This afternoon in the War Memorial Opera House, the San Francisco Opera (SFO) gave the last of its five performances of Carlisle Floyd’s most-performed opera Susannah. This opera is so uncompromisingly intense on so many fronts that it is difficult to enumerate them all. However, for all the admirable qualities of vocal lines setting the words of Floyd’s own libretto, the first impression comes from the orchestra pit; and, in many ways, no matter how many times the opera is produced by no matter how many different companies, the bold strokes of Floyd’s thematic material and full-throated instrumentation never fail to make that first impression the most lasting.
This was conductor Karen Kamensek’s first production with SFO. She has been Music Director at the Hannover State Theater since 2011; and from her very first downbeat it was clear that she was relishing this opportunity to present such a thoroughly American score with an equally thoroughly American ensemble. One quickly got the impression that Floyd had a deep understanding of traditional American music (folk music) reaching beyond a personal attachment to all the tunes and delving into the morphological substrate. This is perhaps most evident in the second act when Susannah sings “The Trees on the Mountain” (“previewed” during the opening instrumental prelude), which is an original composition whose roots branch into diverse Appalachian sources, the most familiar of which is “On Top of Old Smoky.” What could be more appropriate when it is so clear from Erhard Rom’s designs for this production that the setting is the Great Smoky Mountains?
From the perspective of performance, what matters significantly is the ability to sing songs like this as if they were folk songs. In the title role, Patricia Racette found just the right delivery to create this “illusion of folk singing.” One could also detect it in Brandon Jovanovich’s delivery of Sam, Susannah’s brother, singing the “Jaybird” song. In other words, while everything about Susannah, music and text, is “man-made artifice” (just like the plethora of Renaissance paintings of Susannah surprised by the Elders while bathing, at least one of which inspired Floyd), Floyd had a rhetorical gift to summon up that “illusion of the folk” in every aspect of its performance.
Where this illusion encountered some problems, however, was in the matter of balance. There were 63 players in the orchestra pit under Kamensek’s direction, and Floyd often requires them to roar at the indignity of the exclusion of a bold but innocent woman on false pretenses. While Racette, Jovanovich, and Raymond Aceto as the Revered Olin Blitch were consistently up to roaring back (as the score required), this could not be said of all of the other vocal resources. None of the Elders ever quite rose to the menacing darkness of their self-righteous certainties; and, among the Elders’ wives, only Catherine Cook as Mrs. McLean (wife of the leader of the Elders) came off as sufficiently threatening. Somewhat more effective (which is to say intimidating) was the delivery of the SFO Chorus (prepared by Chorus Director Ian Robertson) in the prayer meeting scene.
Fortunately, the overall visceral impact of this dark tale of a dark injustice could rise above any of these minor difficulties; and one could appreciate from this production why Susannah is Floyd’s most-performed opera.
Today’s performance was followed by a special ceremony. This was the annual presentation of the SFO Medal. Racette, now in her 25th year of performing with SFO, was the honored recipient. The grace with which she accepted this award and her sincere recognition of all the behind-the-scenes personnel without whom the “magic” could not happen brought a radiant light to all that darkness in the opera itself, allowing the entire audience to leave the War Memorial Opera House in high spirits, rather than desolation over Susannah’s cruel fate.