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Following up on some inquiries from two board members with long opera experience brought Carlisle Floyd's tenth opera, Cold Sassy Tree , to my attention. They had attended one of the world premiere performances by the Houston Grand Opera Company in April, 2000, and were impressed. The commission for the opera was by Houston and a consortium of regional opera companies - Austin Lyric Opera, Baltimore Opera, San Diego Opera and Charlotte's own Opera Carolina.
Floyd was born in Latta, South Carolina, in 1926. He grew up as part of a Methodist minister's family and, according to a biography published by Arizona Opera, his "experiences as a child were that of the Southern Bible Belt with its traveling preachers, revival meetings and strong sense of community. He was also aware of the darker side of Southern fundamentalism [with] its bigotry and hypocrisy," and this has been a common thread through many of his operas, such as Susannah , which has been presented in the Triangle. Floyd was given UNC alumna Olive Ann Burns' novel Cold Sassy Tree by his sister; in an interview in Opera Voice (Vol. 8, issue 3), Thomas Holiday writes that the siblings were struck by the "accurate representation of the South as (they) had known it" and by the author's "remarkable gift for authentic dialogue...: a stenographic ear."
The opera has been described as a "bittersweet comedy." Through elimination of some characters, tinkering with others, and condensation, Floyd managed to create from the 400-page novel a dramatically-viable 30-page libretto with three acts that runs about three hours and ten minutes.
An Opera Carolina news release provides the essence of the plot: "It is 1901. The citizens of Cold Sassy Tree, a small town in rural Georgia, are outraged when Rucker Lattimore, the recently-widowed proprietor of the general store, announces his intention to marry Love Simpson, a 'Yankee' milliner half his age. Lattimore's two grown daughters strongly disapprove. Miss Love explains to them the 'marriage arrangement': she will cook and clean in return for the deed to the house and its furnishings. Meanwhile, Lattimore's grandson, Will Tweedy, befriends a classmate, Lightfoot McLendon, a 'linthead' from the 'wrong side of the tracks.' Outraged by Rucker's decision, the citizens of Cold Sassy Tree shun the new Mrs. Lattimore at church. Rucker responds by conducting an impromptu service in his parlor for Will, Miss Love and himself. Rucker and Love Simpson grow closer, as do Will and Lightfoot. Miss Love reveals to Rucker that as a young girl she was violated and considers herself 'damaged goods.' Rucker tenderly proposes that she become his wife in every sense of the word. Finally the community embraces Miss Love, only then to experience the loss of Rucker as he is shot in a botched robbery attempt. At his funeral party, Miss Love announces that she is pregnant with his child. At first, many are shocked, but they finally unite to congratulate her and celebrate the legacy of Rucker Lattimore."
Cold Sassy Tree is easily the most moving and effective new opera I have experienced in the 21st century and would be in my top-ten list of operas composed since 1950. Floyd's distillation of the novel into a libretto is a miracle. It makes for a very effective evening of theatre that truly recreates small town and rural life. I am tempted to call it "Southern 'verismo'" since it so naturally portrays life in a small Southern community that many of us have experienced. From audience reactions as well as comments overheard at intermission, the actions on stage readily relate to personal experience. Since the libretto faithfully preserves novelist Burns' "authentic dialog," the projected titles (in standard English) were a great aid to non-Southerners. The cast delivered the texts naturally, with exemplary diction.
High production values were evident throughout the February 23 matinee performance. The sets and costumes, originally designed for Houston by Michael Yeargan and executed for Opera Carolina by stage directors Garnett Bruce and Ellen Douglas Schaefer, were ideal, as realistic as a Currier and Ives print. A full stage scrim had a print of the small town. When it was raised, on stage, in turn, were the realistic exterior or interior of Lattimore's General Store, the center of small-town life, or the church's interior, or the interiors of Lattimore's house, or that of his daughter, Mary Willis Tweedy. Most critical and essential was the use of a stage turntable in the last scenes of the long first act, when the set quickly rotated from the church, where Lattimore's new wife had just been shunned, to reveal the Lattimore house, where Rucker gives his "impromptu sermon," a key scene in the opera that distills Floyd's message and that would make a fine set piece for a good bass-baritone singer-actor. The production was by award-winning film director Bruce Beresford. The lighting was designed by Duane Schuler.
