Review: ‘Susannah’ by Carlisle Floyd at San Francisco Opera (*****)

(Charles Kruger)

(*****)

A beatifully staged church square dance opens SF Opera's production of "Susannah". Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.
A beatifully staged church square dance opens SF Opera’s production of “Susannah”. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

(‘Susannah’ plays at the War Memorial Opera House through September 21, 2014. There are two remaining performances on 09/16/14 and 9/21/14.)

Carlisle Floyd‘s ‘Susannah’ is one of the most successful American operas in the repertoire, having had nearly 800 performances since its debut in 1956, including productions at The Metropolitan Opera and other major houses around the world.

For its debut at San Francisco Opera House, the creative team headed by Director Michael Cavanagh and conductor Karen Kamansek have achieved greatness. This stunning production is a deeply moving theatrical and musical experience.

Floyd’s tight libretto tells the story (based on bible apocrypha) with force and sympathy: Young Susannah Polk is beautiful and charming, and the elders of the Appalachian church in the mountain hollow where she lives cannot resist flirting with her, much to the chagrin of their wives, a situation which creates much resentment and tension in the community. The tension comes to a head with the arrival of revival preacher Reverend Blitch. When the elders go searching for a suitable watering hole for revival baptisms, they spy upon Susannah bathing in the nude. Shaken by their own lust, and pushed by their jealous wives, they immediately turn on Susannah,  and intimidate her feeble-minded admirer, Little Bat, to falsely confess an illicit love affair. Pressured by the Reverend Blitch to publicly confess and repent, she refuses to admit to any wrongdoing, and is ostracized by the community. The charming young woman sinks into depression. In a gorgeous moment, she expresses her sorrow with the lovely and insightful line: “I can’t wait till pretty things look pretty again.” Susannah’s stubborn and dignified refusal to compromise the truth, and an unfortunate encounter with the confused Reverend Blitch, leads inevitably to tragedy.

Patricia Racette as Susannah Polk  and James Kryshak as Little Bat McClean. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Patricia Racette as Susannah Polk and James Kryshak as Little Bat McClean. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Along the way, Floyd gives us wonderfully expressive and accessible music, rooted in the folk traditions of Appalachia. He offers original hymns for the congregation and two superb arias for Susannah: The innocent “Ain’t It A Pretty Night”, sung before her troubles begin, and later, the sad and haunting “The Trees on the Mountain Are Cold and Bare” which she sings after being falsely accused. The great Patricia Racette brings a stunning degree of vocal and acting artistry to the role of Susannah. Her singing is supported by excellent acting as her character moves from happy innocence through painful depression to angry pride. Her physical expression is superb. In one memorable moment, as the congregation begins singing hymns, she wraps her arms about herself in a plaintive gesture of protection that is perfectly honest and pure.

As the Reverend Olin Blitch, baritone Raymond Aceto creates a subtly layered character, both good and evil, and sings with a rich and forceful lyricism. James Kryshak‘s Little Bat McLean is a perfectly realized physical charactization as he runs about and sulks and struggles with complex feelings he cannot quite comprehend. And Brandon Jovanovich is powerful as Susannah’s sympathetic but alcoholic brother Sam Polk. His rendition of the aria “It’s About The Way People Is Made, I Reckon” and a light hearted folk song duet with Ms. Racette are musical highlights.

Brandon Jovanovich as Sam Polk and Patricia Racette as Susannah Polk. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Brandon Jovanovich as Sam Polk and Patricia Racette as Susannah Polk. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

The rest of the company is working to the same high standard. As church women, Erin Johnson, Jacqueline Piccolino, Catherine Cook, and Suzanne Hendrix convey bitterness and harsh judgment without ever resorting to caricature. The same is true of the elders as played by Dale Travis, Joel Sorenson and A.J. Glueckert.

Erhard Rom‘s gorgeous set, that combines video with scrims and and wooden structures, is cinematic in impact, supported beautifully by Gary Marder‘s lighting.

The theatrical gods shine brightly on this production; it flirts with perfection.

For further information click here.

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“Susannah” , music and text by Carlisle Floyd. Produced by the San Francisco Opera; costumes from a co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago and Houston Grand Opera. Conductor: Karen Kamensek. Director: Michael Cavanagh. Set: Erhard Rom. Costumes: Michael Yeargan. Lighting: Gary Marder. Chrous Director: Ian Robertson. Choreographer: Lawrence Pech. Fight Director: Dave Maier. 

Mrs. Gleaton: Erin Johnson. Mrs. Hayes: Jacqueline Piccolino. Mrs. McLean: Catherine Cook. Mrs. Ott: Suzanne Hendrix. Elder McLean: Dale Travis. Reverend Olin Blitch: Raymond Aceto. Elder Hayes: Joel Sorenson. Elder Gleaton: A.J. Glueckert. Elder Ott: Timothy Mix. Susannah Polk: Patricia Racette. Little Bat McLean: James Kryshak. Sam Polk: Brandon Jovanovich. Two Men: Jere Torkelsen. 

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