September 15, 2007

A Runaway Success for "Margaret Garner"

The last time I went to a musical written by a Nobel Prize laureate, it was a disaster. The show was The Capeman and the book and lyrics were co-written by the Caribbean poet and playwright Derek Walcott and the American singer-songwriter Paul Simon, who also composed the score. I loved the music for that show and I so wanted it to work but Walcott's lumpish book was a mess. So I was a little unsure of what I was letting myself in for when I went to see Margaret Garner, the opening production of the new season at the New York City Opera. The libretto and lyrics are by Toni Morrison, who won the Nobel in 1993, just one year after Walcott, and are a reworking of the real-life story she told in her novel "Beloved" about a slave woman who tried to run away and killed her young daughter when they were captured rather than have the child grow up in bondage. The music is by the Grammy Award-winning classical composer Richard Danielpour. To my surprise and delight, their opera is terrifically satisfying in almost every way.

I don't do it often but I love going to the opera, the founding mother of musical theater. Its lush emotions appeal to the theater romantic in me. And I'm crazy about all the rituals that go with attending. I like dressing up as dramatically as my wardrobe will allow, reading the erudite notes in the program, and taking out my opera glasses and peering around at the audience before the lights dim and the curtain rises. And, although I usually stay in my seat during intermissions when I go to the theater, I get a big kick out of going to the bar for a glass of champagne between acts at the opera and, when I'm at City Opera, taking a walk on the veranda of the New York State Theater if the weather permits as it did this past Friday night. But this time, the best treat was where it should have been—on the stage.

Morrison's "Beloved" was published 20 years ago this month and almost immediately entered the canon of great American novels and the reading lists of college and high school AP lit classes around the country. Earlier, this year when the New York Times Book Review surveyed a few hundred "prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages," "Beloved" was named "the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years." Now, Margaret Garner seems poised to become the first work centered around African-Americans to enter the repertory of the growing number of opera companies around the U.S. since the Houston Grand Opera's landmark production of George and Ira Gershwin's Porgy and Bess put it there in 1976.

Opera companies, eager to woo younger audiences, have been commissioning and presenting works on American subjects from John Adams and Alice Goodman's Nixon in China to Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally's Dead Man Walking. But many of those works were modernist, atonal and narrow in appeal. Danielpour's score which, mixes classical, gospel and even Broadway rhythms, is determinedly inclusive: accessibly melodic and dramatically involving. Some moments had me swooning with pleasure.

The mezzo-soprano Tracie Luck was lovely in the title role, both to hear and to look at. Soprano Lisa Daltirus was a crowd-pleaser as her forbearing mother-in-law Cilla. Baritone Timothy Mix handled well the difficult role of her villainous owner Edward Gaines. And baritone Gregg Baker was brilliant as Margaret’s husband Robert. His aria, "Go Cry Girl" in which Robert acknowledges that his wife has had to sleep with their master was the high point for me, hitting all the appropriate notes of anger, love, compassion and forgiving.

Morrison's libretto differs slightly from both her novel and the historical accounts of the Garner case, which was a cause célèbre before the Civil War, but the storytelling is clear and compelling and though the lyrics are simple, they still carry the imprint of Morrison's trademark lyricism. And Tazewell Thompson has directed the production with a spare but moving elegance. The choral numbers—split between the black slaves and the white slave owners—are particularly good. It's always wonderful to hear a full orchestra and it's lovely to be able to see them, although, given the theme of this opera, I was sad to note that there are no black players. (Click here to see a terrific New York Times video essay on the making of the show)

Margaret Garner was originally commissioned by Michigan Opera Theatre, Cincinnati Opera, and Opera Company of Philadelphia and had its world premiere at the Detroit Opera House in May 2005 with Denyce Graves singing the title role. City Opera's production plays only five more performances through Sept. 29. But I have a feeling that it will be back.

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