Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Visionary Wagner - The Flying Dutchman, Finnish National Opera

An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent. Holten connects Der fliegende Holländer to Der Meistersinger von Nürnberg and even to Parsifal by bringing out sub-texts on artistic creativity and metaphysics. And what amazing theatre this is, too, and very sensitive to the abstract cues in the music. . ,

Don Quichotte at Chicago Lyric

A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.

Written on Skin: Royal Opera House

800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.

Madama Butterfly at Staatsoper im Schiller Theater

It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.

It’s the end of the world as we know it: Hannigan & Rattle sing of Death

For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.

A Vocally Extravagant Saturday Night with Berliner Philharmoniker

One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.

Les Troyens at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.

Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock

The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.

A Christmas Festival: La Nuova Musica at St John's Smith Square

Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.

Fleming's Farewell to London: Der Rosenkavalier at the ROH

As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.

Loft Opera’s Macbeth: Go for the Singing, Not the Experience

Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!

A clipped Walküre in Amsterdam

Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.

A Leonard Bernstein Delight

When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.

An English Winter Journey

Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.

History Repeating Itself: Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko, Amsterdam Concertgebouw

A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.

L’amour de loin at the Metropolitan Opera

Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.

La finta giardiniera at the Royal College of Music

For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.

Lust for Revenge: Barenboim and Herlitzius fire up Strauss’s Elektra in Berlin

As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.

Semyon Bychkov heading to NYC and DC with Glanert and Mahler

Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.

Lost Stravinsky re-united with Rimsky-Korsakov, Gergiev, Mariinsky

Igor Stravinsky's lost Funeral Song, (Chante funèbre) op 5 conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg This extraordinary performance was infinitely more than an ordinary concert, even for a world premiere of an unknown work.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Gregg Baker (Cinque) and Fikile Mvinjelwa (Antonio) performing in Amistad at Spoleto Festival USA, May 22- June 8, 2008. Photo by WIlliam Struhrs.
28 May 2008

Revised Amistad makes its mark

Upon its premiere at Chicago’s Lyric Opera in 1997 Anthony Davis’ Amistad found little critical favor. Its undisciplined excesses led one writer to compare it to a high-school pageant.

Anthony Davis: Amistad

The Trickster God: Michael Forest; Navigator: Raúl Melo; Don Pedro: Jeffrey Wells; Kinnah: Robert Mack; Grabeau: Kevin Maynor; Burnah: Herbert Perry; Margru: Janinah Burnett; Bahia: Kendall Gladen; Kaleh: Norman Shankle; Captive Girl: Crystal Charles; Cinque: Gregg Baker; Lieutenant: Edward Parks; Antonio: Fikile Mvinjelwa; Reporter 1: Dennis Petersen Reporter 2: Zachary Coates; Reporter 3: Jan Opalach; Reporter 4: Jonathan Green; Phrenologist: Dennis Petersen; Abolitionist Tappan: Brian Frutiger John Quincy Adams: Stephen Morscheck; Judge: Edward Parks; Goddess of Waters: Mary Elizabeth Williams; Ship Cook: Brian Matthews. Director: Sam Helfrich; Conductor: Emmanuel Villaume; Assistant Conductor: Olivier Reboul; Accompanist: Lydia Brown; Costume Designer: Kaye Voyce Set Designer: Caleb Wertenbaker; Lighting Designer: Peter West.

Above: Gregg Baker (Cinque) and Fikile Mvinjelwa (Antonio).
All photos by WIlliam Struhrs courtesy of Spoleto Festival USA.

 

Happily, a constellation of circumstances caused Nigel Redden, general director of Spoleto USA, to see Amistad as an ideal work for the 2008 season of the Charleston, South Carolina, festival.

Amistad tells the true story of a Spanish ship taking captive Africans to America to be sold as slaves in 1839. The Africans mutinied, killed most of the ship’s crew and intended to return home. Misguided by the surviving navigator they landed on Long Island. The Spaniards demanded their return, but the still young United States was sharply divided on what action should be taken. The Africans found an eloquent defender in former president John Quincy Adams who pleaded their case before the Supreme Court. Two years later they were released from jail and allowed to return to Africa.

