17 October 2020

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Echoes from Carolina — Carlisle Floyd’s SLOW DUSK and Kenneth Frazelle’s FROM APPALACHIA (C. Mills, P. Pancella, A. Peele, L. Webber, J. Burns, J. Allbritten; Piedmont Opera, 16 October 2020)

IN PERFORMANCE: soprano CHARLI MILLS as Sadie (left) and tenor LOGAN WEBBER as Micah (right) in Carlisle Floyd's SLOW DUSK in Piedmont Opera's October 2020 production ECHOES FROM CAROLINA [Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]Echoes from CarolinaCARLISLE FLOYD (born 1926): Slow Dusk and KENNETH FRAZELLE (born 1955): From Appalachia [WORLD PREMIÈRE]Charli Mills (Sadie), Phyllis Pancella (Aunt Sue), Logan Webber (Micah), André Dewan Peele (Jess); Jodi Burns (soprano – From Appalachia), James Allbritten (tenor – From Appalachia); Winston-Salem Festival Ballet; Gary Taylor (choreographer – From Appalachia); Nancy Johnston, piano (Slow Dusk); PG Hazard, piano (From Appalachia) [Ann-Louise Wolf, stage director; Norman Coates, lighting director; Annie Bruskiewitz, costume designer; Piedmont Opera, live-streamed from the Stevens Center of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA; Friday, 16 October 2020]

It is sometimes in humanity’s most difficult hours that ingenuity and innovation prosper, the need for hope engendering inspiration for it. As Performing Arts institutions and venues throughout the world face difficulties heretofore unprecedented during times of peace, the will to survive spurs creative initiatives that will continue to alter artists’ and audiences’ experiences long after COVID-19 is eradicated. Whether circumstances permit them to gather in physical proximity or necessitate the use of technology to close the gap of separation, Art thrives when audiences hungry for rejuvenation connect with artists striving to utilize their individual talents as catalysts for universal comfort and perseverance.

A spirit of indomitable tenacity permeated every moment of Echoes from Carolina, the virtual production that inaugurated Piedmont Opera’s reimagined 2020 – 2021 Season. Live-streamed from Winston-Salem’s Stevens Center of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Echoes from Carolina offered at-home audiences in and beyond the Triad a musical homage to the Carolinas, pairing a rare staging of South Carolina-born Carlisle Floyd’s early opera Slow Dusk with the world première of North Carolinian Kenneth Frazelle’s theatre piece From Appalachia. Guided by General and Artistic Director James Allbritten, Piedmont Opera assembled a company of North Carolina-based artists who brought global perspectives to their realizations of these works.

Evoking Walker Evans’s still-haunting photographs of the Great Depression-era South, Annie Bruskiewitz’s costumes and Norman Coates’s lighting anchored both Slow Dusk and From Appalachia in an idealized but recognizable representation of rural Appalachia, the tableaux created by their designs often prompting memories of familiar historical images and weathered pictures in family albums. Maintaining clean sight lines and natural but camera-friendly blocking, production and stage directors Bill Volz and Ann-Louise Wolf piloted a performance that capitalized on the advantages and marginalized the pitfalls of the streaming medium. The small-scaled but consistently effective production values suited the music and these performances of it.

Born in the small town of Latta in Dillon County, near South Carolina’s Atlantic Coast, Carlisle Floyd built upon the modest foundation of his upbringing as a Methodist preacher’s son a career as one of America’s most successful and widely-acclaimed composers of opera. In Echoes from Carolina, Allbritten’s propulsive pacing and Nancy Johnston’s poetic playing of a piano reduction of Floyd’s orchestrations of Slow Dusk accentuated the embryonic concepts of social conflict and ostracization, religious division, and cultural evolution that would gestate more fully in Floyd’s later operas Susannah, The Passion of Jonathan Wade, Of Mice and Men, Willie Stark, and Cold Sassy Tree.

IN PERFORMANCE: mezzo-soprano PHYLLIS PANCELLA as Aunt Sue in Carlisle Floyd's SLOW DUSK in Piedmont Opera's October 2020 production ECHOES FROM CAROLINA [Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]Voice of authority: mezzo-soprano Phyllis Pancella as Aunt Sue in Carlisle Floyd’s Slow Dusk in Piedmont Opera’s October 2020 production Echoes from Carolina
[Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]

A compact tale of the love of two youths from different religious sects in the Sandhills region of North Carolina, Slow Dusk, Floyd’s first opera, was written during 1948 and 1949, whilst the composer was pursuing his Master’s Degree at Syracuse University. Premièred in Syracuse under the direction of Ruth Ives on 2 May 1949, Slow Dusk inaugurated Floyd’s quest to follow Richard Wagner’s example by writing both music and words. For Slow Dusk, he adapted his short story ‘A Lengthening Shadow’ into a fast-moving ‘musical play in one act’ in which there is no time for wallowing in the sentimentality that pervades much Southern drama. Rather, the male protagonist’s unseen death after only a few minutes on stage seems perfunctory but, in this performance, was all the more powerful for being unexpected. That Slow Dusk is the uneven but by no means amateurish first operatic effort of a composer in his early twenties is unmistakable, but Piedmont Opera’s staging rightly celebrated the piece as the touching first song of an original compositional voice.

