CARLISLE FLOYD'S "COLD SASSY TREE"

(Premiere: Houston Grand Opera, Brown Theater, Wortham Theater Center, April 14, 2000. Future performances: April 16 (m), 19, 22, 25,28, 30 (m), May 6.)

Life goes on, and so does Carlisle Floyd. “Cold Sassy Tree,” which brought a clearly  delighted audience to its feet at Houston’s Wortham Theater Center last Friday, is the fourth of his big works – of more than a dozen over-all — to be commissioned and premiered by David Gockley’s Houston Grand Opera; it is also the 25th brand-new work by anyone  nurtured into being by the company during Gockley’s leadership. It was a performance in Seattle of Floyd’s operatic setting of Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” says Gockley, that determined him to launch his own company with the avowed passion – 28 years’ worth so far, and counting – for new and newer operas that has given it a unique position among worldwide opera companies.
New and newer? That may need a little backing down in Floyd’s case. His first major score, “Susannah,” pushes on toward the half-century mark. A canny distillation of Pucciniesque bathos and grass-roots Americana; it lifted a burden of concern from audiences terrorized by “Wozzeck,” and announced that opera could, once again, be the people’s friend. So successful was (and is) this initial foray that the need for further stylistic development seems never to have occurred to Floyd. There are no surprises in “Cold Sassy Tree”; its composer, now 74, was born full-panoplied.
As is his wont, Floyd wrote his own libretto, a free gloss on the late Olive Ann Burns’ deliciously garrulous folk-portrait of life in the north Georgia village (hard by Floyd’s own South Carolina hometown) where once the sassafras trees turned cold. His own words well capture the novel’s brimming talky-talk; his own musical craftiness shows. He has changed the name of the book’s leading character from Blakeslee to Lattimore. It makes for a better rhythm.
Floyd’s “Cold Sassy Tree” is, then, a work of sureness and craft. Of eloquence there is far less. In between the big choral numbers in a manner little changed since “Floradora” the action moves in a kind of parlando, now and then cresting in a shapely cadence, then subsiding. There are splendid happenings; old Rucker Lattimore, implausibly married to Love Simpson half his age, finds the love in her after all. Shunned by the town’s uppity churchgoers, the old codger conducts a hellfire sermon at home. Grandson Will tells his sweetie what’s inside him,  but it runs cold in its music, and not a bit sassy.
The opera runs long , an unconscionable 3 1/4 hours on opening night; whole scenes could easily be lost, except for the impression you get that Floyd has promised a Big Aria to every cast member of whatever worth. There is good work: a glorious roar or two from Dean Peterson as old Rucker, Patricia Racette’s appealing Love Simpson. John McVeigh, attractively light-voiced the way Broadway juveniles used to sound before body mikes, carries forward the bulk of the narrative, spoken and sung.  Patrick Summers’s conducting delivers a fine load of sass; Michael Yeargan’s sets and costumes radiate authenticity and charm. Australia’s Bruce Beresford, whose “Driving Miss Daisy” proved his surefootedness in the rural South, continues his invasion of the operatic world – with results a fair piece more commendable than his Hollywoodized “Rigoletto” in Los Angeles last month.
Okay, it’s another Carlisle Floyd opera, no better and probably no worse. It wants terribly to be loved, and there’s nothing about it that you can’t at least like. It will make the rounds, and folks will stand and cheer and decide that modern opera isn’t so bad after all. And Wonder will keep on making bread.