23 October 2014

O Don't You Cry for Me: Susannah at the San Francisco Opera


For the past five or so weeks I have been to an insane (for a working person) number of performances, along with various other events, so here I am once again trying to catch up, but as ever the horizon recedes before me, no matter how quickly I run or how far or how desperately I lunge forward, arms outstretched towards the vanishing blue distance. I couldn't (or more to the point, wouldn't) have attended this many performances unless a large number of them started at 7:00 or 7:30, so thanks to the presenters who acknowledge the way we live now by offering earlier curtains. Anyway, I was at the fourth of the five performances of the San Francisco Opera's first presentation of Carlisle Floyd's 1955 opera Susannah, a loose re-telling, set in rural Tennessee in the 1930s, of the story of Susanna and the Elders from the Apocrypha. Despite many excellent points, for me it was less than the sum of its parts, mostly because of the libretto, which was written by the composer.

Patricia Racette sang – actually, totally inhabited – the title role. I had heard some complaints about her early in the run but she was in beautiful voice the night I was there. She is an excellent actress and is at her best portraying this sort of vulnerable but tough woman. In fact, the whole cast was strong; to name only some of the more prominent roles, there was Brandon Jovanovich as her brother Sam, Catherine Cook as the vindictive Mrs McLean, James Kryshak as her disabled son Little Bat McLean, and Raymond Aceto as the conflicted preacher Olin Blitch.

There are some very moving scenes, like the church supper at which the congregation ostracizes Susannah, refusing even to eat the dish of peas she's brought (things like the dish of peas no one will touch are devastating to me, for whatever subterranean reasons). The revival meeting is striking, with solemn slithering tones giving an eerie undercurrent to the music (it sounded to me as if maybe Aceto's voice was enhanced in this scene, which is not inappropriate; whatever the cause, his voice was particularly reverberant here). Susannah has a mournful, folk-song-like aria at the beginning of the second act ("The trees on the mountains are cold and bare") that is so beautiful I'm kind of shocked I haven't heard it repeatedly in recitals or on disc, the way I have heard her other big aria, "Ain't it a pretty night?," which is lovely but more about revealing her character and therefore less detachable from its context. The music throughout is consistently engaging and suitable to the actions and emotions and conductor Karen Kamensek kept it pouring on like a clear mountain stream, but even that could not sweep away the questions I kept having about what was going on there in New Hope Valley.

The three church elders spy Susannah bathing naked in the river. In the Apocrypha, they try to seduce her and when she resists they accuse her falsely of fornication. In this version, her initial sin is . . . bathing naked in the river. That seems like a pretty feeble offense for farm folks (though indeed it's never made quite clear that that's what they are). Later we find out that Mrs McLean, wife of one of the church elders, has forced her son Little Bat to lie and claim that Susannah has seduced him. But we are only told this (why would you not include such a powerful and revealing scene?), and only told it later on, so initially it all does seem to come down to a young woman taking a bath. And though Susannah lives a bit apart from the rest of the town, and is a bit of an outsider, she does attend the church and at nineteen is, by local standards, almost an old maid, as her brother points out – so why does she not realize that bathing naked in the river violates local standards? Why does she not lash out at the elders for their voyeuristic spying? During the intermission while waiting in the line to the men's room I overheard someone saying, "Well, I don't understand why she didn't just tell them off right away." Indeed. She and her brother are oddly passive until the very end.

I couldn't help feeling puzzled by the brother – why, instead of fighting back, does he immediately tell his sister that there's nothing to be done but to wait out the community shunning? Why does he desert her at the peak of the crisis with the feeble excuse that he has to go check his traps? (Yes, they live on the game he captures, but given the seriousness of his sister's situation – the whole town is listening to sermons denouncing her sinfulness – and the uncertainty of actually finding anything in the traps, why couldn't he wait a day?) The problem fell into place for me at the end when we are told (again, why are we not shown such a striking scene?) that he has hidden behind a bush and shot Preacher Blitch: my immediate reaction was, no, he wouldn't hide behind a bush, he'd stand right up and shoot the man who wronged his sister. It was then I realized that the role really only makes sense if the brother is more broken down, more defeated – if his much-discussed constant drunkenness is an escape rather than a rebellion. It's just one of the oddities that comes from opera casting: Jovanovich sings beautifully, and gives a committed and forceful performance, but it's inherent in him to exude a sort of sunny virility that renders Sam's actions puzzling.



