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

Guillaume Tell, Covent Garden

It is twenty-three years since Rossini’s opera of cultural oppression, inspiring heroism and tender pathos was last seen on the Covent Garden stage, but this eagerly awaited new production of Guillaume Tell by Italian director Damiano Micheletto will be remembered more for the audience outrage and vociferous mid-performance booing that it provoked — the most persistent and strident that I have heard in this house — than for its dramatic, visual or musical impact.

Aida, Opera Holland Park

With its outrageous staging demands, you sometimes wonder why opera companies want to produce Verdi’s Aida. But the piece is about far more than pharaohs, pyramids and camels.

Death in Venice, Garsington Opera

Given the enduring resonance and impact of the magnificent visual aesthetic of Visconti’s 1971 film of Thomas Mann’s novella, opera directors might be forgiven for concluding that Britten’s Death in Venice does not warrant experimentation with period and design, and for playing safe with Edwardian elegance, sweeping Venetian vistas and stylised seascapes.

La Rondine Swoops Into St. Louis

If La Rondine (The Swallow) is a less-admired work than rest of the mature Puccini canon, you wouldn’t have known it by the lavish production now lovingly staged by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

Emmeline a Stunner in Saint Louis

Few companies have championed new or neglected works quite as fervently and consistently as the industrious Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

Luminous Handel in Saint Louis

For Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, “everything old is new again.”

Two Women in San Francisco

Why would an American opera company devote its resources to the premiere of an opera by an Italian composer? Furthermore a parochially Italian story?

Les Troyens in San Francisco

Berlioz’ Les Troyens is in two massive parts — La prise de Troy and Troyens à Carthage.

Dog Days at REDCAT

On Saturday evening June 13, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Dog Days, a new opera with music by David T. Little and a text by Royce Vavrek. In the opera adopted from a story of the same name by Judy Budnitz, thirteen-year-old Lisa tells of her family’s mental and physical disintegration resulting from the ravages of a horrendous war.

Opera Las Vegas Presents Exquisite Madama Butterfly

Audiences at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan first saw Madama Butterfly on February 17, 1904. It was not the success it is these days, and Puccini revised it before its scheduled performances in Brescia.

Yardbird, Philadelphia

Opera Philadelphia is a very well-managed opera company with a great vision. Every year it presents a number of well-known “warhorse” operas, usually in the venerable Academy of Music, and a few more adventurous productions, usually in a chamber opera format suited to the smaller Pearlman Theater.

Giovanni Paisiello: Il Barbiere di Siviglia

Written in 1783, Giovanni Paisiello’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia reigned for three decades as one of Europe’s most popular operas, before being overshadowed forever by Rossini’s classic work.

Princeton Festival: Le Nozze di Figaro

The Princeton Festival has established a reputation for high-quality summer opera. In recent years works by Handel, Britten, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Wagner and Gershwin have been performed at Matthews Theater on Princeton University campus: a 1100-seat auditorium with good sight-lines though a somewhat dry and uneven acoustic.

Die Entführung aus dem Serail,
Glyndebourne

Die Entführung aus dem Serail was Mozart’s first great public success in Vienna, and it became the composer’s most oft performed opera during his lifetime.

German Lieder Is Given a Dramatic Twist by The Ensemble for the Romantic Century

The Ensemble for the Romantic Century offered a thoughtful and well-curated evening in their production of The Sorrows of Young Werther, which is part theatrical performance and part art song concert.

Hans Werner Henze: Ein Landarzt and Phaedra

This was an adventurous double bill of two ‘quasi-operas’ by Hans Werner Henze, performed by young singers who are studying on the postgraduate Opera Course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Dido and Aeneas, Spitalfields Festival

High brick walls, a cavernous space, entered via a narrow passage just off a London thoroughfare: Village Underground in Shoreditch is probably not that far removed from the venue in which Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was first performed — whether that was Josiah Priest’s girl’s school in Chelsea or the court of Charles II or James II.

Intermezzo, Garsington Opera

Hats off to Garsington for championing once again some criminally neglected Strauss. I overheard someone there opine, ‘Of course, you can understand why it isn’t done very often.’

Cosi fan tutte, Garsington Opera

Mozart and Da Ponte’s Cosi fan tutte provides little in the way of background or back story for the plot, thus allowing directors to set the piece in a variety settings.

The Queen of Spades, ENO

Based on a play, Chrysomania (The Passion for Money), by the Russian playwright Prince Alexander Shokhovskoy, Pushkin’s short story The Queen of Spades is, in the words of one literary critic, ‘a sardonic commentary on the human condition’.

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):