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All staged dramatic forms require well-defined protagonists whose psychological state can be explored and developed within a narrative that moves towards a defined end through a series of heightened emotional moments. The marriage of drama with music presents further challenges; musical form offers possibilities for exploring inner psychological states, but also risks privileging musical structure over the dramatic. Using the bible as a musico-dramatic source creates still more difficulties. A text produced in profoundly patriarchal societies has not, with a very few notable exceptions, portrayed female characters of sufficient psychological complexity to sustain the dramatic requirements of the stage. Consequently, in developing biblical stories for the operatic stage, librettists have resorted to one of two approaches: either inventing female characters to insert into biblical/apocryphal narratives that otherwise are completely male or elaborating upon the scant biblical data in order to produce a more complex and well-rounded female character.

Here, I examine these approaches as exemplified in two operas dealing with events related in the book of Daniel and its apocryphal additions. The operas are separated by roughly a century; both have enjoyed popular (if not academic) appeal and both were the first major successes enjoyed by their composers. They are Verdi's Nabucco, premiered at La Scala, Milan in 1842, and Carlisle Floyd's Susannah, a "musical drama," as he preferred to categorize it, first performed at Florida State University in 1955. I will focus especially on the psychological presentation of the principal female characters, Abigaille in Nabuccoand the eponymous Susannah, who illustrate two very different approaches to the fate of operatic women. Abigaille is an operatic "bad-girl" who unconvincingly makes good at the end, at the cost of sharing the usual fate of women who upset operatic patriarchy, that is, she dies. Susannah, on the other hand follows a reverse trajectory. She begins as an innocent, and concludes, perhaps, as a femme fatale, emotionally wounded, sexually exploited, but standing determined and alone as she sees off her opponents down the sights of a shotgun.


The plot of Nabucco is based upon two Old Testament stories, the fall of Jerusalem in 2 Kgs 25 and the madness of King Nebuchadnezzar in Dan 4. As a vehicle for operatic drama, these events have a great deal to offer, namely, ample possibilities for crowd and battle scenes, and triumphant processions, while mad scenes were part of the stock in trade of the early-nineteenth-century Romantic operatic repertoire. However, the biblical texts lack two related aspects essential to popular opera at the time, namely, lead female characters and a romantic interest. These lacunae were filled by the invention of daughters for Nebuchadnezzar, Fenena and Abigaille, rivals for the affection of the Israelite prince Ismaele.

This is youthful Verdi, and although the music of Nabucco captured the enthusiasm of its contemporary popular audience, it lacks his later polish. There are moments of musical sublimity, but the quality overall is uneven. Verdi still had a great deal to learn, and was not helped in this by his librettist Solero. Sustained character development is thin, being generally sacrificed to melodramatic moments of heightened but ultimately unrealistic drama. Characters undergo extraordinary shifts, yet little insight is offered into the motives that underpin those shifts. The less than credible characters therefore careen from one emotionally-pitched moment to the next.

The failure to create fully rounded characters and exploit their full potential is particularly evident in one of the female characters. Abigaille could have been one of the strongest female characters in the operatic repertoire, and Verdi does rise to some of his best music in the opera in writing for her. Yet she is a broken-backed character, most unconvincingly sacrificed to bring the opera to a happy ending. Opera, largely of course male-written, seems to be extremely uneasy with allowing a dominant female to triumph; as Catherine Clement has argued,[1] the genre tends to move through the exploration of strong female figures towards a reestablishment of patriarchy through their elimination. Abigaille presents a particular threat to that patriarchy because of the violence of her emotions and because she does, albeit briefly, establish her own political and musical dominance at the heart of the opera.

Abigaille's all-consuming emotion is hatred. The underlying motives for it are explored in parts 1 and 2. Abigaille bursts into the Jerusalem Temple at the opening as an Amazon-like warrior to confront Fenena and Ismaele. Her driving motive here is the jealousy of a scorned lover — stock operatic territory. However, a twist is added in part 2; the erstwhile devoted daughter discovers that she is Nebuchadnezzar's only by adoption, and is by birth in fact a slave. At this point, any attempt at historical credibility or fidelity to the biblical text has been abandoned.