Bass-baritone André Dewan Peele depicted Jess, the brother of Slow Dusk’s heroine Sadie, as an uncomplicated, good-natured young man whose affection and concern for his sister were apparent. Perhaps as a means of centralizing the drama’s focus on the significance of Sadie’s relationship with the man she loves, Floyd gave Jess no opportunities to meaningfully interact with his sister, but Peele demonstrated, first in the character’s discussion in the opera’s opening scene of Sadie’s personality and marriage prospects and later in his contemplation of how the news of her lover’s death will affect Sadie, that his relationship with his sibling is a cornerstone of Jess’s life. Peele’s intonation occasionally faltered in his first lines, but his musicality prevailed, lending emotional depth to a shallow part.

IN PERFORMANCE: soprano CHARLI MILLS as Sadie (left) and tenor LOGAN WEBBER as Micah (right) in Carlisle Floyd's SLOW DUSK in Piedmont Opera's October 2020 production ECHOES OF CAROLINA [Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]Ill-fated lovers: soprano Charli Mills as Sadie (left) and tenor Logan Webber as Micah (right) in Carlisle Floyd’s Slow Dusk in Piedmont Opera’s October 2020 production Echoes from Carolina
[Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]

In the rôle of Micah Hatfield, the son of a Truelights family who has fallen in love with the Disciples-raised Sadie, tenor Logan Webber was musically and dramatically ideal. Said to have ‘never got beyond the eighth grade in school,’ Micah was here an unsophisticated but intuitive young man, humble but unafraid of communicating his emotions. Crucially, Webber never confused naïveté with immaturity. The innocent optimism of his singing of  ‘Well, I don’t know, it might be diff’rent this year’ and ‘Sadie, reckon we cain’t git married?’ disclosed the earnestness of Micah’s trust in love’s power to overcome hardships. Webber voiced ‘God knows I love you’ movingly and bade Sadie farewell with an ardent lover’s dueling reluctance and excitement at the prospect of their next rendezvous. As in his portrayal of the title rôle in Fletcher Opera Institute’s February 2020 production of Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito, Webber’s singing recalled that of Anthony Rolfe Johnson, the young tenor sharing his late counterpart’s faculty for projecting a warm, lyrical timbre with reserves of strength. Micah’s time on stage is brief, but Webber’s impact on this performance of Slow Dusk was lasting.

A recent—and most welcome—addition to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts voice faculty, mezzo-soprano Phyllis Pancella characterized Sadie’s Aunt Sue not as an unfeeling authoritarian figure akin to the Zia principessa in Puccini’s Suor Angelica but as a hardworking woman whose cynicism is born of the cruelties of poverty. In the scenes with Jess and Sadie, Aunt Sue’s opposition to Sadie’s relationship with Micah was practical rather than personal: she was wary of his situation rather than of the boy himself. This distinction proved to be integral to Pancella’s performance, making her regret for her harshness credible. She spoke ‘Sadie, Micah’s dead’ with as much tenderness as the aunt’s guilt allowed, and her singing of ‘I guess we might as well turn in’ exuded weariness. The symbolic gesture of closing the curtains, a ritualistic banishment of the day’s troubles, was acted with apt dignity. Vocally, too, Pancella’s portrayal of Aunt Sue was shaped by musical integrity, the part wholly in the voice.

IN PERFORMANCE: sopraro CHARLI MILLS as Sadie in Carlisle Floyd's SLOW DUSK in Piedmont Opera's October 2020 production ECHOES FROM CAROLINA [Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]Pining amongst the pines: soprano Charli Mills as Sadie in Carlisle Floyd’s Slow Dusk in Piedmont Opera’s October 2020 production Echoes from Carolina
[Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]

Described by her lovingly pragmatic aunt as ‘a mite peculiar,’ Sadie is an independent young woman whose defiance of convention consigns her to tragedy in the confines of her repressive community. Radiantly sung in Piedmont Opera’s production by soprano Charli Mills, Sadie was liberated by her love for Micah rather than being defined by it. The soprano’s singing of ‘Look at your hands, Micah’ imparted an affecting sense of awe, and the guilelessness of her utterance of ‘I ain’t used to much’ exhibited a burgeoning romanticism that heightened the expressivity of her vocalism. Mills voiced the aria in which Sadie rapturously muses on the ways in which Micah affects her life, ‘Ev’ry time you leave me somethin’ comes across my spirit,’ with effervescent tone and imaginative phrasing. Sadie’s lament for her fallen betrothed, ‘Micah, why have you left me,’ anticipates the ‘Leadville Liebestod’ in Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe, and Mills’s incandescent singing brought to mind the work of one of the first portrayers of Baby Doe Tabor, Leyna Gabriele. To state that Sadie is the most multi-dimensional character in Slow Dusk is not to suggest that the singer who assays the rôle enjoys a wealth of substance with which to create her portrayal, but, quickly quelling initial reticence in approaching notes above the stave, Mills endowed her interpretation of Sadie with psychological immediacy and stirringly real grief.

