A Second Look Review: Patricia Racette Medals in “Susannah” at the San Francisco Opera – September 21, 2014

Earlier this month, I praised Carlisle Floyd’s 1955 opera “Susannah” in its new San Francisco Opera production [see Review: Racette, Aceto, Jovanovich in Brilliant New Production of “Susannah” – San Francisco Opera, September 6, 2014]. Seeing the opera in this production once again, I was impressed with the glories of the musical score and the dramatically gripping thrust of the opera.

However, of special note was a celebration that occurred just after the opera’s final curtain. While the artists, chorus, conductor and orchestra were assembled to receive well-deserved ovations from the audience, San Francisco Opera General Director stepped onstage to present American soprano Patricia Racette with the 22nd San Francisco Opera medal ri vw awarded to a principal opera singer. She joins 15 other women and 6 men who have received that honor.

Gockley’s testimonial accompanying Racette’s medalling spoke of the 25th anniversary with the company, and her extraordinary feat of stepping into the title role of Tobias Picker’s “Dolores Claiborne” for its world premiere at the San Francisco Opera. She learned the new role in less than a month, while simultaneously rehearsing and performing two roles in Boito’s “Mefistofele”, an opera that would be in rotation with “Cliaborne”.

[Below: Patricia Racette as Susannah; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


In my previous review of “Susannah” I had suggested that one consider the new production in the context of commitments from David Gockley made to San Francisco Opera subscribers. First, the entire canon of Puccini’s works from the period 1893 through his posthumously produced “Turandot” of 1926 would be presented.

The launch of the Puccini cycle would be followed by a commitment to contemporary works by North American composers, for whom he has been an advocate throughout his years, first at the Houston Grand Opera, then the San Francisco Opera.

Racette Performing Puccini’s and American Composers’ Operas

One can consider Racette as the major operatic voice in fulfilling these Gockley commitments. She has appeared in lead San Francisco Opera roles in seven of the nine calendar years that Gockley has been the company’s General Director.

Racette appeared in eight lead roles in Puccini operas, which included her singing all three lead soprano roles in Puccini’s “Trittico” of three one-act operas, a challenging and  uncommon feat. She also has sung in three American works, which besides Floyd’s “Susannah” and Picker’s “Claiborne” includes Kern’s “Show Boat”.

There are some operatic singers who seem to be only superficially the character they are playing. I always think I am observing such and such an artist playing a role, rather than observing the character itself.

Obviously, I know Racette is singing with that distinctive, controlled vibrato and brilliant top notes, but I don’t mix up her Susannah with her Cio-Cio San, or with her Gounod Marguerite, or her Julie La Verne, or her Lauretta or Giorgetta. It’s not that she’s in different costumes. It’s that she has so immersed herself into the character of whatever woman she plays, that one relates to the character, rather than to Racette.

When Racette Joins Jovanovich and Aceto

For both San Francisco “Susannah” performances I have reviewed, I’ve cited the acting abilities and chemistry of the three American artists (Patricia Racette, Raymond Aceto and Brandon Jovanovich) in the principal lead roles.

The success of “Susannah” in San Francisco was obviously such an important goal of David Gockley’s that, not only did he seek out Racette for the title role, but made sure she was joined by two great singing actors with world class voices in the roles of the Reverend Olin Blitch and of her brother, Sam Polk.

All three American singers, although raised on the nation’s Northern tier (Racette in New Hampshire, Aceto in Ohio, and Jovanovich in Montana), each have mastered the lengthened diphthongs and speech cadences that we  regard as characteristic of the folks living in a small community in rural Eastern Kentucky.

In fact, they form a “triangle” of past triumphs together, each of these triumphs reviewed on this website.

I have noted the chemistry in San Francisco performances of Racette and Jovanovich as Butterfly and Pinkerton in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” [The Remaking of San Francisco Opera Part III “Madama Butterfly” – December 8, 2007]  and as Giorgetta and Luigi in Puccini’s “Il Tabarro” [Gavanelli, Racette, Jovanovich In Rousing “Tabarro” at San Francisco Opera – September 15, 2009].

