Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Do You Like American Music?

May 25, 2008

Pamela Armstrong as Susannah
Photo : Opera Pacific 2008

Me, not so much. Actually that’s not at all true. It’s just that I’ve never been a fan of the sort of folk-influence American pastoral sound championed by Copland and taken up by subsequent generations of boosters. (He remains one of my least favorite composers – and yes, you can keep Leonard Bernstein while you’re at it as well.) Given this, it should come as no surprise that Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah has the potential to rub me the wrong way. Still, the opera isn’t really all that different from those of Janacek or Smetana whom I both love to pieces, so I headed down to Orange County last night keeping an open mind for Opera Pacific’s final performance of their current run of Susannah. Now, granted, it's Memorial Day weekend, but apparently I’m not the only one with prejudgments concerning the “American sound” looking around at the half-empty Segerstrom Hall. More than usual, the poor attendance only served to make me feel stranded in the cold silence of outer space - trapped in that vacant Battlestar Gallactica-hull of an arts venue.

But you know, it was actually a pretty darn good show. The WPA-inspired production by Robert Falls and imported by way of Chicago and Houston is attractive in an unobtrusive way, but not without its charms. The cast was quite strong including a lovely sounding Pamela Armstrong in the title role with Dean Peterson as Olin Blitch. The two communicated well on stage as did Arnold Rawls in the role of Sam Polk. All three fleshed out a work that veers dangerously toward cartoonishness at times with solid and thoughtful performances. Anderson's take on Susannah's second aria, "The Trees on the Mountain", was superb and downright scary in its foreboding, generating the biggest and most deserved ovation of the evening. My only real complaint was the overly emphasized Southern accents the cast was apparently coached into. While not completely inappropriate, they often got in the way of the overall feel of the piece given how strained everyone sounded brandishing them about willy-nilly.

The Opera Pacific orchestra was led, as usual, by John DeMain, and, after some rather rocky passages in Act I where stage and pit seemed uncoordinated and worlds away from one another, everyone somehow got on the same page and produced some really tense and beautiful moments in Act II. Foremost among these was the meeting house scene in Act II where the chorus was on point and powerful. All-in-all a more than serviceable production, which makes the poor attendance even more of a shame. Which just goes to show, you’ve got to keep your mind open if your ears are ever going to learn anything.



Interestingly, I like the music of Copland but not of Bernstein. Once I accepted that Aaron had mastered modernist practices, the sappy stuff didn't seem as sappy.

But I don't have an equivalent transformation to apply to Bernstein's music.
Sad to have missed this, one of these days I'll actually see/hear Opera Pacific. I don't know if I've ever seen Segerstrom completely full (though I'm sure it is sometimes), so I'm not terribly surprised that Susannah was half empty. Thanks for tattling on the accents. ;)
Which so reminds me that I have been remiss in adding Opera Tattler to my links. A situation I shall correct presently.
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