The musical high-point of Abigaille's career comes, perhaps surprisingly, not as she actually seizes the throne from her insane father, but earlier, when she decides on her course of action. And what an ending that scene has! Verdi's music depicts a moment of supreme triumph: "Already I ascend the blood-stained footstool of the gilded throne."[2]

This satisfies the musical need for a moment of high emotional energy, and the dramatic requirement of providing a cliff-hanger.

In part 3, Abigaille seals her triumph, humiliating Nebachudnezzar and engineering the execution of Fenena and Ismaele. She then disappears from the action, to reemerge in the closing moments stripped of anger, passion, vitality, and credibility. All has dissolved into guilt. This is simply too sudden a transformation. As her recovered father resumes his throne, and monotheistic Judaism triumphs, the patriarchal status quo is (literally) restored. Abigaille represents a disruptively powerful femininity that has no place in this order and has to be removed. Even her paganism is eliminated as with her dying breath she undergoes a most unlikely conversion to Judaism.

Abigaille, who could have been so potent a character, is therefore a disappointment. The failure to provide fully rounded development of her character ultimately makes this work a series of colourful tableaux hung upon a broadly biblical framework, rather than a serious engagement with a biblical story. If we turn now to the second opera, we enter a paradox: The action has been removed far from the apocryphal milieu, and the details of the story have been subjected to considerable transformation. Yet, through this process of reinterpretation, the core issues of the Susannah story have been preserved and indeed heightened.


This heightening is because Floyd's opera, for which he wrote both text and music, tackles head on the critical issue that Nabucco's happy ending avoids, and which runs through the original Susannah story. That is, how can a strong female character maintain integrity in a society dominated by religious absolutism and hegemonic masculinity? Floyd traces the psychological development of Susannah's character both convincingly and consistently. She progresses from a state of innocence, through the inner turmoil of her false accusation and ostracization within her community, to a position of authority and maturity; and Floyd deliberately avoids the happy ending that would have seen her restored to her former state. Instead, she is badly tarnished by her experience, and the opera closes with her assuming for herself the role of abuser. This gives the piece a far greater realism than Verdi's opera. It is not without its artistic faults or its critics, but the piece does hold together more satisfactorily than Nabucco.

Many of the central features of the original Susannah story find their way into Floyd's opera, for example, the name and innocence of the heroine, the figures of religious Elders, and their discovery of a naked Susannah bathing in the open air. Both accounts draw a sharp contrast between the innocence of Susannah and the lustful hypocrisy of the religious leaders, and both pivot around a trial scene, though Floyd brilliantly transforms this into an evangelistic altar-call service. While the broad outlines are maintained, Floyd reworks the original story with great freedom and creativity, shifting the action into a new setting. His Susannah takes place not in ancient Babylon, but in the mountains of Tennessee during a religious revivalist week in the mid-twentieth century. Susannah's accusers are Elders not of the exiled Jewish community, but of the local Christian church.

Throughout the piece, the themes of religious and gender-related bigotry are interwoven. The most masterly handling of this is in the bathing scene, which Floyd maps onto the motif of sacramental repentance. The Elders come upon Susannah as they scout out a possible site for the baptisms they expect in the forthcoming revivalist week. Susannah's innocent bathing is the setting where her enemies' initially lustful and then destructive thoughts are formulated; it is also the location at which they, as leaders of the community, will conduct a Christian ritual of the repentance they demand of Susannah but do not regard as applying to them. A final twist is provided in the last scene, when Susannah's creek becomes the location of the violent murder of her primary assailant as he baptises others. And Susannah herself? Floyd portrays her not as the mature wife of a wealthy man, but as a virginal eighteen-year-old orphan, living in poverty with her amiable but drunken brother.

The freedom that Floyd brought to this reworking can, to some extent, be explained by his statement that he did not study the text of Susannah until after he had written the opera. It was, he said, based on his own memories of the story and those of a colleague who first suggested it to him as an operatic theme, and on "some old pictures." His lack of detailed knowledge of the source appears to have released his creative imagination, permitting an extraordinary transformation in which traces of key aspects of the original can still be recognized, but freely transposed into radically different settings.

