Cold Sassy Tree
Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Robi Polgar, Fri., Jan. 19, 2001
Cold Sassy Tree: One Gol-Durned Town
Bass Concert Hall,
It is appalling and unforgivable that Austin Lyric Opera could take Carlisle Floyd's sweet Southern tale and wreck it with such consummate disregard for his delicate storytelling. Once again, poor technical execution -- in this case, interminable set changes that repeatedly brought the opera to an abrupt halt, leaving the Bass Concert Hall crowd waiting in the dark and listening not to Floyd's score, but to the rumble of castors and the thump of drops -- turned what should have been a triumphant presentation of a new work of American art into just one more night in the provinces. This opera, which was co-commissioned by ALO, Houston Grand Opera (where the opera premiered), San Diego Opera, Baltimore Opera, and Opera Carolina, has been four years in the making: Was this not enough time for the creative powers behind the development of Cold Sassy Tree to have figured out how to stage it?
The supposed pinnacle of this American composer's career is not without its inherent difficulties, either. While Floyd's opera is highly lyrical, with music that runs the emotional gamut from playful to melodramatic, joyous to tragic, the score is a challenging one for operagoers whose diets consist of the classics, one that eschews recognizable melodies. But if the music is difficult, it certainly flows with the story, supporting the charming and heartwarming tale of small-town Georgia shopkeeper Rucker Lattimore, a blustery, single-minded man, and his blooming love for a much younger woman. Now, no good Southern tale would be well served without its scandal, and Lattimore's expedited marriage to Miss Love Simpson (when the first Mrs. Lattimore hasn't been dead a month) is plenty scandalous for this small town of gossips and churchgoers, although the marriage is not sexual: It is strictly a business transaction. Even Lattimore's own daughters won't have anything to do with his business-bride, if they can help it. Over time, however, the gruff Lattimore softens under Miss Simpson's care, the two really fall in love, and the town comes around to her, too, after a terrible tragedy and the realization that she is, indeed, a good woman.
Floyd's story is narrated by Lattimore's grandson, Will Tweedy, now a writer, who looks back at the small town with affection and amusement, much as the audience does by opera's end. As young Will, John McVeigh is always personable, often wandering downstage of the scrim with its Cézanne-like painted image of the town, engaging the audience in his reminiscences. As Will grows up during the course of the opera, McVeigh's voice strengthens beautifully. Marie Plett turned in a fine performance in her first appearance for ALO as Love Simpson. But the real star of this production was Dean Peterson, whose Rucker Lattimore is a wonderful concoction of brashness, self-effacement, and generosity. Peterson is another fine singer-actor; in fact, the entire ensemble is equally adept at its singing and acting, which makes this opera so pleasant to behold. The performers in supporting roles are perhaps less dimensional, but they make the small-town bustle and bridle with aplomb. Margaret Lloyd stands out as Lightfoot McClendon, a girl from the poor mill town adjacent to Cold Sassy Tree. Her budding romance with Will Tweedy makes for a slow-to-catch-up subplot, but when the young couple's romance finally flourishes, it very neatly adds to the sense that, like the growing feelings between Love Simpson and Rucker Lattimore, true love is ageless and knows no boundaries. Throw in Cindy Sadler's overly righteous Effie Belle Tate, self-proclaimed town matriarch, and a couple of weak-willed men, notably son-in-law Camp Williams (a sweet buffoon sung by tenor Mark Thomsen) and a chivalric Texan (the charming baritone, Don Davis), and you've got yourself one "gol-durned" town.
There is no overbearing social message in the opera, but that is not its point. Although it is the milltown boys who provide most of the anger and violence in the opera, theirs is an anger of ignorance, even foolishness, rather than socio-economic inequality. That the story is set in a rural Georgia town at the turn of the 20th century, yet one that is notably lacking in African-American faces, is simply another shortcoming ALO has yet to remedy (one recalls last season's Aida -- embarrassing with its contingent of black-faced Anglos playing spear-carrying Ethiopians). The real conflicts in Floyd's opera are personal ones, the triumph the town's. This simple, good-natured opera should have a long production life. Let's hope that future productions find a way to stage it that places the story front and center.