And the circumstances at Spoleto USA? Charleston, commercial and cultural center of the old South, was the epicenter of the slave trade, which — although outlawed by Congress in 1808 — continued illegally. The city’s slave market is maintained as a museum that recalls painful past history.

lrg-288-img_1201.pngStephen Morscheck (John Quincy Adams)
The site for Amistad was the totally reconstructed Memminger Auditorium, a 1939 building devastated by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Once the city’s major performing arts venue, the building stands at the edge of a mixed neighborhood near the historic heart of Charleston. What better work to pinpoint Charleston on the historical map than Amistad?

Redden insisted upon major revision of the score and he, along with Spoleto director of opera and orchestras Emmanuel Villaume, played an active part in the project. With their help Davis and his librettist cousin Thulani Davis made Amistad an opera much leaner, more focused and dramatically far more effective than the original. And in so doing they created not only a masterpiece of American opera, but further a work that — against a contemporary horizon darkened by undercurrents of racism — resonates today far beyond Memminger and Spoleto USA.

The Davises eliminated characters and scenes, and the composer reduced the orchestra from 65 to 45. Amistad — now only slightly more than two hours of music — is a work transparently coherent both in narrative and music, and Spoleto assembled a creative team and cast that made the work, seen at its premiere on May 22 and again on May 25, an opera that should be widely performed. Amistad now has a mass hero of eight Africans, each with significant solos. As their leader Cinque, bass-baritone Gregg Baker was a commanding presence on the oblong Memminger stage, and as Margru, soprano Janinah Burnett gave a poignant account of how women were treated by their captors. It was followed by the overpowering chorus “Ankle and Wrist,” referring to the chains the Africans had worn.

lrg-281-img_0801.pngGregg Baker (Cinque) and ensemble.
Tenor Dennis Petersen led a quartet of reporters out to exploit the Amistad case as a public sensation, while tenor Brian Frutiger brought passion to forces advocating abolition of slavery. Bass-baritone Stephen Morscheck, tall and lean, was an imposingly agitated ex-president Adams in his confrontation with the Supreme Court.

Davis has woven hints of jazz, blues and even scat so seamlessly into the score that they surrender their identity to his uniquely personal idiom. His use of the hymn “Jesus Savior, Pilot Me” is one of the most moving moments in the opera. Thus the dialectic of American history — the commitment, on the one side, to free men and, on the other, the acceptance of slavery despite the noble wording of basis documents — played out before the Memminger audience. The Davises brought a mythic gloss to Amistad by placing the story of the ship and its captives in the hands of a pair of deities from African mythology. As the Trickster God tenor Michael Forest, both narrator of the story and participant in it, had the lead role in the huge cast, while Mary Elizabeth Williams brought humane concern to the Queen of the Waters with her warm and winning mezzo.

Director Sam Helfrich, set and costume designers Caleb Hale Wertembaker and Kaye Voice, and lighting designer Peter West collaborated to make Amistad flow with ease across the stage in Memminger’s black-box interior. Indeed, the production is a coup of music theater for Spoleto — an experiment in opera grand and intimate and timely in its content. The trial that consumes most of the second act is a superlative achievement of dramatic narrative that reaches back to the beginnings of slave trade and culminates in a vivid reenactment of the mutiny on board the Amistad.

A major contributor to the success of the production was conductor Emmanuel Villaume. Working — he noted — as the many-armed Indian god Shiva, he led his gifted ensemble of young instrumentalists through Davis’ complex score, unfazed by its multiple meters and shifting rhythms to bring musical and dramatic drive and continuity to this compelling story.

lrg-289-img_1333.pngJaninah Burnett (Margru), Herbert Perry (Burnah), Norman Shankle (Kaleh), Mary Elizabeth Williams (Goddess of the Waters), Crystal Charles (Captive).

It is significant that the Spoleto revival of the revised Amistad comes less than a month after the world premiere of another opera that confronts the question of slavery in the years prior to the Civil War: Kirke Mechem‘s John Brown’s Body, premiered by the Kansas City Lyric Opera on May 3. Both works call for careful reconsideration of truths long — and uncritically — held self evident.

It is of interest that while most of the Amistad captives returned to Africa, one — a woman — stayed in this country and earned a degree from Oberlin College.

The 2008 season of Spoleto USA runs through June 8. Visit www.spoletousa.org.

Wes Blomster

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):