The artistic path traversed by composer Kenneth Frazelle, a native of Jacksonville, North Carolina, led him from early studies at North Carolina’s School of the Arts to the avant-garde scene at the Juilliard School and ultimately back to the folk music traditions of Appalachia. As outlined in the composer’s conversation with Allbritten that aired during Echoes from Carolina’s interval, Frazelle’s journey into the backwoods of Carolina folk song has transformed him into a peer not only of his Juilliard teacher, noted American composer Roger Sessions, but also of pivotal advocates for the preservation of folk music like Maybelle Carter. Initially attracted by the harmonic possibilities of Appalachian roots music, Frazelle was motivated by his own increasingly encyclopedic knowledge and contact with fellow artists to devote more attention to the plaintive, playful melodies that emerged from the fields, forests, meadows, and swamps of Appalachia.

An invaluable product of this concentration on the melodic fecundity of Appalachian music is Frazelle’s Appalachian Songbook project, excerpts from which appealed to Allbritten as a partner for Slow Dusk in Piedmont Opera’s Echoes from Carolina. Structured in nine episodes, each drawing its subject matter from a folk song, From Appalachia allied Frazelle’s musical treatments of the songs with choreography by Winston-Salem Festival Ballet founder and artistic director Gary Taylor. Responding instinctively to the rhythms of the music, Taylor devised patterns of movement that gave each dance its own atmosphere, to which Festival Ballet’s dancers—Emily Apple, Alexandra Cooney, Elizabeth Fowle, Nicholas Franco, India Green, Ryan Taylor, and Rohima Ward—effortlessly adapted their motions. Taylor’s choreography elucidated the songs’ subtexts, limning the vestiges of melancholy perceptible in even the most whimsical songs.

IN PERFORMANCE: soprano JODI BURNS (left) and a member of WINSTON-SALEM FESTIVAL BALLET in rehearsal for Kenneth Frazelle's FROM APPALACHIA in Piedmont Opera's October 2020 production ECHOES FROM CAROLINA [Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]Carolina on their minds: soprano Jodi Burns (left) and dancer Ryan Taylor (right) in rehearsal for the world première of Kenneth Frazelle’s From Appalachia in Piedmont Opera’s October 2020 production Echoes from Carolina
[Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]

Wielding his robust tenor voice in From Appalachia, Allbritten was joined by pianist PG Hazard and soprano Jodi Burns, beloved by Piedmont Opera audiences for her portrayals of Anna Sørensen in Kevin Puts’s Silent Night and Donizetti’s Adina in L’elisir d’amore and Maria Stuarda. Like Taylor’s choreography, Hazard’s pianism reverberated with the unique pulse of each song, beginning with an account of ‘In East Virginny’ in which she supplied singers and dancers with a tonal stage upon which to animate the vibrant musical portrait of life in Appalachia. The contrasting moods of ‘Charmin’ Birdy’ and ‘Fly Around, My Pretty Little Miss’ were subtly differentiated by the dancers, whose steps coincided with the cadences of the words.

The pensiveness of Allbritten’s singing of ‘Bonnie Blue Eyes’ was also manifested in the choreography, which conjured a mesmerizing aura of wounded desolation. Burns and the female dancers expelled the gloom with a frolicsome performance of ‘Single Again.’ A murder ballad of the type that was popular during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries in both Appalachia and the British Isles, ‘Naomi Wise’ was choreographed by Taylor as a volatile pas de deux, danced with passion that magnified the potency of Burns’s and Allbritten’s singing. The dialogue between tenor as drunkard husband and soprano as exasperated wife in ‘Our Good Man’ was hilariously duplicated in the choregraphy, executed with particular brilliance by Ryan Taylor.

Musically, the pinnacle of From Appalachia was Frazelle’s setting of ‘The Cuckoo,’ a worthy companion to the most artful folksong arrangements by Haydn, Beethoven, and Britten that was sublimely sung by Burns and eloquently danced by her terpsichorean colleague. The jubilant ‘Sally Ann’ provided a fittingly festive finale, singers, dancers, and pianist exuberantly raising the voice of Appalachia in praise of her unshakeable culture.

Opera staged for small screens is not new to North America. Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors was composed for television. Leontyne Price was first introduced to a nationwide audience by her 1955 portrayal of Puccini’s Tosca for NBC Television Opera Theatre. A 1973 CBC television production of Verdi’s Macbeth with Louis Quilico and Marisa Galvany remains one of the most exhilarating performances of that opera. Streamed to viewers throughout the United States and around the world, Piedmont Opera’s stagings of Carlisle Floyd’s Slow Dusk and Kenneth Frazelle’s From Appalachia rekindled the magic of enjoying world-class musical performances in the safety of patrons’ homes. In the midst of dismaying uncertainty and suffering, Piedmont Opera disseminated hope via poignant echoes from Carolina.