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Opera Review

Heartfelt 'Cold Sassy Tree' Full of Hit Arias


There's nothing cold about Carlisle Floyd's new opera, "Cold Sassy Tree." It speaks directly from the heart to the heart, with side trips through the funny bone.

Its overwhelming immediacy makes it suspect in some quarters, but it is a major achievement, enriching modern American opera with a freshness and liveliness that seem remarkable coming from a 73-year-old composer.

Premiered at Houston Grand Opera last April, "Cold Sassy Tree" recently reached San Diego Opera, one of the five companies that co-commissioned it. (The others, besides Houston, are Austin Lyric Opera, Opera Carolina and Baltimore Opera.)

Three principals who created the roles in Houston also sang during the San Diego run, which closed Sunday at the San Diego Civic Theatre. Bass-baritone Dean Peterson was Rucker Lattimore, the crusty widower whose sudden new marriage throws most of his relatives and the town into a fit.

Soprano Patricia Racette was Love Simpson, his new wife and an outsider. Tenor John McVeigh portrayed Will Tweedy both as the grown-up looking back on the events and the sympathetic teenager living through them.

Based on Olive Ann Burn's best-selling 1984 novel, Floyd fashioned his own libretto, which puts the work squarely in the tradition of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," with its use of a character who steps in and out of the action to speak directly to the audience. Other connections, besides Floyd's earlier operas, can be drawn to Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" and Britten's "Albert Herring."

There are also as many if not more hit arias here than in a Puccini opera. Start with Love's "Rented rooms, that's all I've ever known," her vulnerable effort to explain herself in front of her two new hostile daughters-in-law (Cynthia Clayton and Beth Clayton).

Young singers should think about adding this and at least four other arias to their concert repertory immediately. Lattimore closes the first act with an astonishingly uplifting sermon, "Religious zeal can be a sickness," and later declares his love for his new wife with a tenderness that any singer would be proud to display.

Add the pained arioso about her love of learning that Lightfoot McClendon (Megan Weston) sings when it looks as if she will have to drop out of high school to work in a mill. But perhaps most overwhelming is Will Tweedy's "Sometimes the pain of missing him eats me up alive," a tour de force grieving over his dead grandfather.

Lifting these arias out of context might suggest the score is fragmented. It isn't. There is a natural, seamless flow from speech to singing, from recitative to aria that lesser composers can only dream of achieving. Ditto the ensembles, especially the irony of the congregation singing "Blessed be the tie that binds/Our hearts in Christian love" as it heartlessly rejects the new Mrs. Lattimore.

Conductor Karen Keltner presided over all this with a knowing and sensitive hand. Garnett Bruce inherited Bruce Beresford's detailed stage direction which made every member of the large, superb San Diego cast an individual.

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