San Francisco Opera Review: SUSANNAH (SF Opera)

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by Linda Taylor on September 10, 2014

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area

SUSANNAH SOARS IN SAN FRANCISCO

Susannah may be a tragedy, but the San Francisco Opera production is worthy of a hoedown celebration.  This near-perfect production is one of the best operas I’ve seen in the past decade. 88-year-old composer and librettist Carlisle Floyd was in attendance on opening night, so it was an emotional experience thanking him in person, especially given this is SFO’s first presentation of the 1955 American opera.

Patricia Racette (Susannah Polk) & chorus in San Francisco Opera's SUSANNAH.

Mr. Floyd loosely used the apocryphal story of Susanna in The Book of Daniel as his starting point. The son of a Tennessee Methodist minister, Floyd’s boyhood surely must have given him insights into the behind-the-scenes reality of a backwoods revival meeting that informs the emotional framework for Susannah. Both Carlisle’s music—with snippets of folk tunes, square dances, and hymns—and libretto are equally successful. As with the best Broadway musicals, the music and language adeptly and masterfully move action forward and set the mood. In two acts and 100 minutes, Carlisle and this production move smoothly down the path of innocence lost.

Erhard Rom’s sets involve large-scale projections, so the color and scope of the mountain vistas are contrasted with the town’s wood plank structures, almost menacing in their man-made rough-hewn detail.

Patricia Racette (Susannah Polk) and chorus in San Francisco Opera's SUSANNAH.

A 1930s community of New Hope Valley has gathered for a social and square dance, where the local religious hierarchy is represented by the church Elders (Dale Travis, Joel Sorenson, A.J. Glueckert, and Timothy Mix). They sing with barbershop quartet agility as they survey and judge their flock. Their wives huddle together, gossiping about comely, young Susannah (soprano Patricia Racette) with narrowed eyes: “That pretty a face, it must hide some evil.” The conversations of judgment and jealousy are a contrast to the dancing music, although the townspeople appear to do all things in moderation. Their dancing has no sense of spontaneity; all is tightly controlled.

Act I Church Square Dance in San Francisco Opera's SUSANNAH.

Susannah catches the eye of newly-arrived Reverend Olin Blitch (bass-baritone Raymond Aceto). As Blitch smiles and sings, the rousing rhythms of the dance music suddenly catch and stutter and we sense Blitch’s façade may not match the internal man (initially I thought the orchestra, under conductor Karen Kamensek in her dynamic SFO debut, had faltered). When the preacher takes Susannah’s hand and they dance together, the music becomes discordant and the discomfort increases.

Raymond Aceto (Rev. Olin Blitch) and San Francisco Opera Chorus in SUSANNAH.

There are many wistful, heart-aching moments in the work. Little Bat (tenor James Kryshak, made smaller by costumer Michael Yeargan’s oversize overalls), is an Elder’s young son. Susannah is the center of his adolescent world, and like a child, his musings are quick and repetitive, so the magnificent, enthralling aria, “Ain’t it a Pretty Night,” is reserved for Susannah (“The sky seems so heavy with stars that it might fall right out of heaven / an’ cover us all up in one big blanket of velvet all stitched with diamon’s”). The stage becomes inky black, and as stars appear and slowly begin to move and revolve, the effect is almost vertiginous. We see Susannah as the center of the universe; her arms raised to the night’s beauty in almost a pagan pose of surrender and wonder. This astounding production is replete with such glorious stage pictures.

James Kryshak (Little Bat McLean) and Patricia Racette (Susannah Polk) in San Francisco Opera's SUSANNAH.

When Susannah and her brother Sam (tenor Brandon Jovanovich) have a charming duo, a folk song about a jaybird encounter, their playful interaction highlights their closeness, but you also feel sadness at the childlike innocence of Susannah. Racette sings and moves gracefully, imbuing Susannah with a youthful exuberance. This is high praise for a woman in her 25th year with San Francisco Opera. Racette, almost continually on stage, commands our attention with seeming effortlessness.

Brandon Jovanovich (Sam Polk) and Patricia Racette (Susannah Polk) in San Francisco Opera's SUSANNAH.The plot turns when the Elders spy Susannah as she bathes nude in a stream, and condemn her nakedness. The full-stage undulating water projections add beauty and peace, while the recriminations of the starched Elders boil below the calming imagery, foreshadowing the shunning of Susannah.

Director Michael Cavanagh makes realism the watchword with the naturalistic action. Every role has a physicality that supports the libretto, and there is no “acting” to be seen. Especially effective are the revival meetings, as sinners walk between benches to await the touch of Blitch’s hand on a forehead, and the focus repeatedly returns to Susannah, stubbornly seated in a corner with her head down, a foreshadowing of her future isolation. As the congregation entreats her to come and be saved, Gary Marder’s lights silhouette a hundred arms waving in purgatory-like agony.

Were it possible, this production of Susannah would be taken to a permanent home, because it is the best of opera, musical, and American theater all rolled into one extraordinary experience.

photos © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Susannah
San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue
scheduled to end on September 21, 2014
for tickets, call (415) 864-3330 or visit www.sfopera.com

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