[Below: Sam Polk (Brandon Jovanovich, left) and his sister, Susannah (Patricia Racette, right) enjoy on of their last light-hearted moments; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


I  have noted the chemistry of Aceto and Racette as Baron Scarpia and Tosca at the Houston Grand Opera, where they together had their respective role reviews [See A New “Tosca” for Houston Grand Opera – January 30, 2010.]

[Below: the Reverend Olin Blitch (Raymond Aceto, center front, inlong white sleeves) informs the skeptical four elders of the church  (A. J. Glueckert, Joel Sorensen, Timothy Mix and Dale Travis, standing at back, right) and the elders’ wives (Erin Johnson, Jacqueline Piccolino, Catherine Cook and Suzanne Hendrix, standing at back, left) that God has revealed to him that Susannah (Patricia Racetter, right, seated) is innocent of the charges against her; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


I have noted the chemistry of Jovanovich and Aceto as Siegmund and Hunding in Acts I and II of Wagner’s “Die Walküre” at the San Francisco Opera. [See An American “Walküre”: Runnicles, Wagner and Zambello At San Francisco Opera – June 10, 2010 and also A Second Look: Stemme, Delavan, Lead Power Cast of San Francisco Opera “Walküre” – June 13, 2010.]

New to the San Francisco Opera, but matching Racette, Aceto and Jovanovich in acting abilities is James Kryshak, playing the disturbed teenager, Little Bat. One notes that he, a New Yorker, also is accomplished at singing the prosody of Carlisle Floyd’s libretto, which is steeped in rural Southern speech.

[Below: Susannah (Patricia Racette, seated left) and Sam Polk (Brandon Jovanovich, standing right) share a small cabin overlooking the Great Smoky Mountains; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Michael Cavanagh and Erhard Rom 

Gockley, one can safely surmise, was determined to create a production that not only would be a credit to the San Francisco Opera and to Carlisle Floyd and “Susannah”, but would also help transform such skeptics as might remain as to whether such an “American Opera” belongs in a world-class opera house.

A decision on par with his excellent casting choices, was his commission for the team – Canadian director Michael Cavanagh and Wasington state set designer Erhard Rom – that created the transformative production of Adams’ “Nixon in China” recently seen at the San Francisco Opera [see 25 Years Old, “Nixon in China” Arrives at San Francisco Opera – June 8, 2012] to create the “Susannah” production.

The beautiful projections that Cavanagh and Rom envisioned and Rom created were awe-inspiring. Cavanagh’s stage direction mixed an occasional scene before the curtain, with the actions on a unit that was built around a wooden floor.  That floor served for scenes of the square dance, for the front yard of the Polks’ home and for the church.

Then the production team brilliantly added flowing projections to evoke Susannah swimming nude in the “baptismal crick” and ethereal projections to express “the pretty night” of Susannah’s ballad.

The end result was not only the best production of “Susannah” ever mounted, but another milestone in the use of projections for producing opera.

[Below: Susannah (Patricia Racette, left) and Sam Polk (Brandon Jovanovich, right) are together in a pretty night; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Final Thoughts

This is my third review of a “Susannah” performance (one in 2008, two in 2014). Additionally, I have recently posted two separate essays on the opera. I’ve posted interviews of twoof its principals Aceto and Jovanovich, and was fortunate to be able to spend an hour with the opera’s composer-librettist on the morning before the new production’s premiere. (See Dean of American Opera Composers: An Interview with Carlisle Floyd.)

My strongly held positive views on the opera and this production and cast are a matter of record.

Although, as of this writing. there only two more scheduled performances of the opera in San Francisco, I expect tis to be a durable production that will be presented by other opera companies.

To all fans of the opera; for persons who have seen the opera elsewhere, but would be interested in seeing this authoritative production; to opera-goers who have yet to see a performance of the opera; and even to persons who like musical theater, but are not sure they would like “Ameican opera” i recommend this production wholeheartedly.