Saturday’s premiere of Carlisle Floyd's 1955 “Susannah” in the War Memorial Opera House made San Francisco Opera history.
For General Director David Gockley, a nationally acclaimed champion of contemporary opera, it was a special triumph to bring this most-performed American opera (next to “Porgy and Bess”) to a mainstage San Francisco Opera premiere at long last.
The presence of the 88-year-old composer accepting the applause, and the brilliant performance of Patricia Racette in the title role, the soprano marking her 25th year with the company, added to the celebration.
(Defying chronology and the law of physics, Racette, 49, who has been transforming into 15-year-old Butterfly, is a credible 19-year-old Susannah.)
The superbly melodious work _ a symphonic version of Appalachian folk music with undertones of Bach Partitas _ presents a gripping drama, which originates with the Book of Daniel story about the abuse of an innocent young woman by hypocritical, salacious elders, and picks up the then-still-fresh memories of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's witch hunts.
Beautiful, innocent, kindhearted Susannah lives in the backwoods of Tennessee (depicted with video projections of the Great Smoky Mountains), with her bother Sam, sung by the exceptional young tenor, Brandon Jovanovich.
As the Biblical heroine, Floyd's protagonist bathes in a stream and is spied upon, and then excoriated by salacious village elders.
With the arrival of the fire-breathing preacher, Rev. Olin Blitch (Raymond Aceto, showing too much weakness even before his transformation from monster to “just a man with needs”), the confrontation over Susannah's fate is complete, to be resolved in the suspenseful second act.
Exemplary performances by Racette and Jovanovich are complemented by a large cast including current and former Adler Fellows, the hyperactive Opera Chorus led by Ian Robertson, and supernumeraries – all presenting a constantly changing kaleidoscope in Michael Cavanagh's dynamic direction, on Erhard Rom's stark, dramatic set.
The initially puzzling choice of Hannover music director Karen Kamensek to conduct this essentially American opera in her local debut turned out very well. With the exception of a few exaggerated Wagnerian climaxes, Kamensek's direction and the orchestra's performance are excellent.
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. today and Sept. 12, Sept. 16; 2 p.m. Sept. 21
Tickets: $10 to $370
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com