“Ain’t it a pretty night,” sings the soprano and, whenever “Susannah” is in town, the night is more than pretty. It’s gorgeous.
Carlisle Floyd’s 1955 work, written when he was only 27, may be the quintessential American opera (all due respect to “Moby Dick,” “Street Scene” and a whole bunch of others). Its Appalachian setting (beautifully depicted here in designer Erhard Rom’s sets and curtain projections), the revival meetings and square dances and the occasional but artful use of musical folk idioms set it perfectly in place and time (Tennessee in the 1930s), and the can-do spirit of its indomitable heroine all bespeak Americana.
But this is more of an American nightmare than the American dream. Based on the apocryphal story of Susannah and the Elders, which tells of a lovely young woman spied on by a bunch of old lechers as she bathes naked in (what she thinks is) a secluded stream and is later denounced for her shamelessness, the work — written during the McCarthy witch hunt years — translates well to a hyper-religious insular community where prejudice and hypocrisy trump truth at every turn.
San Francisco Opera is fortunate to have its indispensable go-to diva, Patricia Racette, in the title role. At the top of her game, the singer is just right, combining innocence, grit and common humanity with her elegant phrasing and precise vocal technique to create a character who may follow you long after the curtain comes down. Her haunting aria of disillusion, “The trees on the mountain are cold and bare,” is as much a tribute to her talent as it is to the composer’s skill — an unforgettable moment. She is beautifully matched by Brandon Jovanovich as her drunken, loving brother Sam. The handsome tenor, who sang a powerful Lohengrin in San Francisco not long ago, is in the midst of a career explosion, singing leading roles in houses all over the world. And justly so.
The third outstanding member of the triumvirate of principals is Raymond Aceto as the fiery preacher Blick, an itinerant evangelist who stirs the townspeople up against the innocent Susannah only to seduce her himself, ending that innocence forever. He is riveting in the Act II sung/spoken sermon scene and almost sympathetic in his post-coital confession and remorse. It’s a powerful performance. James Kryshak plays Little Bat, the fearful, somewhat simpleminded kid, besotted with and fiercely loyal to Susannah until he betrays her to appease his vindictive parents.
The quartet of Elders, who start the whole mess by spying on Susannah in the first place, and their gossipy wives, led by Catherine Cook as the worst of them, lead the strong chorus of townspeople pursuing justice at any cost in the name of holy virtue. Conductor Karen Kamensek, music director of the Hannover State Theater (and isn’t it wonderful to see a woman on the podium?), brought the best out of the orchestra and the singers and Michael Yeargan’s costumes were right on in their shabby Sears catalog respectability.
If you don’t think you like contemporary music, you may not have heard the music of Carlisle Floyd; if you think you don’t like opera because it’s too artificial and highfalutin, you certainly haven’t seen “Susannah.” For both the foregoing and the dedicated aficionado, I highly recommend that you give this powerful production a try.