A slave tale fails to break free

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The summer doldrums in New York have drawn to a merciful close, and so we begin again. The first stirrings of significant musical activity emanate, as usual, from the New York City Opera, which prides itself on playing David to the Goliath of the Met, still dormant next door. After some throat-clearing involving preview performances of La bohème and Don Giovanni, the company formally opened its season on Tuesday with the local premiere of Margaret Garner. Serious business.

Here at last was the much-ballyhooed, super-ambitious psycho-sociopolitical opus that fuses a crafty score by Richard Danielpour with a doggedly profound text by Toni Morrison, revered recipient of both Pulitzer and Nobel prizes. Opera-goers – possibly a distinct breed from opera-lovers – had already celebrated this stagy union in Detroit, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Charlotte. The Lincoln Center version boasted a totally new production, a mostly new cast and a slight reduction in sprawl. A still greater reduction might be a good idea.

The plot is based, very loosely, on the plight of a historic slave in the Old South, a valiant woman confronting vital conflicts regarding ownership of body vs soul. Sounds familiar? The tragedy is bleak, bleak, bleak, and the characters are, alas, stereotypical. The protagonist suggests goodness personified. Her nemesis could be a stalk-in for
Simon Legree.

Morrison writes dauntlessly lofty poetry for the downtrodden, embellishing their audible thoughts with complex, florid images. With the English text projected above the false proscenium, one can read the pretty lines that are obscured by inapt word-setting or reduced to amplified mush in the acoustically challenged auditorium. The libretto rambles fussily, onward and sideways, with endless exposition that delays the drama at best, deadens it at worst. The plot touches neatly on rape, torture, lynching, infanticide and martyrdom. Unfortunately, neither Morrison nor Danielpour seems to know how best to define the climaxes, or how to sustain tension between them.

The busy music evolves in gently eclectic patterns. This may be yet another modern opera for people who hate modern opera. The set pieces – arias, ensembles, orchestral interludes, choruses – invite instant applause whenever a cadence looms. The wary listener can find comfort of sorts in jazzy syncopations, primitive rituals and snatches of contrapuntal frivolity, even in passages that suggest cinematic doodling. One can recognise traces of Porgy and Bess here, odes to Bernstein bravado there, sparse Americana in the manner of Copland and Barber almost everywhere. The level of assimilation is imposing. The level of invention is not.

The City Opera performance may be better than the material. George Manahan does his considerable best to sustain vitality in the pit. Tazewell Thompson stages the proceedings with keen attention to expressive focus, deftly mixing realism with stylisation. Donald Eastman’s unit set honours simple abstraction, moodily reinforced by Robert Wierzel’s lighting scheme and Merrily Murray-Walsh’s period costumes.

Tracie Luck brings restrained pathos and a sweet, wide-ranging mezzo-soprano to the plaints of Margaret Garner (a grateful role previously entrusted to Denyce Graves). Gregg Baker exudes macho strength as her desperate husband. Lisa Daltirus tugs heartstrings effectively as his mother (a role originally intended for Jessye Norman). Timothy Mix musters evil conviction in the baritonal platitudes of the slave-owner. Although Maureen McKay sounds a bit shrill in the pert flights of his well-meaning daughter, she sustains essential sympathy. The choruses, both black and white, sing as if lives were at stake.

The road to bad opera is paved with good intentions.

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