We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Thursday, November 16, 2017


Michael Fennelly and Alyson Cambridge

There is something both grand and spooky about descending several flights of stairs to The Crypt Chapel of the Church of the Intercession.  The high-ceilinged and resonant space gives one a sense of the importance of what will take place there; indeed last night's performance fulfilled that expectation. Unison Media's Andrew Ousley always has something unique to offer in his Crypt Sessions!

What we experienced last night was a piece entitled From the Diary of Sally Hemings; Ms. Hemmings was a slave of our third POTUS Thomas Jefferson, a mulatto woman who became his common-law wife. The text by Sandra Seaton, a librettist and playwright, can be thought of almost as a work of historical fiction. Ms. Hemings may have been quite literate but she left no diary that historians know of. If she kept one it was destroyed.

So this is a work of imagination, not one of historical accuracy. It is Ms. Seaton's idea of what Ms. Hemings might have felt in her life journey, one of extraordinary privilege combined with slights and insults. She accompanied Jefferson to Paris and returned with him to Monticello. She bore him children, none of whom remained in slavery. She learned French and was dressed in high fashion.

What we didn't know was that she and Martha Wayles (Jefferson's beloved wife) were half-sisters! Martha's father John Wayles formed an alliance with his housekeeper Elizabeth after Martha's mother died.  Sally was a child of that union. Similarly, Jefferson formed an alliance with Sally after Martha died. 

We couldn't help wondering whether Jefferson fell in love with Sally because she reminded him of his late wife whom he adored. Reading the text we wondered whether Sally loved Jefferson or saw him only as a kind "Master" who gave her extraordinary privileges. It is almost impossible for a 21st c. person to imagine life on a slave holding plantation over two centuries ago.  We do not judge what we cannot understand.

There is something we do know (or think we know) that Ms. Seaton omitted from the story. She has claimed that Jefferson did not have any affairs or love any other women after his wife died. This would tend to put Sally on some kind of pedestal. But no mention was made of Maria Cosway!

Ms. Cosway was an unhappily married Italian woman living in London. She met Jefferson during his stay in Paris as United States Minister to France, whilst Sally was purported to be accompanying him. Jefferson and Cosway had an intense meeting of the minds and shared a love of the arts; it was a friendship that endured until his death but was expressed mainly through letters, which have been researched by historians. They were rarely alone and it is not known whether their love was consummated or not. But it is known that she, a composer, sent several of her compositions to Jefferson and they exchanged letters expressing deep devotion and encouragement.

It might have made an interesting addition to the story to speculate upon the effects that this relationship had on Ms. Hemings! Nonetheless, the absence of this piece of information did nothing to impair the effect of hearing this monodrama, with music by the highly eclectic composer William Bolcom. Our affection for Mr. Bolcom's music rests mainly on his "Song of Black Max", a cabaret song we have reviewed multiple times, most recently just five days ago at the Opera Index party.

But Mr. Bolcom writes with great eclecticism and we found his piano writing for this piece to be highly accessible and refined as performed by Michael Fennelly, one of our favorite pianists. The vocal lines?  Not so interesting.  As performed by the splendid soprano Alyson Cambridge, it was a deeply felt story in which her intense and appropriate dramatic gifts filled in the blanks of the elliptical text.

Ms. Cambridge is a stunning woman with great personal power and a voice that soared into the upper reaches of The Crypt. Her crisp enunciation made every word clear, which is a feature we never take for granted. Her apt phrasing and gestures transformed the spare words on the page to a fully realized portrait.

We first heard Ms. Cambridge a year ago at a New Amsterdam Opera Gala. We loved her "Song to the Moon" from Dvorak's Russalka and her Giulietta from Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffman. Last night we heard a different side of her eclectic talent.

With regard to the compelling setting for this work, Mr. Ousley donates the proceeds from ticket sales of his Crypt Sessions to The Church of the Intercession for the use and upkeep of The Crypt Chapel.

(c) meche kroop

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