Carlyle Floyd: Cold Sassy Tree. Directed by Bruce Beresford, conducted by Patrick Summers. With Patrice Racette and Dean Peterson. Houston Grand Opera, Houston, TX. May 6, 2000.

Houston Grand Opera is definitely a company with a “point of view,” that of David Gockley, the impresario who has run the company since 1972. Like John Crosby at Santa Fe Opera, Gockley has, through his long tenure and by force of personality, given his company a rather eccentric approach to repertory and production style. This is especially true when it comes to modem works. For one thing, there's the volume of activity. Although the company only performs seven or eight operas a season, it has presented 25 world premieres during Gockley's reign, an amazing feat. The Metropolitan Opera, with 23 or more operas a season, has only managed three premieres during the same period
As for the kind of works Gockley favors, there are essentially two rules. First, they must be American (“native-grown,” in Gockley's words). With a couple of exceptions, all commissions have gone to North Americans (a category that includes Mexican composer Daniel Catan). To Gockley, this is strategic: “We must evolve an American repertory if we want to continue in the future,” he said in an interview. Secondly, Gockley seeks only composers who “return to the past, where there is true theater music as the basis for theater works.” This eliminates anything that smacks of “modernism,” or “academic music.” Europeans, such as Hans Wemer Henze (whose The Young Lord was performed here in the pre-Gockley days), are dismissed as “alienating” and “politically correct.” Nevertheless, Houston is able to latch onto a variety of trends, including minimalism (the company has commissioned both Philip Glass and John Adams), “CNN opera” (Adams' Nixon in China and Michael Daugherty's Jackie O) and “folk opera,” the term used to describe Carlyle Floyd's works.

Gockley believes strongly in commissioning composers to write multiple pieces, as he has done with Floyd, whose four premieres make him the company's most favored composer. Daniel Catan and Mark Adamo, both of whom had premieres here, are already at work on new commissions from the company, historic evidence that first operas rarely amount to much (when did you last see Wagner's Die Feen?). Oddly, it would seem that Floyd has thus far been the exception to this rule. His first opera, Susannah, written in 1955 when he was 28, moved rapidly into the repertory and has enjoyed more than 800 performances, composer's equivalent of Van Clibum.

That might change. Floyd's latest opera, which Houston premiered on April 14th, is a major achievement, perhaps eclipsing even Susannah. A bittersweet comedy, Cold Sassy Tree is based on the best-selling novel by Olive Ann Burns, set in a small town of the same name. (Floyd wrote his own libretto.) Rucker Lattimore (sung by baritone Dean Peterson) is the eccentric town patriarch, and three weeks after the death of his beloved wife, he creates a scandal by marrying Love Simpson (sung by soprano Patrice Racette), a Northern-born employee half his age. He rationalizes this by describing it as a business transaction—he needed someone to look after him, and a wife would be cheaper than a hired woman. While Rucker, who owns the town store, is able to survive the scandal (as he points out, the townspeople have no choice; he can cut off their credit), Love is shunned by all, even his two daughters (Diane Alexander and Beth Clayton). Ultimately, perhaps brought together by the reaction of the town, the two discover that they love each other and they briefly live together as man and wife, discovering dark secrets and undergoing transformations, before Rucker is shot to death in a bungled robbery. Rucker's death leads to further revelation and reconciliation. There are numerous subplots, including one that revolves around the arrival of Love's former fiance and another involving the love affair of Rucker's teenage grandson (tenor John McVeigh), who is also the folksy narrator of the story, much in the manner of Britten's narrator in Paul Bunyan.

Britten's Albert Herring is the opera that this resembles most, in terms of its comic deconstruction of a small village, but it really is a lighter, sweeter version of Susannah, which it mirrors in its musical style and in many of its conventions. The church services are a Floyd staple, as might be expected from a composer who is also a minister's son. Here familiar hynms are sung with ironic dialogue as a sort of descant, not unlike that in Peter Grimes. As always, Floyd writes in a folksy-bluesy American style that sounds a bit like Aaron Copland or other mid-century conservative composers. This is not a ground-breaking score, but it is an exceptionally interesting one, with its gorgeous simple songs surrounded by surprisingly complex orchestral development, Cold Sassy Tree demands a lot from its singers, both vocally and dramatically, and Houston managed to find a nearly ideal cast. Peterson's Rucker is both believable and larger-than-life, and he manages an onstage transformation every bit as difficult as that of Otello. Peterson dominates the opera in a role that the composer had apparently intended for Samuel Ramey, who recently performed in the Metropolitan Opera's Susannah. Racette, as Love Simpson, gets the best music in the opera. She has a pretty, focused voice with a lovely top, and her winning stage manner makes her biggest aria, “Rented rooms, that's all I've ever known,” a real show-stopper. Like Racette, John McVeigh has a stage manner that makes his part work, in a hokey, homespun way. The role of his girlfriend, Lightfoot McClendon, is sung sweetly by soprano Margaret Lloyd, surprisingly convincing as a teenage girl from the wrong side of town. The dozen or so smaller roles were handled exceptionally well.

Michael Yeargan, the set and costume designer, has created a brightly colored small town as picturesque as a Nonnan Rockwell painting. It is effective and unobtrusive. Bruce Beresford, the Australian film director (Breaker Morant and Driving Miss Daisy), directed. His staging was a bit straightforward, but he did manage to get convincing performances from everyone, Patrick Summers, HGO's Music Director, conducted with remarkable confidence and an uncanny sense of timing, underscoring and emphasizing the drama while keeping an ideal balance between stage and pit. The Houston Grand Opera Orchestra is a relatively new group which is gradually replacing the Houston Symphony at the opera here. (Houston had been one of the last major companies with a well-known concert orchestra in its pit.) It responded with such precision that it could easily have been mistaken for its more famous counterpart.

Comedy is hard to get right, and so is the South, which can easily fall victim to a sort of caricature. No opera composer has ever had a better sense of the South and its cadences than Floyd. And this is that rare comedy that is funny and charming without going overboard. At 73, Floyd has given us his comic masterpiece, like Verdi with Falstaff, and it is a winner. Fortunately, there will be future performances, as this production now heads for four other opera companies as part of co-production arrangement. And the Houston performances will likely be seen by a much larger audience, as they have been recorded on video for eventual telecast.

James L. Paulk