Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Susa's `Black River': Dark but Compelling

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Susa's `Black River': Dark but Compelling

Article excerpt

LIKE Wagner's "Ring" cycle, Conrad Susa's "Black River" begins with a musical depiction of water and ends with a conflagration. And like the Wagner epic, Susa's 1975 opera - which opened at the Loretto-Hilton Center on Thursday evening - is tragic in a most glorious sort of way. There's a big difference, though, in the messages the two works put across.

In Wagner, the holocaust is a form of retribution, just another example of nature wreaking vengeance on those who would flout its laws.

In Susa, fire is a means of escape. At the center of attention in the finale of "Black River" is a chronic depressive who pours kerosene over herself and tearfully lights a match. Poor Clara is made to look like a martyr in Opera Theatre of St. Louis' production, but Susa's music gives the impression that she is ascending into heaven in a chariot drawn by angels.

This is an extended scene, and its choral writing is especially effective. In all of opera, the suicide of a thoroughly miserable person has never sounded more appealing.

Before Clara so lyrically burns herself to death, most of the opera is as dark as its titular river.

Besides Clara, the main characters are a young, pregnant widow who claims she is unable to feel love and an opera singer whose failed career has driven her to an insane asylum.

Set in a small Wisconsin town late in the 19th century, their tales are elaborately spun and intertwined over the course of the opera's three acts.

The audience glimpses the good moments as well as the bad, but happiness in "Black River" is fleeting, and it functions like an emotional calm that presages a storm of pain. All things considered, the other two women are as likely candidates for suicide as is Clara.

But cynical Lucy solves her problem simply by leaving town, and crazy Pauline just sinks blissfully into her vast collection of warped memories. What happens to Lucy and Pauline amounts to no big deal. It's Clara decision - dramatically prolonged, theatrically exaggerated, musically celebrated - that seems to represent the moral of the story. …

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