Carlisle Floyd was a young faculty member at Florida State University when his Susanna made him an operatic sensation in the mid-1950s.
His move to the University of Houston in 1977 brought him the bonus of a new creative home: Houston Grand Opera, which curated a decades-long string of Floyd premieres and revivals, to the unveiling of his final opera, prince of gamersin 2016.
HGO took stock of its career on Friday with “Celebrating Carlisle Floyd,” a memorial concert to the company’s longtime ally, who died on September 30 at the age of 95.
Through excerpts from Floyd’s operas and reminiscences of people who knew him, the Wortham Theater Center program has created a portrait of Floyd the composer – a champion of traditional melody, harmony and the like when they weren’t more fashionable.
The evening also announced Floyd as a mentor. His influence on the world of opera extended to his help in creating and directing the HGO Studio training program, whose alumni include soprano Ana Maria Martinez; mezzo-sopranos Joyce DiDonato, Denyce Graves and Jamie Barton; and many other notables.
The only non-Floyd music in the concert was the opening work, Engelbert Humperdinck’s Overture Hansel and Gretel. The guardian angels who appear in Hansel, explained HGO’s artistic director, Patrick Summers, recalled Floyd’s role as the guardian and guide of the company. Played with warmth and liveliness by the HGO Orchestra, conducted by Summers, the overture accompanied a photo montage of Floyd over the years, in settings ranging from bustling rehearsal studios to the White House, where he received the National Medal of the arts in 2004.
Floyd’s artistic spirit was finally brought into focus when soprano Andrea Carroll, an alumnus of the HGO studio and Pamina in the current HGO staging The magic flute—came onstage and said, “It’s not a pretty night!” from Susanna.
From the sweetness she gave to the open air to the richness and fervor she lavished on Susannah’s vision of the world of big cities beyond the mountains, Carroll captured not only the appeal of Floyd’s lyricism, but also the innocence and kindness of Susannah herself – the naive peasant girl who is ultimately destroyed by a lascivious preacher. The breadth and dark undertones of Carroll’s soprano gave Susannah’s reflections a larger-than-life impact.
The conflict between decency and hypocrisy, driving Susanna, was a recurring theme for Floyd. He came back in cold sassy tree, the story of a small-town merchant whose neighbors are outraged when he marries a much younger woman shortly after the death of his first wife. HGO premiered the comedy-drama in 2000, and Friday’s concert brought back the climax of the opera’s first act – when protagonist Rucker Lattimore, disgusted by the gossip of local intruders, summons his grandson and his new wife home and holds his own church service.
The scene centers on Rucker’s impromptu sermon – first a dig in misguided religious zeal, then a panegyric of the beauty with which God has surrounded us on earth – and bass Raymond Aceto delivers it with unbridled enthusiasm. Its deep, booming tones not only put above the passion of Rucker’s love of beauty and life, but also the joy that Rucker takes in thumbing his nose at his shirtless neighbors. padded.
In their joke with Aceto’s Rucker, soprano Caitlyn Lynch and tenor Norman Reinhardt — respectively Love Simpson, Rucker’s new wife, and Will Tweedy, his grandson — sang with a zest that complemented Aceto’s. And a phalanx of singers mostly from the HGO studio fell silent vigorously like the snoopers.
Soprano Patricia Racette, who played Love Simpson at the premiere, contributed a video tribute offering a glimpse of Floyd at work. During cold sassy tree rehearsal, she recalled, he came up to her after a vocally taxing scene and asked, “It’s a bit punitive, isn’t it?” When she said that was indeed the case, Floyd “made adjustments” to take the pressure off.
“He knew how to extract the best from everyone involved,” Racette said. As an example of Floyd doing it, longtime HGO chorus conductor Richard Bado recalled being asked to take over for another conductor in an HGO production of Susanna. He was uncertain, but Floyd encouraged him, promising to guide Bado. And he did, not only sitting nearby during rehearsals to offer advice, but browsing the score with Bado at his kitchen table.
Bado and the HGO Chorus returned the favor with a chorus from Floyd’s The passion of Jonathan Wade, a drama set in the aftermath of the Civil War. In “It’s Done: The War Is Over and We Who Remain Endure”, the bereaved population laments the destruction caused by their recklessness. Bringing the words better enunciation than some soloists display, the chorus made the silent sadness of the opening as telling as the fierce regret of the climax.
Floyd had a penchant for creating literary classics, and HGO’s tribute turned to his best-known example: Of mice and Men. Tenor Richard Trey Smagur – HGO studio alumnus and the mighty Don Jose in HGO’s Carmen Last fall, LINK joined the Studio’s current baritone, Luke Sutliff, in the final scene of the Depression-era tragedy.
The scene focuses on convict Lennie, who has unwittingly killed a woman, and Smagur’s commitment and intensity brought Lennie’s plight to life in moments. Smagur’s thick, hoarse voice symbolized not only Lennie’s physical strength, but also the power of fear within him; at the other extreme, Smagur sometimes sang in a low voice that made Lennie’s lament “I’m cold inside” almost physically tangible.
As George distracted Lennie by invoking their farm dreams, Sutliff sang skillfully. But Smagur’s vocal weight again galvanized attention as Lennie was swept away in the illusion, shouting, “I can see it!” The climactic shot was omitted.
After former HGO executive director David Gockley took the stage to offer his own take on his longtime collaborator and friend, a music video from the Gockley era – a 1981 Floyd TV show Willie Starkafter Robert Penn Warren All the king’s men— showed baritone Timothy Nolen throwing himself into the role of demagogue Willie with almost maniacal energy.
Moving on to something altogether more innocent, tenor Reinhardt and soprano Raven McMillon offered a scene from cold sassy tree. In the “Guardian Angel” duet for young Will Tweedy and future darling Lightfoot McLendon, the two sang with a freshness befitting the blossoming of first love.
The soprano Lynch, replacing after the departure of Martinez, closed the program by returning to Susanna– now with the folk song “Trees on the Mountains”.
Where Carroll’s voice had been rich and dark, Lynch’s was brighter, emphasizing the fragility of betrayed Susannah all the more. Where the orchestral strings created a soft sonic haze, Lynch’s shimmering tones complemented them. And as his voice finally floated up high in a whisper, Lynch created the kind of magic that must have been Floyd’s star.
The Houston Grand Opera production of Mozart The magic flute close this weekend. The company presents Puccini’s Turandot at the Wortham Theater Center from April 22 to May 6. www.houstongrandopera.org; 713-228-6737.