This process of transformation can best be examined in a figure who appears in both the original and Floyd's work, a young boy or youth. In the apocrypha, at the trial of Susannah, a young lad named Daniel (6:44-45) intervenes to protest her innocence and to expose the false nature of the accusation that has been laid upon her. Floyd's opera also has a youth who occupies a pivotal role. He is "Little Bat," the very immature son of a Church Elder. The role he performs in the drama is the opposite of the original Daniel's. Instead of saving Susannah, he becomes the key witness for the prosecution, and the tool of her accusers.

The psychological heart of the opera is its exploration of the impact of false accusation upon the individual. This was, of course, a central theme of the original story, but it also resonates with the period of the work's composition, towards the end of the Macarthyite era, when accusation was taken almost as tantamount to proof of guilt. Floyd's Susannah has no way of defending herself. The Elders' accusation of her is a diversionary activity to mask their own sense of guilt at their sexual arousal at the bathing scene. Their wives' complicity is the fruit of their own deep-seated prejudice against Susannah. These two come together in the willingness of both elders and wives to believe evidence that they themselves have fabricated by pressurising Little Bat to confess to that which his own father secretly desired. The religious authorities thus invent a public character for Susannah: the femme fatale, a corrupter of innocent youth whom she draws to destruction and, indeed, damnation. Having laid these foundations, Floyd examines Susannah's psychological decline as the impossibility of her situation weighs increasingly upon her. Her initial response is one of helplessness. Later, she begins to internalize the accusation:

Mebbe I'm all they say I am. Mebbe the devil is in me. Mebbe he's hidin' the sin I should feel. (Act 2, Scene 1)

As the action progresses, her helplessness moves closer to despair in a frighteningly accurate portrayal of depression:

I don't know what it'd be like To feel happy agin, Or to wake up in the mornin' Without this awful thing Weighin' down on me So's I don't even wanta git up To see what the day's like. An' all them things people's said about me An' the looks people's give me An' the way they treated me [...] I don't know what it'd be like To be happy agin. And if I thought this was the way The rest o' my life was gonna be, I'd kill myself right now. (Act 2 Scene 4)

Floyd adds, however, a further twist to the story. Like her namesake, Susannah is subjected to sexual demands, but her response is different. Her sexual assailant, the Revd.Olin Blitch, has no direct parallel in the Apocrypha; in creating this character, Floyd has drawn upon his own childhood memories of Revivalist itinerant preachers. When Blitch fails to persuade Susannah to repent (of the sin she has not committed) he rapes her. This event crystallizes her sense of her own helplessness in the face of the overwhelming weight of false accusation. In her scene with Sam following the rape, Susannah reveals why she had given in to Blitch:

'Cause I was tired! That's why! Tired o' fightin' an' tired o' livin' in a world where the truth has to fight so hard to git itself believed. An' on top o' that I plum don't care. If people was gonna believe the worst anyway, then I didn't see what diff'rence it made. But most of all I was tired.

In terms of emotional energy this is Susannah's lowest point. However, with Sam's response, which is to shoot Blitch as he baptizes in the creek, her attitude changes. As the mob rushes to her house from the creek she first laughs mockingly at them, and then successfully orders them off her property. The opera ends with a final note of transformation. She calls Little Bat up to the porch. Floyd's stage directions continue:

He starts to put his arms around her, and as he does so, Susannah slaps him viciously across the face. Little Bat runs yelping down the steps and across the yard. Susannah screams with laughter and moves to the door [...]. Her laughter vanishes as quickly as it began. She turns round, straightens her body in the doorway and remains standing there, an inviolably strong and inexorably lonely figure in self-imposed exile.

Unlike Abigaille, Floyd's Susannah is a survivor, but at great cost. She has begun to mimic that femme fatale that her false accusers would have had her be. The abused has become the abuser.

Peter McGrail, Liverpool Hope University

[1] Cathérine Clément, Opera, or the Undoing of Women (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988).

[2] Giuseppe Sinopoli, Ghena Dimitrova, Deutschen Oper Berlin. Deutsche Grammophon 410 512-2.

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Citation: Peter McGrail, " Oh, Susannah!," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited June 2006]. Online:


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