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James A. Altena
Fanfare, November 2017

As Susannah, Susan Hellman Spatafora is well-nigh ideal, with a ravishingly beautiful, pure, ample soprano, technically secure in every way and interpretively fully immersed in every nuance of her role. As Olin Blitch, baritone Todd Donovan is lighter and less imposing of voice than bassos such as Norman Treigle and Samuel Ramey who made the role their own, but after the first scene his timbre darkens and he inhabits the part with the inside familiarity and realism that his extra-operatic ministerial calling provides. Tenor Anthony Wright Webb offers a firmly sung and acutely characterized Sam; Scott Wichael is an effective Bat McLean… Quite remarkably, all eight singers in the smaller roles of the four elders and their wives have well-schooled voices that would be a pleasure to hear in much larger roles as well. The chorus and orchestra acquit themselves with honors, and conductor Mark Sforzini leads an exceptionally effective account of the score that enabled me to hear numerous instrumental details that heretofore had escaped my notice. © 2017 Fanfare Read complete review

James A. Altena
Fanfare, November 2017

This powerful operatic masterpiece receives a superbly sung and mostly well-staged presentation from a regional opera company whose foresight and courage puts the major houses to shame for their neglect here. © 2017 Fanfare Read complete review

Joshua Rosenblum
Opera News, September 2017

As Susannah, the innocent girl whom the village elders deem a sinner when they spy her bathing naked in a creek, Susan Hellman Spatafora at first overflows with unsullied youthful exuberance, unaware that her beauty inspires lust in the village’s men and jealousy in their wives. In “Ain’t It a Pretty Night,” the opera’s most popular number, her soprano has the perfect yearningly optimistic coloring—golden and radiant—intensifying Susannah’s imminent tragedy.

As Olin Blitch, the town’s newly arrived preacher, baritone Todd Donovan is frighteningly charismatic while conjuring the fiery torments of hell for his cowed, wide-eyed congregation. Some of the role lies below his comfort zone, but he powers through with conviction.

As Sam, Susannah’s ultraprotective brother with a tendency toward drunkenness, tenor Anthony Wright Webb has an unmistakable sweetness in his tone as he consoles his sister—all the more touching juxtaposed with Webb’s formidable physical stature.

For St. Petersburg Opera, a small company in Florida, Michael Unger directs with clarity and imagination. Conductor Mark Sforzini and the orchestra are well attuned to the sweeping lyricism, encroaching dissonances and confrontational drama in the score. This is a thoroughly satisfying, top-notch production. © 2017 Opera News Read complete review

David Reynolds
American Record Guide, September 2017

The chorus (so important in this opera) brings a commitment to their scenes of religious fervor that isn’t as common as one might think. It is mostly non-professional singers, and this isn’t just another opera in a long season for them, but a unique opportunity.

Susan Hellman Spatafora is a lovely, earthy Susannah. Her voice may not be as lush as Renee Fleming’s, but it suits the character very well and she is more believable in the role. Todd Donovan’s Olin Blitch doesn’t have the sheer vocal magnificence of Samuel Ramey’s famous interpretation; yet he is more specific in his acting. Anthony Wright Webb is a burly, handsome Sam with a fine tenor; and Scott Wichael’s Little Bat is heartbreaking. Michael Unger really encourages everyone in the cast to find specific relationships. By doing so, he makes everyone a participant in the drama, and the story is that much more enthralling. Mark Sforzini captures the many moods of the story with his passionate leadership in the pit. © 2017 American Record Guide Read complete review on American Record Guide

Robert Levine, June 2017

Finest among the soloists is Todd Donavan as the lusty Reverend Olin Blitch. Donavan is the most experienced of the singers, having sung Scarpia, Leporello, and the four Hoffmann villains with the company, and it tells. His voice is a grand bass baritone, solid from top to bottom, and he acts up a storm, whether preaching or seducing.

Anthony Wright Webb’s bright, big tenor is just right for Susannah’s drunken, loving, impetuous brother, Sam; and Scott Wichael, as the somewhat mentally challenged Little Bat, exhibits a gigantic voice.

The remainder of the cast—a particularly fine quartet of the gossipy, judgmental wives of the Elders—is very good, and the chorus, with plenty to do, is mightily impressive. So, I might add, is the 35-member orchestra, all of them under the passionate direction of Mark Sforzini. © 2017 Read complete review

David Denton
David's Review Corner, May 2017

Carlisle Floyd is regarded as the father of contemporary American opera, having in a long career written twelve, the tragic Susannah being his most often performed. Based on the biblical character in the Book of Daniel, Floyd updates the story and takes it into the American world of Revivalist meetings in Tennessee where we find the older women jealous of Susannah’s beauty that is turning the heads of husbands. She is later found bathing nude in the creek to the horror of the puritanical church elders who have gone there seeking a place to perform baptisms. When she later appears at the church dinner she is sent away, one of their number coerced into falsely claim she has already seduced him. Coming to her proverbially holding out an olive branch, she allows the Reverend Blitch into her house where he rapes her. Now the elders seek to drive her out of their community, only Blitch could tell them that in raping her he realised she was a virgin and had lead a blameless life, but in failing to admit his guilt, Susannah’s brother kills him for his crime. Stylistically it has its roots in the Italian verismo school of the late nineteenth century, that becoming evident with Susannah’s aria in the first act beholding the evening sky, and throughout it is a score full of melody and American folk dances. It was premiered at Florida University in 1955, and the following year the production by the New York Opera Company, conducted by Erich Leinsdorf, being greeted with ecstatic critical and audience acclaim.  For this performance we return to Florida for its premiere on DVD with a staging in the Palladium Theatre, St. Petersburg, in the presence of the eighty-eight year old composer. It is a small venue with the orchestra to the rear of the stage, though the Stage Director, Michael Unger, has managed, in the limited remaining space, to create an energetic square dance scene and a highly effective Revivalist service with its religious fervour. The singing is equally effective with a powerful Susannah from Susan Hellman Spatafore; a potent baritone, Todd Donovan, as Olin Blitch, while I much enjoyed the tenor, Anthony Wright Webb, as Susannah’s brother Sam. The local orchestra and chorus are enthusiastic under the conductor, Mark Sforzini, and the unfussy filming offers everything that is needed, though you will need your volume control constantly to hand as it requires frequent adjustment as recording levels bounce around, and the frequent audience applause is very noisily captured. You will also find the optional subtitles a great help as the libretto is in regional American dialect, and the singing diction is somewhat less than ideal in the long cast list. © 2017 David’s Review Corner

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