Live Theater, Live Theater Reviews

God, Guns, and Gossip: OTSL Delivers a Sparkling SUSANNAH 

Posted: June 14, 2023 at 9:09 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

There was a rapturous moment offstage during the opening night of Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ Susannah. Conductor Gemma New, herself in the midst of a glorious performance, took advantage of a musical pause to set aside her baton, fold her hands and take in the moment before joining the audience in their thunderous applause for soprano Janai Brugger.

Using the power of her voice, Brugger drove the company’s Appalachian tale of tears to dizzying heights in her debut with the company. Simply, the best performance of Opera Theatre’s 2023 season, Brugger delivered an unrelenting and captivating clinic on using the voice to depict drama, tension, and wrenching heartache.

Susannah is set in New Hope Valley, a small town filled with whispers and idle gossip. It is not a happy place to live. Led by a pack of judgmental elders who stand on a moral high ground over a backwater community whose residents use their church as the center for their social and cultural life. It also is a place filled with innuendo and false assumptions.

Caught in the middle of the town’s rumormongering is the young and innocent Susannah Polk. Living in the woods with her brother Sam, who unfortunately has a rather bad drinking problem, she goes about her daily life oblivious that her good looks and charming personality provoke feelings of jealousy amongst her neighbors.

Things become even more tense at a church dance when the parishioners become riled up after she catches the eye of the town’s new pastor, Olin Blitch. Asking her to dance, he is immediately smitten. Envious of her popularity Susannah becomes ostracized.

Despite the leering eyes of the townsfolk, she finds a friend in Little Bat, the son of two prominent church elders. After the dance she visits with Little Bat until her brother returns home.

Living in seclusion, Susannah spends the next morning bathing in a nearby stream. Unfortunately, her privacy is interrupted by several men from her church who are looking for a baptismal site. Although she is unaware of their presence, the sight of her naked body throws the onlooking elders into a dither of shame.

Returning home embarrassed and fearful they have sinned; the men spread false rumors and sully her reputation. As the nasty untruths circulate, the elders and congregation turn their back on Susannah, forcing her to choose between conformity and separation. 

Although she is urged by her brother to apologize and get everything over with, Susannah stands her ground and refuses to acknowledge the elders’ falsehoods. The intensity takes a turn for the worst when Blitch visits her. 

Hoping to “save her soul,” Blitch’s glitch of hypocrisy comes to the surface and unleashes his suppressed desires. Returning home from hunting the next morning, an enraged Sam encounters a distraught Susannah. 

Angered by the pastor’s actions and frustrated by the unfair treatment of his sister, he decides to take matters into his own hands, setting a course of tragic events in motion.

This poignant opera guided by returning director Patricia Racette, is filled with raw emotion. Her production transforms a McCarthy-era work of social criticism into an opera that rubs raw nerves and confronts the duplicity of small towns, religion, and sham evangelism that exist today.

She also takes full advantage of Andrew Boyce’s set design and Greg Emetaz excellent projections to extend the opera’s physical landscape. The latter’s visuals use shimmer and shadow to underscore the emotion onstage.

This matchless presentation is complemented by a fantastic score conducted by Gemma New. The former resident conductor of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra relies on musical storytelling to frame the tragedy found in Carlisle Floyd’s opera.

Influenced by Copland, Barber, and the folk music of the Appalachians, the score opens with a spirited frolic before gradually moving onto gospel-tinged melodies that unwind into a sweeping somberness as the opera unfolds into darker terrains.

While Janai Brugger is a force of nature onstage, her co-star William Guanbo Su delivers a staggering performance of his own. As the slimy Blitch, he is a vile yet vulnerable villain whose commanding voice shines in both his solos and duets with Brugger. His arrival on the OTSL stage is a sign of bigger things to come.

While the role of Sam is a small one, tenor Frederick Ballantine leaves a big mark with a stunning debut. Also exceptional is Keith Klein as the unseemly Elder McLean.

This new rendering of the second-most performed American operatic work is modern and vibrant. Moving away from its late 1950s backdrop, Susannah is a work that has not grown stagnant. 

Thanks to Racette, her dizzyingly talented ensemble, and an innovative technical crew, OTSL has created an opera that speaks to us today through its contemporary feminist themes and commentary on church dogma. The best opera of the season, Susannah is not to be missed.

Susannah runs through June 24th at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the campus of Webster University. Productions at Opera Theatre St. Louis are in English with musical accompaniment from the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. For more information on programming or the 2023 season, visit