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.


Unknown said...

I have to say that I checked out of the story (not of your story of the story) at rural people being shocked by someone bathing nude in the 1930's???? When it's unlikely there was indoor plumbing?

Michael Strickland said...

Good point, unknown. I checked out when I realized the music was going to be so limited and dull, though I'm glad I finally heard the piece for the first time. The production was impeccable, so I don't feel like I ever need to see it again.