A spicy little production of Slow Dusk and Markheim, two one-act operas by Carlisle Floyd, provides a mini-survey of the the Susannah composer’s talents as he progressed from a gifted youngster to a mature artist with a sensibility very much his own. Alternating casts give us first Floyd’s earliest opera, the brief Slow Dusk (1949), and then his more substantial Markheim (1966), based on the Robert Louis Stevenson story, staged by the little OPERA theatre of NY.
Susannah (1955) remains Floyd’s best-known work and is indeed one of the most-often staged operas by an American composer. Slow Dusk has been characterized as a sort of dry run for the longer work. Part of that perception comes from its rural setting and its focus on a misunderstood young woman.
Like Aaron Copland, Floyd has often taken inspiration from stories and themes of Americana. Slow Dusk, his first opera, is a straightforward farmland tale of the composer’s own. Young Sadie and her lover Micah have pledged their troth, but Sadie’s caretakers Aunt Sue and (Uncle?) Jess forbid the match, as Micah has few prospects and also comes from a family (the Hatfields, suggesting the mythical Hatfield-McCoy feud) with which Sadie’s own can’t get along.
When a sudden death precludes the expected ultimate confrontation, the story diverges from the Romeo and Juliet pattern and the opera comes to a sudden end, leaving the impression that from a narrative standpoint what we’ve witnessed is more a sketch or exercise than a fully realized work.
The music itself, though, with the composer’s own convincingly vernacular libretto, leaves nothing to be desired (though some tuning issues in the orchestra detracted a bit). The cast I saw featured vibrato-heavy soprano Sarah Beckham-Turner whose wrenchingly emotional performance as Sadie drew the loudest cheers at the end.
Much as I admired Beckham-Turner’s fine performance, though, I was most taken with tenor Bray Wilkins, who ignited with his glowing voice a spirited romanticism in the role of Micah.
Micah and Sadie kiss to rising chromatic scales and after she agrees to marry him he declares, “You won’t never regret it, I swear you won’t!” Alas, the couple won’t get an opportunity to test Micah’s vow.
Beckham-Turner shone in Sadie’s aria about the darkness that then descends upon her: “Until I’m with you again, the shadow won’t go away.”
Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Roderer, with rich tones that suggest an unusually powerful alto, was strong in a more subtle way as Aunt Sue, who tells Sadie that the marriage “can’t never happen.” Baritone Alexander Charles Boyd was in fine voice too in the less expressive role of Jess.
All four reappeared, cleverly cast as Christmas carolers, in the more substantial, more dissonant, somewhat overwrought but ultimately winning Markheim. The opera premiered in 1966 with Norman Treigle in the title role and dedicated to Treigle. It is indeed a star vehicle for a bass-baritone with a capacity to portray tortured souls.
Jeremy Milner is such a singer, bringing a lanky gravitas to the role of Markheim, Stevenson’s Raskolnikov-like impulse-murderer hounded by evil personified but ultimately overmastering it to take responsibility for his terrible crime.
In his libretto Floyd invented a substantial backstory to the Stevenson tale, no doubt to beef up the title role and lengthen the opera but also to develop Markheim into a more fully rounded character. Rather than simply arriving at a shop on Christmas Eve to buy a last-minute gift for his beloved, receiving a existential shock on seeing his own face in a mirror presented by the shopkeeper, then stabbing the man in the back in order to rob the store, Floyd’s Markheim has a history with the shopkeeper, who is given a name, Josiah Creach.
Creach is a high-end pawnbroker whose shop is filled with valuables from Markheim’s estate, items which Markheim, a dissolute gambler, has hocked over the years, never to reclaim. Fleeing gangsters out to collect 50 pounds he doesn’t have, Markheim turns up at Creach’s on Christmas Eve to beg for a loan. But after toying with the desperate Markheim in an agonizing sequence, the shopkeeper, sung at yesterday’s matinee by powerful tenor Scott Six, refuses to help and thus seals his fate and Markheim’s too.
Appearing briefly but delightfully as Creach’s maid Tess, soprano Marie Masters, costumed as elegantly as she sang by Lara de Bruijn, provided a measure of sweetness and light to counterbalance the darkness of the tale. There’s also some nervous comedy in the opening sequence where Markheim tries to get down to grim business with Creach while the shopkeeper keeps to a lighthearted holiday tone, encapsulated in a rhythmic moment when Markheim’s “biz” (“I came on business”) coincides with Creach’s suggestion of a “whiskey.”
The subsequent violence, while not a shock, is smartly staged by stage director Philip Shneidman, as is the entrance of the Stranger (crisply sung by tenor Marc Schreiner) and the latter’s pursuit of Markheim around the lovely set (by Broadway’s Neil Patel) as he goads him towards further crime and an irreversible descent into total evil. The conclusion builds to a roaring climax as Tess and the carolers return and Markheim bellows to the maid “I have killed your master, go call the police” in harmony with the carolers’ (Latin) devotions.
From Slow Dusk to Markheim Lloyd’s music evolved from a reliance of traditional harmonies to an embrace of modernism. Through rhythm and repetition and suggestive modulations he creates in Markheim drama and suspense largely absent from the earlier work. Richard Cordova’s sensitive conducting of the small orchestra in new chamber arrangements by Inessa Zaretsky (Slow Dusk) and Raymond J. Lustig (Markheim) couldn’t bring it into perfect tune, but did knit the two very different productions into colorful bolts of fabric. We can be grateful to Shneidman and his little OPERA theatre of NY for bringing us these seldom-staged operas by a composer of stature, and we can count ourselves lucky that he could assemble so many fine singers for the purpose.
Slow Dusk ahd Markheim are at 59E59 Theaters through December 14 with two alternating casts.