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Pocahontas (From the Virginia Plantation by John Langston, 1894)
25 May 2007

Virginia Arts Festival celebrates “Pocahontas”

Norfork - It’s America’s biggest birthday since the 1976 bicentennial celebration of the Declaration of Independence:

Above: Pocahontas
An etching in From the Virginia Plantation by John Langston, 1894


the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, the first permanent English-speaking settlement in the New World. And to commemorate the landing of those 104 adventurous Englishman the Virginia Arts Festival and the Virginia Opera co-commissioned “Pocahontas,” a tribute to the young Native American woman who charmed the new arrivals. The favorite daughter of Algonquian chief Powhatan, she learned English, converted to Christianity, married Virginia colonist John Rolfe and gave birth to a son, whom both Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee claimed as an ancestor. Renamed Rebecca by a clergyman who saw her as the mother of two nations, Pocahontas traveled to England, where she was presented at court and, as she prepared to return to Jamestown, died suddenly at 24 in 1817. She is buried at Gravesend, and it is there that the one-act chamber opera by composer Linda Tutas Haugen and librettist Joan Vail Thorne begins.

From there it moves back to Jamestown and the early hostile confrontation between natives and settlers. Pocahontas appears now as an adolescent, a tomboy attractive to both parties and simultaneously as a mature woman respected on both side of the Atlantic. This interplay between the young and mature character is particularly effective in underscoring her role in two cultures.

Beyond the outer facts of her brief life, little is known about the “real” Pocahontas. Contemporary accounts were — in the style of the day — elaborately embellished, and later generations — including the 1995 Disney film — have added undocumented ornamentation. And although Haugen and Thorne obviously did an immense amount of study — including on-site observation of artifacts and landscape, they have made no effort to fill in blanks. Their endeavor focuses not on linear narration, but rather on an evocation of the unusual woman that Pocahontas was. While committed to cultural accuracy, the creative team has sought not to write history, but to explore the mystery of this woman who did much to establish peace between two peoples.

And the mesmerizing quality of Haugen’s score stresses that basic questions about Pocahontas remain open. “I ask myself who I am and I do not know the answer,” she sings. “There will never be an answer; I will always be ... a question.”

Further major players in the story as told by Thorne are Pocahontas’ father and mother, husband Rolfe and John Smith, head honcho of the Jamestown adventure.

Acclaimed a success by the enthusiastic audience that packed Norfork’s Roper Performing Arts Center for the world premiere on May 19, “Pocahontas” is an opera like no other. It is a pastiche that combines song and extensive spoken dialogue in a superbly crafted score. Haugen, noted for her use of ethnic voices and instruments in previous works, went to the tribes still resident in East for motifs that she has woven into the work, the instrumentation of which calls for specially crafted Native American flutes, drums and shakers. Haugen further includes a hymn tune from Thomas Commuck’s 1845 “Indian Melodies” and — to suggest the flavor of the Elizabethan age — bits of Byrd, Gabrielli and Orlando.

With a voice decidedly her own the composer has combined all this in a 90-minute seamless score for nine instrumentalists seated on stage behind the small, near-empty space upon which the story plays. “Pocahontas” is engaging and accessible without being pabulum for the people. The music is beautiful and often powerful; Rolfe’s wooing of the heroine and her death scene elevate this enigmatic woman into the company of Violetta and Mimi. (Although they add local color, the three Native American songs delivered by a vocal/drum duo from the Haliwa-Soponi and Appomattox Tribes stand outside the score and contribute little to the story.)

Virginia Opera assembled a superb cast of young singers for this production, slated also for performance in historic Williamsburg. Sopranos Laura Choi Stuart and Dawn Zahralban were superbly matched as the mature and youthful heroine, and bass Branch Fields sang Rolfe with resonant richness. Lyric tenor Brandon Wood was a handsome and sometimes roughish Smith, and Andrew Fernando a major presence as Powhatan.

Pam Berlin directed the staging with a firm hand; Marlene Pauley conducted with authority. Choreographer Todd Rosenlieb wisely opted for stylized dance, eschewing the pow-wow that others might have found essential. Costumes by designer Michael Schweikardt were true to the period; on her first appearance Pocahontas was dressed as in the painting by Simon de Passe, her sole surviving visual image.

In making the commission Robert Cross, founding director of the Virginia Arts Festival, specified that “Pocahontas” was to be not “a kiddie opera,” but rather a “family-friendly work to which parents would enjoy taking their children.” And the reaction of the opening-night audience, among which were many kids, suggested that he got what he ordered.

Pocahontas is famous beyond her native region, and this opera deserves stagings elsewhere. Because of its modest dimensions, however, it will not have the appeal of Mark Adamo’s “Little Women” or Jake Heggie’s “End of the Affair,” two recent and widely performed chamber operas. “Pocahontas,” however, is nicely suited for academic opera programs and for studio production by major companies. Haugen’s music is wonderfully singable and ideal for voices still in the development stage.

Festival performances of the opera profited, of course, from the “you-are-there”proximity of the historical triangle Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown, magnificently developed sites with an abundance of authentic documentation intelligently and tastefully displayed. Patriotism has become a discomforting concept of late; a visit to this region from which America grew is reassuring.

Footnote: Aside from its obvious roots in Jamestown “Pocahontas” is something of a Minnesota Opera. Composer Haugen holds degrees from St. Olaf and the University, where she studied with Dominic Argento. Librettist Vail has worked closely with St. Paul-based composer Stephen Paulus, and conductor Pauley, also a St. Olaf alumna, is a clarinetist in the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, which she conducts regularly.

Wes Blomster

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