There were no weaknesses in the large cast of singer-actors. Three artists from the original Houston Grand Opera production reprised their roles in the Opera Carolina regional premiere production. Bass-baritone Dean Peterson recreated Grandpa Rucker Lattimore, the iconoclastic owner of the general store. His individual views were tolerated because he controlled the lines of credit at the store. His voice was well-supported throughout its range, and he had both heft and low notes when needed. Tenor John McVeigh reprised the role of Lattimore's beloved grandson, Will Tweedy. As the narrator (Will as an adult), McVeigh was miked. As the teenaged Will, McVeigh's polished tenor soared as needed during his devastated expression of grief in Act III, after the tragic death of his grandpa. Firm and even-voiced soprano Margaret Lloyd reprised the role of Will's sweetheart, Lightfoot McClendon, the "linthead" daughter of a millworker who lived on the wrong side of the tracks. Her passionate aria "T' make somethin' o' myself!" - about her yearning for education and betterment - would make a fine addition to the repertory of singers, joining "Ain't it a pretty night" from Floyd's Susannah . Dramatic soprano Marie Plette was superb as Love Simpson, Lattimore's new wife. Her powerful and well-supported voice allowed her easily to project the role, and her embodiment of the complex "Yankee milliner" was fully convincing. Her aria or scena, "Rented rooms, that's all I've ever known" would also make a good addition to the repertory. Plette sang this role in the Lyric Opera of Kansas City production. Baritone Dan Boye was appropriately larger-than-life as Love's crass former fiancée, a Texas cowboy.
Excellent sopranos depicted Lattimore's outraged daughters. Loma Williams was sung by Julie De Vaere while Will's mother, Mary Willis Tweedy, was portrayed by Jacquelyn Culpepper, whose fine work is familiar to both Triad and Triangle audiences. Deborah Fields was perfect as Effie Belle Tate, the Grande Dame of the town and self-appointed monitor of manners and morals - a real termagant! Sopranos Rhonda Overman and Jennifer Burton were a delight as the style-conscious Lula and Myrtis; their "Paris has come to Cold Sassy Tree" was priceless. Space will not allow me to list all the fine singers from Greensboro, Winston-Salem and Charlotte who so memorably helped populate Cold Sassy Tree.
In her Opera Charlotte debut, Karen Keltner, Resident Conductor of the San Diego Opera, led a dynamic performance with tight coordination between the stage and very large pit orchestra. My only caveat was the mysterious decision to mike the orchestra. The pit is larger and more open than most in the region. Based on experience with other theatres and the apparently fine acoustics of Belk Theatre, this seemed to be unnecessary. From my seat in the right orchestra, the sound of the entire orchestra seemed to emanate from an area delineated by the right stage speaker, the nearby exit and the overhanging box seats. While the orchestra almost never covered the singers, the resulting unnatural blend of sound made it difficult to assess the conductor's work. The orchestration was effectively tonal except for some eerie atonal effects that highlighted Love Simpson's memory of being raped by a boarder in a rented house when she was a child. The score had fine solos for oboe and clarinet.
Opera Carolina has a superb web page at http://www.operacarolina.org/ . They have an extensive community outreach program utilizing bookstores as well as patrons-only luncheons and dinners. Cold Sassy Tree composer Floyd was in town for a "Meet the Composer" session at the Museum of the New South. Opera previews were given in varied locations before the run.
Charlotte's reputation for bad traffic and my own mixed experience with Sunday traffic on I-85 lead me to recommend Opera Carolina's matinees for those who want to hold travel stress to a minimum. Dining is available inside the N.C. Blumenthal Performing Arts Center (a somewhat pricey bistro) or light meals may be obtained at shops within a block of the theatre.