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Events to mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire have been many and various. Alongside a major Hollywood film and the commemorative service when a protester noisily harangued Tony Blair it is probably inevitable that this very worthwhile opera production has attracted less attention.
Pegasus Opera Company was founded in 1992 to provide opportunities to ethnic minority singers in a wider range of repertoire than the usual Porgy and Bess or Showboat. For the company to mount a production of Koanga – Delius’s opera about slavery on a Louisiana plantation in the late 1700s – was an inspired idea.
It was also ambitious and timely. None of Delius’s operas is seen in the opera house very often, Koanga even less than the others. It is 35 years since the last UK staging, coincidentally also at Sadler’s Wells, and in that time the opera’s reputation has rested largely on a single recording, where its purely musical beauties hold up better than they do in the theatre.
Any number of hands have had a go at improving the libretto, but nobody has succeeded in bringing its main characters to life – not even the strongly cast central couple here, with Leonard Rowe the embodiment of the enslaved population as an imposing and noble Koanga and Alison Buchanan singing with heartfelt, sometimes vibrato-heavy, commitment as Palmyra. Admittedly, it did not help that so few of the words could be heard.
The communal scenes featuring the slave population fare better, and were lustily sung, but the opera’s main claim on our attention lies in Delius’s atmospheric scene painting. Making use of native black American songs, he created an aural landscape that is part banks of the Mississippi, part banks of the Thames English pastoral, but always headily suggestive of sun-soaked, oppressive afternoons.
The Aurelian Ensemble under the experienced baton of Martin André sounded uncertain of the notes, and Helena Kaut-Howson’s stilted production left much to be desired. But Delius’s heart was in the right place, and of that his deeply felt score left no doubt.
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