Sunday, December 03, 2006

Ain't It A Pretty Night?

It is a pretty night, at least compared to what I was expecting this weekend. Save for some raindrops on Friday all the messiness that blasted the midwest landed somewhere north of the D.C. Metro area, so it's been brisk but generally clear. Saturday morning and afternoon in particular were gorgeous, with an open blue sky and the cold, direct quality of light that you get from the sun in December if you don't put any clouds in front of it. Granted, I missed out on most of the nicest weather by taking my fairly regular Saturday post-lunch siesta. By the time my stereo alarm woke me up around 2:30 (critical to set the alarm before your siesta as winter approaches, if you want to be awake again while there's daylight left) the sky was obviously more overcast based on the light filtering through the Venetian blinds... I lay there for a few minutes, dreamily beginning to understand the words in a Washington National Opera broadcast (not very accurately) before I even realized they were German. More wakefulness, some more real (and consequently harder) German parsing, and a couple of helpful leitmotifs eventually convinced me it was the end of "Das Rheingold". Solid music; a clanging, driving instance of Wagner's Nibelung rhythm can bug you out a little bit if you're not entirely awake.

A more conscious opera experience this afternoon, as I made a last-minute trip out to George Mason University's Fairfax campus to hear a Virginia Opera production of Carlisle Floyd's "Susannah" -- This one had been on my radar a while back but I'd forgotten about it until hearing radio promos for it earlier this weekend. It's an adaptation of the apocryphal story of Susanna and the Elders set in rural Tennessee, made more tragic and very consciously reminiscent of the political paranoia of the 1950s (the synopsis from the program is on the page linked above; writing my own capsule summary seems unnecessary).

I'm growing increasingly fond of the opera -- there's a fine Virgin Classics recording with the Opera de Lyon and Kent Nagano if you want to get to know -- It reminds me of Kurt Weill's "Street Scene" in that you can almost source it to American musical theater as easily as to the European opera tradition. Floyd incorporates an Appalachian folk idiom (though no genuine folk music) into a sweeping, romantic mid-20th-century style, with a couple of big, lush, tragic melodies underpinning most of the opera. (One of these gets the spotlight in the second of the work's two showpiece arias, "The Trees on the Mountain", which would be fantastic to hear performed in a straight-up folk song arrangement.) Floyd is stylistically straightforward both in his music and libretto, with some direct, sometimes abrupt turns into dark places that prevent it from coming off as naive. Floyd's most engaging orchestral writing in the opera comes in a couple of cinematically eerie, lightly expressionistic scenes -- the moment in Act I when Susannah is discovered bathing is a highlight. The choral "Come, Sinner" in the revival meeting scene at the beginning of Act II is the most chilling evangelical pseudo-hymn I've ever heard, for what that's worth.

The soprano in the title role, Lillian Sengpiehl (whose credits include a stint in the Philip Glass Ensemble), has a dark, clear, versatile voice that aptly fit the character's low, colloquial, conversational lines as well as the full-throttle, high-register climaxes in the two gorgeous arias that Floyd generously gives the role. Marc Embree, a bass-baritone who apparently works frequently with the Virginia Opera, was somewhat weak at the top end of his voice (particularly in the opening scene, though he seemed to improve as he warmed up) but effectively characterized Rev. Blitch's descent from stentorian to shattered. The set was relatively spare and full of narrow wooden planking, reminiscent of partly abstract depictions of the American heartland from the early 20th century -- curves in the background suggesting mountains, abrupt Kandinsky-like angles in the fore.

I imagine part of the reason that "Susannah" is ensconced as well in the repertoire as any other 20th-century American opera I can think of is that it plays so well on the scale of a regional production like this one. It's not big as far as operas go, either in cast or orchestra size or time -- if you deleted the intermission it would be shorter than plenty of movies -- and the musical idiom is approachable for musicians as well as players. I could get back on a high and somewhat misinformed horse about what kind of programming would keep opera relevant (and I will say I was unpleasantly surprised that so few college-aged people attended this one, given that it was performed on a large university campus) but even for an established opera-goer it provides some refreshing counterpoint to the grand-opera bread-and-butter type productions that make up so much of every season. To quote one or another of the old biddies walking behind me as I left the Center for the Arts, "I didn't care for any of the music in it, but it was different." Maybe swap it out for every third Lucia di Lammermoor or something.


Blogger Pete said...

"Writing on the blog are yah? Well, don't let me stop you."

12/04/2006 5:54 PM  
Blogger Jack said...

Fun. I've never seen Susannah performed, though I'm kind of familiar with it. Like you say, it does get around (you're right about it being scaled right for smaller houses) -- it's literally the most-performed American opera, I think with Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" a distant second.

(In America, at least. I don't think it's very often done elsewhere. But then, not very many American operas in general are performed overseas.)

Floyd's opera on Of Mice and Men also sees some performances, notably by Glimmerglass & the New York City Opera, revived a couple of years back. (One of those things I didn't manage to catch in NYC and am still kicking myself for a bit.) There's a recording of it, too: Floyd's writing matches the Steinbeck well, with the Americana & that tense kind of midcentury-film-music drama.

12/04/2006 8:12 PM  
Blogger Nate said...

I'll keep an eye (ear?) out for Of Mice and Men; I don't know any of Floyd's other work at all. The pleasures of small and/or uncommon opera performances have only occurred to me relatively recently, so I shudder to think of all the stuff I've missed over the years.

I'm belatedly laughing at Pete's comment since it's an old inside joke we had about an odd line of dialog from Street Scene. Belatedly because it took me about four minutes to remember what the hell he was referring to.

12/04/2006 8:46 PM  

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