Last night in the War Memorial Opera House, the San Francisco Opera (SFO) gave the Company premiere of Carlisle Floyd’s opera Susannah. Patricia Racette sang the title role; and the two principle male roles were sung by Raymond Aceto (Reverend Olin Blitch) and Brandon Jovanovich (Sam Polk, Susannah’s brother). The production was staged by Michael Cavanagh, and Karen Kamensek made her debut as conductor.
The first performance of this opera was a student production at Florida State University given on February 24, 1955. The only performers who were not students were Phyllis Curtin as Susannah and Mack Harrell as Blitch. The Bay Area has seen two previous productions, one by the Spring Opera Theater in May of 1964, which Floyd himself directed, and the other as part of a tour by the Western Opera Theater in 1977.
As Floyd told the Insight Panel at the end of last month, he wrote his own libretto for this opera inspired by a Renaissance painting of the elders spying on Susannah while she was bathing. He did not say which painting. The subject matter comes from the Biblical apocrypha originally associated with the Book of Daniel, and it was a popular one during the Renaissance. The Wikipedia entry lists eight painters including Artemisia Gentileschi. Floyd also noted that he never read the apocrypha text until he had completed his libretto. The cover of the program book shows Thomas Hart Benton’s 1938 painting of the same subject, almost frighteningly consistent with Floyd’s subsequent operatic interpretation.
Indeed, while the Biblical tale is about how Daniel reveals that the elders, who accused Susannah of adultery, were false witnesses, there is no redemption for anyone in the opera. Blitch is certainly no Daniel. He discovers Susannah’s purity by sleeping with her and never convinces the elders of New Hope Valley, Tennessee of her innocence. Instead he is killed by Susannah’s brother for violating her.
Instead, the opera is a dark tale of persecution of an individual who is different (Susannah lives away from the town in a cabin in the woods with her brother), inspired by the sorts of persecutions that took place at the time of the opera’s first performance through the activities of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s vicious attempts to uncover “un-American activities.” Cavanagh conceived his staging as a flashback. We begin by seeing an old woman in front of a cabin sitting with a rifle in her lap, and we then discover how she came to be that way.
At a time when most composers felt obliged to establish their intellectual credentials by exploring different approaches to atonality and dissonance, Floyd felt that a tale of a remote valley in Tennessee could only be told through a folk idiom. He had a keen ear for capturing southern mountain music, inventing a world that would probably be familiar to anyone who watched Justified regularly. The sense of place was enhanced by projected panoramic images of the Great Smoky Mountains alternating with still images of the ruin of poverty, such as rotting wood cabins, reminiscent of the photographs of Dorothea Lange. The result is one of easily accessible music that still manages to penetrate deep into the darkness of human nature.
That darkness was best captured by the lead vocalists. If Racette was still showing signs of uncertainty in her pitch, she compensated with a solid commitment to capturing Susannah’s transformation from carefree innocent into a stubborn woman who has lost all faith in humanity. Aceto captured Blitch’s compelling nature as a revivalist but, more importantly, balanced it against his character’s recognition of his own capacity for sin. As Sam Jovanovich was the likeable rock of reliability in Susannah’s life (which meant that, while we often saw him with a bottle, we were not really aware of his drinking problem).
The opera was at its weakest in its ensemble work. Floyd composed his instrumental parts with broad strokes of colorful instrumentation, but Kamensek had not yet found the right way to balance his masses of sound against those of all the townspeople on stage. The fact is that this is actually a very intimate opera, and it tends to do better when staged in smaller spaces.
Musically, it is also an impressively well-crafted piece of work. Each of the two acts consists of a sequence of detached scenes, each one a well-defined episode unto itself. The result is that an intensely human drama plays out in a highly disciplined formal structure, not that different from the approach that Alban Berg took for his Opus 7 Wozzeck opera. In that respect it was unfortunate that the program book did not take the trouble to enumerate these scenes, since they form the spinal cord of the entire opera. (The program book also claims that the libretto is based on Biblical apocrypha, even if Floyd himself asserted during the Insight Panel that this was only a “second-hand” connection.)
The remaining performance of Susannah will take place at 7:30 p.m. on September 9, 12, and 16 and at 2 p.m. on September 21. It has its own event page on the SFO Web site from which tickets may be purchased. Tickets are priced from $30 to $370 and may be purchased through that same event page. They may also be purchased at the SFO Box Office in the War Memorial Opera House (301 Van Ness Avenue at the northwest corner of Grove Street) or by calling 415-864-3330. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. It is open for telephone orders only on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Standing Room tickets go on sale for $10 (cash only) at 10 a.m. on the day of each performance.