Much was made in the program of Floyd's father the preacher and Floyd's childhood in the sort of rural and pious Southern town he put on stage in this, his first opera. This presumably is meant to assure us of the eyewitness accuracy of what we see, but I was instead getting the sense that there was perhaps a bit of axe-grinding going on. Basically, and much to the detriment of possible complexity and texture in the work, Floyd fails to take religion seriously as anything but an excuse for hypocrisy. When the amorous Blitch, realizing after he seduces her that Susannah was a virgin, informs the church elders and their wives of her innocence (though not of his guilt), he is peremptorily and immediately shut down, mostly by Mrs McLean. So much for the authority of the church. The reactions of the townsfolk are far too monolithic, and everyone is far too easily led by the vindictive Mrs McLean. There was another wife of an elder who extended a compassionate arm towards Susannah once or twice, only to be stopped by the death-glare of the inevitable Mrs McLean (Catherine Cook's awe-inspiring glare really should be harnessed and redirected towards socially positive purposes, like towards people who talk during performances, though I have to say the audience was really well behaved). But I suspect this attempt at the complexity of compassion was added by director Michael Cavanagh, since it is not indicated in the words or music.

No one in this group of pious Christians reaches out to save the lost lamb – no one even tells her at first what her great crime is. Rather oddly for a group of fundamentalist (or maybe they're evangelical?) Christians, no one quotes the Bible, which contains plenty of gospel advice to love the sinner (and no one seems to recognize that Susannah's situation echoes that of her namesake saved by the prophet Daniel). There is no dispute among these believers about the appropriate place of mercy versus strict justice, an argument which is central to Christianity. These things might have made the townspeople look less like ignorant bigots and more like people struggling to figure out right and wrong, given their time and place. I was surprised to read in the program that when the opera premiered comparisons were drawn between the stage action and the McCarthy blacklisting – the community, as portrayed here, seems self-contained in its small-mindedness to the point of caricature, and so disconnected from any life that any opera audience would live. It's all too easy for such an audience, particularly in San Francisco in 2014, to watch these people from rural Tennessee and think only "those people are like that" rather than "people are like that" or even "I am like that – at least, occasionally."

The program also mentions Floyd's concentration on the role of Susannah (which presumably explains why important scenes that involve her only indirectly, like the forced and false confession of Little Bat and the shooting of Blitch, take place offstage). This provides a big role for the soprano (and Racette took every advantage of it), but it also means we are given only one perspective and everything is consistently flattened. Nature is good! Christianity is bad! Susannah bathes in the river because she is pure! Those being baptized in the river pollute it! The drama is simplified to the point of implausibility: even in a Bible-belted community like this one, you'd think some of the women would oh so helpfully, and with only of course the very kindest of intentions, point out to Mrs McLean that her lack of Christian charity is all too obviously motivated by sexual jealousy of Susannah (who is apparently the only young and attractive woman who has ever appeared in New Hope Valley). If you compare the rich and varied portrayal of the town inhabitants in Peter Grimes, and think of how much depth they add to that opera, you can see what is lacking here. By the end of the opera, things start taking some interesting turns and we start seeing some intriguing changes in Blitch and Susannah, but I'm afraid by then it was too little too late for me as well as for them.

Haiku 2014/296

people eating lunch
outdoors in San Francisco
bundled in thick coats

22 October 2014

21 October 2014

20 October 2014

Haiku 2014/293

inside office walls
waxy light, slow hands ticking
I think bird-ish thoughts

Poem of the Week 2014/43

The Haunted Oak

Pray why are you so bare, so bare,
       Oh, bough of the old oak-tree;
And why, when I go through the shade you throw,
       Runs a shudder over me?

My leaves were green as the best, I trow,
       And sap ran free in my veins;
But I saw in the moonlight dim and weird
       A guiltless victim's pains.

I bent me down to hear his sigh;
       I shook with his gurgling moan,
And I trembled sore when they rode away,
       And left him here alone.

They'd charged him with the old, old crime,
       And set him fast in jail:
Oh, why does the dog howl all night long,
       And why does the night wind wail?

He prayed his prayer and he swore his oath,
       And he raised his hand to the sky;
But the beat of hoofs smote on his ear,
       And the steady tread drew nigh.

Who is it rides by night, by night,
       Over the moonlit road?
And what is the spur that keeps the pace,
       What is the galling goad?

And now they beat at the prison door,
       "Ho, keeper, do not stay!
We are friends of him whom you hold within,
       And we fain would take him away

"From those who ride fast on our heels
       With mind to do him wrong;
They have no care for his innocence,
       And the rope they bear is long."

They have fooled the jailer with lying words,
       They have fooled the man with lies;
The bolts unbar, the locks are drawn,
       And the great door open flies.

