Opera Pacific may not be the last opera company in America to get around to "Susannah," which it did effectively Wednesday night at the Orange County Performing Artscenter, but Carlisle Floyd's faux-folk opera has few stages left to conquer. The irresistible numbers -- well over 200 productions, 700-plus performances -- were trotted out once more during a company sales pitch for new subscribers before the curtain rose.
Yet "Susannah" is a strange success story, and another statistic for the 81-year-old composer of what is said to be the most performed American opera after "Porgy and Bess" is just as startling: Search for Carlisle Floyd on Amazon.com and only 14 results come up. For all the populist appeal of his scores, Floyd doesn't flourish on his tunefulness.
Someone once said of Puccini that he wasn't a great composer but he wrote great operas. A kind of American Puccini, Floyd writes operas that work in idioms we instinctively understand. Audiences respond readily to the Apocryphal tale of Susanna and the Elders transferred to the backwoods of Tennessee and set to music that evokes Appalachia, and the success of "Susannah" has been mostly due to its numerous regional and university productions rather than its being a repertory staple at major companies.
That is not to say that "Susannah" hasn't reached the big time. Nine years ago, Renee Fleming starred in it at the Metropolitan Opera. That production originated at Chicago Lyric Opera, and it is the one used by Opera Pacific. Dawn Upshaw has recorded Susannah's aria "Ain't It a Pretty Night?" Kent Nagano conducted the opera's one studio recording. But for all its popularity, "Susannah" still tends to be treated like a rarity. Wednesday was its first major production in Southern California in a quarter of a century.
Ultimately, I think "Susannah" is best served exactly the way Opera Pacific served it. Michael Yeargan's set offers a handsome craftsman-style cottage and church against a vertigo-inducing background of angled tree trunks, and it is very well lighted by Duane Schuler. Robert Falls' production, here realized by Harry Silverstein, is straightforward. There isn't a lot of nuance in Floyd's characters (he wrote his own libretto) or music. The good, the weak and the intolerant are all plainly drawn.
Perhaps a sexy Susannah might have been nice, but Pamela Armstrong found more power in plainness. Spied bathing nude by scandalized church elders, Susannah becomes too much temptation for an itinerant preacher, Olin Blitch. By not being especially provocative, though, Armstrong made her character more a universal symbol of woman as victim. Floyd serves this image in music always sympathetic to the voice and with a ready supply of dreamy thoughts, along with high-note climaxes for every shade of outrage. The angrier Susannah got, the more radiant Armstrong became.
Floyd's operas are populated with weak men. Dean Peterson, a smooth baritone, was an understated, nearly sleaze-free Blitch, the preacher who seduces Susannah. Nature more or less took its course, which made his remorse all the more tragic.
As Susannah's alcoholic brother, Sam Polk, Arnold Rawls needed the first of the two acts to warm up, but he found more than enough passion by the end, when his character runs off to shoot Blitch. John Easterlin made the pathetic Little Bat, who hangs around Susannah and is bullied into lying to the Elders about her promiscuousness, seem like trouble from the start.
Opera Pacific, with but three productions a year, too often gives the impression of just squeaking by. With more support (read "money"), John DeMain, who is concluding his 10th season as artistic director with "Susannah," could surely make something of this company. And despite limitations, he made something of this opera.
Floyd's score supports drama. He is a master of creating mood in the orchestra, and DeMain gave the performance an absorbing musical underpinning. He may not have been able to keep the choristers or Elders and their wives together all the time, but he made sure they were a compelling theatrical presence all the time.
Where: Opera Pacific at Segerstrom Hall, Orange County Performing Artscenter, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 2 p.m. Sunday; 7:30 p.m. Thursday and May 24
Price: $27 to $200
Contact: (800) 346-7372 or www.operapacific.org