through Eastman Theatre’s non-existent acoustic to touch the listeners. The high level of preparation and careful team rehearsal showed especially at the very end of Act 2, Scene 3, when Blitch convinces Susannah to go with him inside the house. The augmented triad in the trumpets, which Floyd superimposes on the strings to symbolize threat, coincided perfectly with the couple’s entrance into Susannah’s house. This fine stage timing illustrated more then anything else the good stage training of Eastman’s vocal students and the stable conducting of Hess. The colorful costumes and intelligent stage managing of the production wouldn’t have mattered without the singers’ emphatic acting. Frequently, an opera performance becomes a “concert in costumes,” as the form was accused by 18th-century music critics, because the performers are too insecure about their singing to really concentrate on portraying their character. This problem did not exist in “Susannah.” Daniel Ross Hinson was especially good at acting out Little Bat McLean. Every singer had a real stage presence. Frequently the words were unnecessary, as the body movements and hand gestures were so expressive of the particular emotional state. Thursday’s opening night performance of Floyd’s “Susannah” was excellent in every respect. The singing, acting, staging, directing and playing represented the very best emerging talents of Eastman. Fol can be reached at

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