Now they have taken him from the jail,
       And hard and fast they ride,
And the leader laughs low down in his throat,
       As they halt my trunk beside.

Oh, the judge he wore a mask of black,
       And the doctor one of white,
And the minister, with his oldest son,
       Was curiously bedight.

Oh, foolish man, why weep you now?
       'Tis but a little space,
And the time will come when these shall dread
       The mem'ry of your face.

I feel the rope against my bark,
       And the weight of him in my grain,
I feel in the throe of his final woe
       The touch of my own last pain.

And never more shall leaves come forth
       On a bough that bears the ban;
I am burned with dread, I am dried and dead,
       From the curse of a guiltless man.

And ever the judge rides by, rides by,
       And goes to hunt the deer,
And ever another rides his soul
       In the guise of a mortal fear.

And ever the man he rides me hard,
       And never a night stays he;
For I feel his curse as a haunted bough,
       On the trunk of a haunted tree.

Paul Laurence Dunbar

I have been informed that it is not too early to start running Halloween-type poems.

Here is a poem in traditional ballad form: it tells a story, arranged in quatrains, with the second and fourth lines rhyming, and with a 4-3-4-3 beat to the lines, giving the form a galloping propulsion. Ballads, like other forms with origins in oral culture, use repetition, and so does our author ("so bare, so bare"). There is also some striking alliteration; for instance, in the first quatrain, bough in the second line picks up the b of so bare, so bare; o sounds start old and oak with subtly varied music; the third line has through and throw; and in the last line shudder picks up the preceding line's shade. The language is clear but also formal and slightly archaic: I trow, 'tis, bedight (meaning ornamented or arrayed), stay (in the last stanza, in the sense of suspend or postpone, a sense usually associated with the legal system, which is important for this poem, as we shall see).

The subject here is also in line with the ballad tradition: the unjustified murder of an innocent man, and the supernatural results. An eerie atmosphere is skillfully evoked with a few swift (even classic) details: the moonlight is dim and weird, the dog howls all night, the wind wails as if in pain. The lines in the fourth quatrain about the howling dog and the wailing night wind are particularly effective: we've come to a dramatic turning point – we've found out that the man, who has already been described as a "guiltless victim," has been falsely charged with a crime and jailed – and suddenly the forward rush of the narrative is paused by foreboding lines that emphasize an uncanny atmosphere. The delay increases a sense of ominous dramatic tension (which is necessary to this poem since we've already been told the basic story right away, in the second quatrain; we continue on to see how the details unfold). To add to the slightly surreal, unsettled tone, the entire ballad, apart from the first quatrain, is narrated by the oak tree itself.

But something is going on here besides a stylistic exercise in re-creating an ancient English ballad. This is an American poem – more to the point, an African-American poem. Paul Laurence Dunbar, born in Ohio to former slaves, lived from 1872 to 1906 (when he died of tuberculosis). In other words, he lived during the period when post-Civil War attempts to integrate the former slaves into American society under its foundational assertion that all men are created equal were being steadily suppressed, through terrorism and official collusion, by a white-supremacist system that threw most of the newly freed African-Americans back into poverty and servitude. Given the worsening conditions for black Americans during his lifetime, his poetry is inescapably political; even a poem like this, with its successful appropriation of traditional form and language, becomes an assertion of racial equality: we can do this too, this too is ours.

But even more specifically and pointedly, what we have here is a poem about lynching. This is clear just from the narrative: an innocent man is taken out of jail by a mob and then hanged. But there are other details that reinforce the association with post-Reconstructionist terror against African-Americans. Quatrain six begins, "Who is it rides by night, by night"; the Ku Klux Klan and similar groups were frequently referred to as "night riders" since they of course usually conducted raids at night. They were also disguised, as are the killers in this poem. This lynch mob includes the judge, the doctor, the minister and his oldest son – in other words, those community members with the greatest education and the most legal and moral authority – the very ones who should be protecting the innocent and defending enlightened values, not undermining them themselves. It is the judge, the representative of the law, who is singled out at the ballad's end: he knows he has killed a man he should have protected, thereby undercutting the legal system he represents. Hence his "mortal fear" (mortal in the sense of fatal, terminal, but also with the implication of human: the memory of the victim's face will haunt the men who denied their shared humanity with him): the legal system is haunted by the ghosts of those it should have protected but destroyed instead, and its adherents fear their coming retribution.

I took this from Poems Bewitched and Haunted, selected and edited by John Hollander for the Everyman's Library Pocket Poetry series.

19 October 2014

18 October 2014