Thursday, September 18, 2014

San Francisco Opera's Susannah

Little Bat (James Kryshak) and Susannah (Patricia Racette). Photo by Cory Weaver.
Sept. 16, 2014

One of my favorite possessions is a collection of arias by soprano Barbara Divis. I often played it at my day job, and over the months I began to notice a shift in my attentions. Past the expected Bizets and Mozarts and Verdis I was anticipating the arrival of “Ain’t it a pretty night?” from Susannah. But that’s sort of how Carlisle Floyd works. He doesn’t grab onto your audio cortex like some modern-day Donizetti. He sneaks in bit by bit, taking small portions of mental territory until he has fully captured your affections.

This came to mind post-performance at Jardiniere, when the Commander – no expert, but a pretty astute opera-goer – lamented the absence of anything “hummable” in Floyd’s breakthrough 1955 work. I laughed, since, to a critic – his melodic expectations lowered to absolute zero by a 20th Century dominated by frontier-chasing experimentalists – Floyd sounds like Paul friggin’ McCartney. The amazing thing is that, through a combination of youth (27), confidence and a teacher, Ernst Bacon, who told him, “Write what you want to write,” Floyd created his debut piece in a style that is very much his own. “Ain’t it a pretty night?” carries a distinctly American ring, in the mode of Copland or Gershwin. Floyd makes use of folk melodies – in brother Sam’s Jaybird Song and the dark ballad that follows Susannah’s loss of innocence – but not so much that you would call him a folk composer. His orchestral themes follow the action in much the same way as a cinematic soundtrack, giving peeks into the character’s psyches with contemplative sweeps of strings or signaling sudden shocks with Hitchcockian bursts of sound.

The setting for "Ain't it a pretty night?" Photo by Cory Weaver.
SFO has created a beautifully staged premiere for Susannah, featuring Patricia Racette in the title role. Racette is well-cast in the part, possessing a unique ability to channel emotions into her singing, and employing a voice big enough to match the sonic uprisings that accompany the opera’s more scandalous moments.

The great tenor Brandon Jovanovich has less of a chance to shine vocally than in his acclaimed Wagnerian performances, but as Susannah’s protective older brother he reveals a great ability to project character and likeability. His lament on meddling Christians, “It must make the good Lord sad,” is dark and memorable. Tenor James Kryshak plays Little Bat, Susannah’s “tetched” admirer, with a great degree of manic energy, particularly in “They say,” a driving recitation of the rumors cooked up by the local prudes.

Reverend Olin Blitch (Raymond Aceto) leads the revival meeting. Photo by Cory Weaver.
The great treat of the production is bass-baritone Raymond Aceto, who conveys profound force and persuasiveness as the new minister, Reverend Olin Blitch. His revival meeting sermon, “I’m fixin’ to tell you,” is mesmerizing, laced with the great fright that revivals brought to young Floyd, the son of a Methodist minister. Soon after, just when you’re expecting Blitch to use his powers to put the moves on the town slut (whose reputation was sullied by the act of – gasp! -  bathing naked in a creek), he delivers the confessional solo, “I’m a lonely man,” revealing a humanity and a sincerity that one does not expect. This refusal to paint villains in easy blacks and whites is a testament to Floyd’s libretto, and surely a reason for the opera’s great success.

Written in the shadow of McCarthy, the work carries some intriguing resonations for today’s bullying discussion. What exacerbates the situation is the claustrophobia of a small town and the great psychological power of religion. What’s puzzling (quoth the Commander) is why a young woman who was just singing about getting out of town is so frozen in place by the accusations made against her, and why these accusations are so melodramatically stamped in place by Floyd’s score. But most people can think back to high school and remember how ridiculously important the opinions of others were to their teenage selves.

Sam Polk (Brandon Jovanovich). Photo by Cory Weaver.
That said, the elephant in the room is the unnatural view that Christianity takes toward sexuality. Unable to admit a perfectly understandable arousal at the sight of a beautiful, naked young woman, the elders are forced to put on a show of offense for the town and their horrible wives. They have no choice but to condemn the girl for her supposedly evil action.

Set designer Erhard Rom fills the stage with aging timber - walls, decks, ramps - which creates a stark effect. Karen Kamensek led the orchestra in a thrilling performance. The cast was directed by Michael Cavanagh.

Through Sept. 21, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness, San Francisco. $25-$370, 415/864-3330,

Michael J. Vaughn is a 30-year opera critic and the author of the best-selling Kindle novel The Popcorn Girl, which details the psychological effects of a toxically religious childhood.

No comments: