A Georgia Peach

In Cold Sassy Tree, novelist Olive Ann Burns tickles readers with her tale of a Southern town outraged when one of its leading citizens, just weeks after burying his first wife, marries a "damn Yankee" half his age. Will Tweedy, who sounds like a backwoods Georgia version of Huck Finn, narrates the rambunctious, talky adventure set at the turn of the century; the South's sweetest music drips from Will and the rest of these characters in their folksy speech. Composer Carlisle Floyd must have heard it ringing in his ears long before he thought about turning it into opera.

In Houston Grand Opera's version of Cold Sassy Tree, the singers drawl and "y'all" their way through a lively drama that's musical poetry at its finest. The opening-night production on Friday, April 14, proved that Floyd hasn't lost the knack for translating Southern ways into uniquely American musical idioms. Conductor Patrick Summers and the HGO orchestra ably navigated some difficult tonal territory, giving us a score that was rich in traditional melody, Gershwin-esque strains and stately Protestant hymns.

What may come as a surprise to anyone who has read the book is how consistently the singers rise above caricature. Credit is due in part to Floyd, who deftly handles the constant and abrupt changes from comic to serious.

Turning the novel's episodic ramblings into a tightly focused drama is no small feat. Floyd's libretto, commissioned three years ago by HGO, preserves the bumptious character of Burns's novel, despite the omission of (arguably) the book's best moment: when Will gets run over by a train. When general-store owner Rucker Lattimore marries Love Simpson, he figures it's the cheapest way to get a cook and a maid. Although theirs is a business arrangement, Love turns out to be good for the crusty proprietor, and the two eventually fall in love. Will, Rucker's 14-year-old grandson, befriends Miss Love from the beginning, but the boy's mother, aunt and the townsfolk refuse to accept her.

John McVeigh, who showed his bent for lighter drama while singing Henrik in Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music, plays 21-year-old Will, who writes for an Atlanta newspaper. As the narrator, McVeigh spins the tale of his character's youth, lapsing into song while reliving moments as a 14-year-old. The tenor's comic sense is poignant, and he's convincing as both sage storyteller and teenage mischief maker.

Dean Peterson's seasoned bass-baritone brings authenticity to Rucker's cantankerous ways. He portrays a raw, honest and wise man whose stubbornness is comically signaled by jazzy, percussive beats. Pairing Peterson with soprano Patricia Racette makes for several satisfying duets, especially in the second act when the couple discover they actually like each other. Racette seems a natural choice to play outsider Love Simpson since she has made her mark playing the beloved prostitute in Verdi's La Traviata. Her technically pure soprano is clear and crisp, and her diction refined, particularly when compared to the cold sassy twang of the others. To explain why she marries Rucker, Racette unspools a long, tuneful complaint about never having had a home of her own. Perhaps because of the libretto's bias, she plays up Love's serious side, often at the expense of the milliner's saucy nature. This may explain why she sounds best while making silky pleas for sympathy.

Soprano Margaret Lloyd inhabits Will's sweetheart, the innocent Lightfoot McClendon, particularly during the early "guardian angel" duet. Mezzo-soprano Judith Christin produces a boffo sleeper performance as Effie Belle Tate, the local busybody. Town gossips played by Kerri Marcinko (Lula), Jessica Jones (Myrtis) and Marie Lenormand (Thelma Predmore) never lapse into slapstick or cheap melodrama.

Cold Sassy Tree is the sixth opera that award-winning director Bruce Beresford has worked on. Lauded for his treatments of Driving Miss Daisy and Tender Mercies, the native Australian skillfully executes most scene changes, except for the noticeable lull in the first act. These transitions move the story along at a refreshingly realistic clip. Michael Yeargan's rotating sets help quicken the pace as the action moves from Will's house to Rucker's. Beresford displays a brilliant eye for composition when Rucker gets revenge on the town for refusing to let Love continue to play the organ at the Baptist church. He and Love get Will to join them in some high-minded preaching in their own home, while folk peer in the window disapprovingly.

In Cold Sassy Tree Floyd immortalizes Southern life with a comic mastery rarely seen since Mark Twain roamed the country writing satirical rants.

Houston Grand Opera performs Cold Sassy Tree at 7:30 p.m. through Saturday, May 6, at Wortham Center. A matinee on Sunday, April 30, is at 2 p.m. $22-$182. For tickets, call (713)227-ARTS.

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Cynthia Greenwood