In a few weeks, Carlisle Floyd’s great opera “Susannah” will be 60 years old.
To place that fact in the context of other operas in the standard repertory, consider that when “Susannah” had its premiere, Puccini’s “Turandot” was 29 years old and George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward’s “Porgy and Bess” was only 20 years old.
“Susannah’s” composer and librettist, Carlisle Floyd, was born six weeks after “Turandot’s” April 1926 premiere.
On September 6th, an 88 year old Carlisle Floyd was present at the premiere of an elegant new San Francisco Opera production of “Susannah”, receiving a standing ovation from the War Memorial Opera House audience.
An all-star cast was assembled for the occasion, with Patricia Racette in the lead role, Raymond Aceto as the Reverend Olin Blitch, Brandon Jovanovich as Susannah Polk’s brother Sam, and James Kryshak as the easily confused adolescent, Little Bat.
[Below: Susannah (Patricia Racette, center in blue dress) enjoys a community square dance; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera..]
One can argue that Floyd’s operas, several of which have American story lines, share some attributes with Puccini and his Italian verismo colleagues – the creation of sounds that evoke a specific place, a melodic palate that is both accessible and endearing to audiences, a willingness to accentuate the melodramatic potential of a story, and the adoption of Wagnerian theories of how to enlist an orchestra as an integral part of an opera’s story-telling.
“Susannah”, whose only near rival among American operas in total number of performances is “Porgy and Bess”, is an intense work, with a large orchestra, requiring voices of weight, power and beauty possessed by artists who are also consummate actors.
It was no accident that all three of the principal singers – Racette, Aceto and Jovanovich – all are masters of roles in Puccini operas,
[Below: Brandon Jovanovich as Sam Polk, a hunter and trapper and brother of Susannah; edited image of a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
There were times and there are places where the works of both Puccini and Floyd are disparaged, just as there have always been musicians and dramatists who simply cannot relate to the amalgamation of drama and music into the operatic art form.
But time has a way of reversing fortunes. Some mid-20th century operas that contemporaries imagined were the voice of the future have for all practical purposes disappeared. Now a formidable and respectful Puccini scholarship exists, and American opera of the kind written and championed by Floyd, is receiving new respect from operatic managements and audiences.
One of the chief advocates for American opera in general and of Carlisle Floyd’s works in particular is San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley.
Having achieved the goal, enunciated at the beginning of his general directorship in 2006, of bringing all ten of Puccini’s mature works (1893’s “Manon Lescaut” and every later Puccini opera) to the San Francisco Opera stage, Gockley has been sponsoring productions of those 20th and 21st century works for whose success he deserves so much of the credit.
[Below: Little Bat (James Kryshak, left) shocks Susannah (Patricia Racette, by telling her that he lied to his parents that Susannah, a virgin, had seduced him; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Since “Susannah” is the greatest success of all the Gockley-sponsored American works, a prediction that “Susannah” would be mounted in one of his remaining seasons as San Francisco Opera’s General Director was a safe bet.
However, the creation of a new co-production, in concert with the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Liceu of Barcelona, has proven to be triumph exceeding all expectations.
[Below: the Reverend Olin Blitch (Raymond Aceto, center, at pulpit below cross) calls upon Susannah (Patricia Racette, seated alone, far right) to make a public confession of her sins; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
For the new production, Gockley enlisted the team that had created the Vancouver Opera production of Adams’ “Nixon in China”, another successful, albeit quite different, American opera promoted by Gockley,
With staging by Michael Cavanagh and sets and projections by Erhard Rom, “Susannah’s” physical production was always intelligent and intelligible, shifting seamlessly between the church whose affairs dominate the small community’s life, and the residence of the orphaned brother and sister, Sam and Susannah Polk.
The background projections of Appalachian vistas that surround the Polks’ property are often stunning.
The new production was the occasion for the important San Francisco Opera debut of Conductor Karen Kamensek, whose command of the orchestral score – which is sometimes brutal in its intensity, but often dreamily melodic – was fully in evidence.
[Below: Olin Blitch (Raymond Aceto, right) comes to talk with Susannah (Patricia Racette, left) about her soul’s salvation, but ends up taking her virginity; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The casting honored Floyd and his masterwork, enlisting three of the finest singing actors of our time. Racette’s dramatic soprano soared high in her range to express Susannah’s rage at being falsely accused of immoral behavior, and then softened to resignation as she fully comprehended the narrow-mindedness of the small community.
Raymond Aceto is one of the world’s great basso cantantes, a master of the long legato lines of Verdi’s great roles for the bass voice. [See A Discussion of Susannah’s Olin Blitch and Tosca’s Scarpia (and other subjects) with basso Raymond Aceto.]
Aceto is also a skilled actor in the dramatic bass-baritone roles made famous by his predecessors Norman Treigle and Samuel Ramey. (Treigle and Aceto are the only two artists to have sung the role of Olin Blitch on the War Memorial Opera House stage.)
Aceto’s dramatic powers were fully in evidence in his scene of contrition, having discovered that not only had he violated his own oath to God, but had forced himself on Susannah to commit the very act for which he and the community had previously accused her.
[Below: the Reverend Olin Blitch (Raymond Aceto, kneeling) tries to atone for his act; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The role of Sam Polk is one that Brandon Jovanovich had enjoyed performing early in his career and he expressed the wish (see Rising Stars: An Interview with Brandon Jovanovich) that he would like to be considered for the role again in the future. (Soon after the interview’s posting, whether coincidental or not, he got his wish).
Some will consider it luxury casting for the heldentenor Jovanovich, who has sung both Siegmund and Lohengrin on the War Memorial stage, to appear in such a secondo uomo role as Sam Polk.
Yet Jovanovich is a mesmerizing presence in all three scenes in which Sam appears. He not only sings the folksy Jaybird ditty in his first scene with Racette’s Susannah, but the quite profound arioso “It’s about the way people are made” later in the act.
Jovanovich’s acting instincts are superb. He is able to make Sam’s flawed character into an audience favorite, even as he becomes, in what I call the Appalachian version of cavalleria rusticana – rustic chivalry, the agent of revenge for the Reverend Blitch’s trangressions.
Finally, one gives special recognition to James Kryshak’s excellent portrayal of Little Bat, the adolescent boy whose reckless act of false witness leads to the deaths of two of the three principal characters and a lifetime of isolation from her community for Susannah.
(The production’s first image is that of an elderly woman holding a shotgun, who is immediately revealed as the aged Susannah.)
The comprimario roles were nicely performed by company regulars, including Dale Travis and Catherine Cook as the Elder McLean and the quite sinister Mrs McLean, the trouble-making parents of Little Bat.
Joel Sorensen was the Elder Hayes and Jacqueline Piccolino was Mrs Hayes. A. J. Glueckert was the Elder Gleaton and Erin Johnson was Mrs Gleaton. Timothy Mix was the Elder Ott and Suzanne Hendrix was Mrs Ott. Two unnamed men were played by Jere Torkelsen and William O’Neill.
I enthusiastically recommend the opera, the production and this cast, to both the experienced opera-goer and for persons new to opera.
See also: Essay: New Hope Valley as a Character in Carlisle Floyd’s Opera “Susannah”, and,
San Francisco Opera Embraces “Susannah”: An American Operatic Masterpiece Returns to the War Memorial – September, 2014.
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