Composer Carlisle Floyd (1926 – ) is best known for his third
opera, “Susannah,” which premiered at the University of
Florida during 1955. At that time, Floyd was a faculty member.
Recently, I enjoyed hearing his latest opera, “Cold Sassy Tree,”
from 2000, based upon the 1984 novel of the same name by
Olive Ann Burns. A 1989 television movie was also produced,
based upon the book. Set in a fictional Southern town, the
story centers around a May-December romance between a
newly widowed man and his considerably younger second wife.
While it has comic elements, the term, “dramedy” would be more
appropriate. This deeply moving story demonstrates a wide range
of human behavior, with the eventual triumph of goodness. Many
of Floyd’s other 10 operas also celebrate the best of human
nature, despite formidable obstacles. According to Floyd, these
story elements are important factors that influence his decisions
as a librettist and composer.
Musically, the tonal idiom of this opera is both lyrical and dramatic,
as required by the text. Neither the music nor the libretto is
subordinate to the other, each existing on a more or less
equal footing. This work also has spoken dialogue in an
“American” fashion, which is easy to understand.
I can’t help wishing that I’d also watched the 1989 movie, which
is available on VHS. I believe that watching it would have
intensified the dramatic experience while hearing the opera.
My tendency to focus on the music when listening, to the
detriment of the story, might have been thwarted by first
viewing this film.
“Cold Sassy Tree” is an ensemble opera, consisting of well over
a dozen protagonists, all of whom seem to be quite engaged in
their roles. Judging from their biographies in the liner notes, these
singers all have fine operatic pedigrees. Soprano Patricia Racette
was particularly impressive in the role of “Love Simpson,” along
with bass-baritone Dean Peterson who portrayed her older
husband, “Rucker Lattimore.” Conductor Patrick Summers led
the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus in a fine
performance of this work, which was admirably captured by
the audio engineers. The CD is a 2005 Albany Records release.
This fine opera deserves a permanent place in the operatic
repertoire. If not a great work, it is certainly a very good one,
and obviously reflects the years Carlisle Floyd spent perfecting
his craft. I’d like to think that he took the works of Aaron
Copeland, such as “Our Town” and “The Tender Land,” and
ran with them! For what it’s worth, it did bring tears to my eyes,
and I’m looking forward to hearing and seeing other works by