So far, there have not been many reviews of this CD set, and it's easy to understand why. This opera doesn't fit easily into any one pigeonhole. People that hear this recording know they love it, but it's difficult to articulate specifically why without going into great detail. The opera itself conveys a wonderful, refreshing sense of simplicity-simplicity too easily destroyed by reviews and analysis, like a literary criticism of Goodnight Moon. This opera is simply too beautiful to question and take apart.
Another baffling thing about this opera is its refusal, thus far, to become dated. Some who listen might be tempted to think of this as a new opera, but it is, in fact, fast approaching its fiftieth birthday as of this writing. Perhaps this is due to the universal nature of Susannah's experience, and her utterly human reaction to persecution. Though Floyd may have intended his work to stand as a protest of McCarthyism, its relevance to - indeed, its seeming prescience of -- such recent issues as the shootings at Columbine High School is almost frightening. Also, the opera contains melodies. Real ones. It's pretty much impossible to listen to it without later whistling the square-dance tune.
A great deal of the successes and failures of this recording fall on the shoulders of Cheryl Studer, and rightly so. Rumor has it that this recording was originally to feature Renee Fleming in the title role, and one can only wonder what she might have done with it. What Ms. Studer lacks in girlishness, vocally, she certainly makes up in technique. Since opera so often stretches our suspension of disbelief, I can grudgingly accept a Wagnerian soprano in the part of a teenage girl. Why not, when her "Ain't it a pretty night" and "The trees on the mountains" arias are so well-sung? Samuel Ramey also has a magnificent voice, but he sounds a bit confined, a bit too 'bel canto'. He is the only singer in this recording that I wish I could watch on the stage rather than just listen to; I feel I'm missing half his performance by not being able to see him act, especially knowing what a wonderful actor he is.
The most difficult thing to pull off convincingly in this opera is, without question, the dialect. Since I happen to be from middle Tennessee myself, I'll tell y'all: these folks are good singers, but they sure ain't Southern. Very, very close, yes, but not quite authentic. Them folks up in the Smokies do have a real strong drawl, yep, but t'ain't quite's bad as this're recordin'd have ya thinkin'. Our diphthongs are well-nigh unsingable, and I give these singers credit for trying, but I wish they had erred a little more on the side of caution. Mrs. McLean and Mrs. Gleaton are often downright wrong in their diction, and Mr. Gleaton actually manages to sound British! Sam Ramey and Kenn Chester are the two that sound the best to me.
Mr. Nagano's excellent sense of timing pays off perfectly in the church scene. Over the course of only 11 minutes, we experience a congregation's transformation from idyllic and happy worshippers to angry mob. The horror of this transformation rings completely true-a difficult thing to pull off. Susannah's aria, which follows, stands alone as a spine-tingling ballad; its effect in context is to show the depth of Susannah's pain, and the trauma she is experiencing. From this point on, the opera snowballs to its horrifying, but utterly believable, conclusion.
This is an excellent first opera; I play this one for first-timers, and no one has ever told me they found it boring, a waste of time, or anything less than fascinating.