Having never been involved in the type of performing that would require a Dress Rehearsal (or at least not for more years than I can easily recall) but still having a very large and active curiosity bump, I jumped at the opportunity to attend the final dress rehearsal for Susannah by American composer Carlisle Floyd. It is currently being presented by Pittsburgh’s Undercroft Opera at Bellefield Hall in Oakland. (Ticket details at end of article.)
Susannah (1955) is, after all, the second most often performed American opera. The most often done could be any of a clutch of one-acts by the Italian-born, but American-trained Gian Carlo Menotti: most notably, the Telephone, The Medium, or Amahl and the Night Visitors, or perhaps The Consul, (a full-length drama in three acts)—or possibly The Ballad of Baby Doe by Douglas Moore. However, most likely the true champion in this regard is Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin.
Undercroft Opera deserves its own place in the sun of the opera world, for its possibly unique system of double-casting. Many opera companies do, in fact, arrange for covers (someone who is trained in the part along with the designated artist, who can then appear in case of indisposition.) Undercroft goes a step beyond. The covers actually get a night of their own to shine, as compensation for their efforts. This year, they deviated slightly from that format, as the cast list is enormous by usual opera standards. So the principal roles only were double cast, so that each cast appears twice, once each weekend.
A Final Dress Rehearsal is one in which every component of the performance is in good working order – all the costumes are ready as is the set, the orchestra, the chorus and choreography, singers and orchestra. Still, there was an announcement just before 8 pm, “Ladies and gentlemen, due to a slight technical delay, places will be called in three minutes.”
There was a bit more hustle bustle in the auditorium and then, like magic, the house lights went down, and the conductor (Walter Morales) made his way through the seats to the podium. The spotlight illuminated him, he turned around and lowered his baton. The sinuous music of the overture began. Stage lights came up briefly, then, one by one the costumed singers came on stage and the magic began.
The stage director Patrick Brannan had briefly run through a bit of choreography about 45 minutes earlier, and true to his wishes, that’s the way it happened. The on-stage fiddler did a good mime interpretation of the actual hoe-down music played by the concertmaster of the orchestra, as the chorus danced merrily around the stage, being careful to avoid running into any of the huge trees which would provide the background for the scenery. (The trees weren’t quite completed as yet, but by the second act, they were all finished and in place.)
One purpose of a full dress rehearsal is to check the timing, so it’s important to keep going to the end, once underway. Fortunately, there were no occasions manifested on Thursday evening to require a halt in the proceedings. The only suggestion came while choreographing the bows. It’s all meticulously planned out so the stars come out last, followed by the conductor and sometimes the stage director.
However, after the final notes had sounded, Mr. Brannan called “Notes everyone!” whereupon all the singers gathered around, some already in their street clothes (they look SO different sans stage makeup and costume!) Starting with the opening number, he ran through his list of things that might be tidied up a bit during a performance. It wasn’t an overwhelming list, and within five minutes, the end-of-show chatter took over again. The performers seemed very happy with themselves, and upbeat, as well they should .
I had seen Susannah some thirty years ago, but I certainly didn’t notice any glitches or forgotton words or notes. In fact, I was quite looking forward to opening night when I would see the other cast. The previous night (Wednesday) the opening night (Friday) cast had their turn. Now, on Thursday night, it was the turn of Saturday evening’s cast. (Next weekend, the nights are reversed, thus this week’s Friday night cast will be onstage for Saturday night (August 11) and Saturday’s cast will appear on Friday, August 4. Regardless of which night you choose to attend, you will see a very capable, well-rehearsed cast, greatly enhanced by colorful and entirely appropriate costumes. The scenery is clever and easily moved around by various singers. The lighting and sound were unobtrusive while helping to set the scene. The orchestra is superb.
You won’t be disappointed in this Susannah. Tickets range from $20.-$35., and are available at the door, or on-line at www.undercroftopera.org. Bellefield Hall Auditorium is located at 315 S. Bellefield Avenue. (Note: there is minimal strobe lighting and one gunshot during the performances.)