On Saturday, Susannah opened at San Francisco Opera, a continuation of what appears to be that company’s commitment to placing what can be claimed as uniquely American work onto the operatic stage. The company has either relocated opera war horses like Wagner’s Ring Cycle, in Francesca Zambello’s American production, or mounted operas by American composers such as John Adams, Jake Hegge, Tobias Picker and Carlisle Floyd. Except for Canadian Director Michael Cavanagh, cast and crew of Susannah were all from the States.

<i>Susannah</i> at San Francisco Opera © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Susannah at San Francisco Opera
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

American composers have never entirely grasped the opera stage until recently. An oddity considering the genre’s demanding mix of artistic skills – music, voice, theater and pictorial representation – and American artists’ predilection for mixing media and genres into new configurations.

Saturday’s performance was a remounting of one of the two most frequently performed American operas, Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah. The other and more often performed opera is Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which San Francisco Opera presented in 2009. Strikingly, both operas are set in the south and both focus on the community’s control of the individual, as supporter and destroyer. Although Gershwin’s opera relies heavily on depictions of the fervent and benign religiosity of the African-American community, it is Susannah that addresses most directly the religious fundamentalism that is often identified as America’s great tragic flaw – our inheritance of the Puritan self-righteousness that settled and expanded out from the eastern and trans-Atlantic states.

Raymond Aceto (Rev Olin Blitch) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Raymond Aceto (Rev Olin Blitch)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

Although many critics have identified the motivation behind the writing of Susannah as a protesting reaction to the McCarthyism of the times – the opera premiered in 1955 – Floyd has denied that the communist witch-hunt had anything to do with his compositional mind set. Rather, he claims that the setting of the religious Appalachian community, New Hope Valley, Tennessee, came out of his childhood. Floyd’s father was a circuit preacher, a Methodist minister and commanding enforcer of the gospel.

Floyd says, in the excellent accompanying programme article, that he wanted the revival scene, which is the turning point of the opera, to be “solemn and frightening, which is the way I saw it through the eyes of a child”.

So setting is important in this production. And the visuals team of Erhard Rom (sets) and Gary Marder (lighting) assembled a naturalistic and far-horizoned environment as a backdrop to the closed circle of individual beliefs and prejudice. Starkly weathered and gray wooden walls at imposing and elegant angles describe the community dwellings and Susannah’s home. Behind, in front and over them float projections of the blue hills of Tennessee, purple mist settling in valleys, the straight lines of tall trees and the shimmering whites of a sun-struck river. Rom travelled to the region to take the photos that created the opera’s ambience of grand landscapes.

The production is placed in the 1930s and Michael Yeargan’s neutral-coloured costuming uses the simple, clean lines of the period to consonant effect. This new San Francisco production was produced in concert with the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Liceu of Barcelona.

Simplicity and directness are the opera’s strengths. The music is reminiscent of the folk melodies of Appalachia but relies more directly on traditional hymns in the revival scenes. For the most part, the libretto written by Floyd is unadorned and his setting of the words follows a similar plain style, giving most of the arias a recitative quality. Two arias border on the resplendent: Susannah’s Act I aria “Ain’t it a pretty night,” and the Act II aria “The Trees on the Mountain Are Old and Bare”, which Susannah claims is a folk song her mother sang to her as a child and which she sings when she is sad. Her brother Sam’s “Jaybird” song has the rollicking quality of humorous folk song.

The story is based on Susannah and the Elders, updated but also extracted from the biblical necessity of God’s judgment and rule. The young Susannah lives an innocent and natural life on the edges of a small religious community that finds her blossoming sexuality threatening. Members of the congregation, while searching for a baptismal river for their new minister, find the naked Susannah bathing. Everyone is appalled. And enticed. The new preacher, lust-driven, seeks her confession of misbehavior but falls prey to his own desires and seduces her. Finding her a virgin, he is overwhelmed with guilt. Susannah’s infuriated brother kills the minister and Susannah confronts the antagonistic mob that would drive her from the valley. She refuses to leave her home, accepting to live as a lone outsider for the remainder of her life.

Brandon Jovanovich (Sam) and Patricia Racette (Susannah) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Brandon Jovanovich (Sam) and Patricia Racette (Susannah)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

Soprano Patricia Racette, who sings Susannah, gave the part a substantial and thoughtful quality, gliding easily through the vocal stratosphere necessary for those two well-known arias and maintaining a focused and resonant spin throughout. Racette is voluptuous in body but her voice is precise in placement, which combines to give the character unusual emotional complexity. She is less innocent than composed and integrity is her ruling virtue.

Brandon Jovanovich, who sings her drunken brother Sam, carried real theatrical presence combined with an emotionally vibrant voice. Even more than Racette, his voice endowed his actions with an attention-demanding intensity. He cantered through the “Jaybird” song and in the next act sang affectingly about the cruelty of human judgment in “It’s about the way people are made.” Given any more time on stage, Jovanovich would have walked off with the opera.

Perhaps more than any other character, the Reverend Blitch’s singing runs closest to “speechifying”, and at times the part slips into spoken language. The sermon at the revival meeting is spoken, although bass Raymond Aceto’s formidably beautiful tonal quality undoubtedly makes anything he speaks sound like song. However, the music tended, as it often does in this hall, to cover his lower notes. This despite conductor Karen Kamensek, in her San Francisco Opera debut, holding the Opera Orchestra to a dynamically savvy and sensitive performance. The minor roles and the chorus work were all sung adroitly and finely.

Though the opera was well executed and had many moving and lyrical moments, I did find myself questioning the critical and historical assumptions that are associated with the opera, and wanting to separate them from the glamour of the theatrical setting. The opening scene of the aged Susannah sitting in a chair on a porch with a rifle across her knee was, for me, shocking.

As an American who has lived outside the States for most of the past four years, I found myself asking, “Is this who we are as Americans? Is this the identity we want to project to the world?” As a Westerner and a San Franciscan I found that both inaccurate and disturbing. 

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