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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

Wes Blomster

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