|Steve Wallace, JoAnna Marie Ford, and Janinah Burnett (photo by Regina Fleming)
Harry Lawrence Freeman surely cast a posthumous spell on Planet Opera this weekend. In spite of a driving rain, hopeful opera lovers snaked up Broadway from the Miller Theater trying to cop tickets to Voodoo, his forgotten masterpiece. We lucky ones who gained admission experienced an unforgettable evening of music, marked by originality, beauty, and spirit.
The presentation of Mr. Freeman's opera was initiated some years back with the scholarship of producer Annie Holt who discovered the manuscript, donated to the Columbia library by Mr. Freeman's family. Ms. Holt was determined to bring it to life and now serves as Executive Artistic Director of Morningside Opera, which partnered with Harlem Opera Theater and The Harlem Chamber Players to offer New York City a concert version of Voodoo. It was a perfect storm of creativity, easily outdoing the storm outside the theater.
Mr. Freeman composed the eclectic score which seamlessly integrated classical music, jazz, folk tunes and spirituals. The orchestration had many original touches and made generous use of percussion, lower strings, and tuba to foreshadow tragedy as well as the banjo for more joyful moments, and the harp for romantic ones. The Harlem Chamber Players, guided by Maestro Gregory Hopkins (also Artistic Director of The Harlem Opera Theater), tackled the score with gusto and fine musicianship.
Mr. Freeman also wrote the libretto which seemed stilted in places and given over to dialect in other places. After the work's premiere in 1928 it lay dormant until just now and we are delighted over its second life. The story also ends with an attempted resurrection, but let's begin at the beginning.
The tale begins just after the Civil War, a period known as Reconstruction. In this case, it seems as if the former slaves are still picking cotton on a plantation in Louisiana. A stunning chorus opens the work and Maestro Hopkins pulled a moving performance from the well-rehearsed chorus. Diction could not be faulted.
Voodoo Queen Lolo (sung by the compelling soprano Janinah Burnett) is friends from childhood with the beautiful Cleota (sung by the sparkly-voiced soprano JoAnna Marie Ford). They have a lovely duet. Mando (sung by the fine tenor Steve Wallace) is Cleota's lover but a tragic triangle is forming because whatever Lolo wants, Lolo takes--and what she wants is Mando.
When Mando purchases a protective amulet from Fojo, the voodoo priest (sung by powerful baritone Barry L. Robinson), Lolo snatches it away from Cleota. Mr. Wallace sings a winning serenade to Cleota but Lolo threatens their happiness. They laugh at her but they don't get the last laugh.
Act II involves the celebration of a festival and rare archival footage of dances of that period is projected on a screen; the banjo plucks a merry tune. The community seems to have two forms of religious expression. Lolo's Christian parents attempt to pull her away from the practice of voodoo without success. Mama Chloe (the generous voiced mezzo Crystal Charles) has a moving aria in the form of a vocalise. Father Ephraham (baritone Darian Worrell) likewise laments for his unrepentant daughter. Zeke (tenor James R. Hopkins III) makes a play for Lolo but she rejects him.
Act III was the most compelling part of the evening. The chorus entered in feathered headdresses while Lolo was decked out in turban and face paint, looking just as one would imagine a voodoo queen to look. Fogo's face was scarily painted black and white and the two invoked magic spirits and the Snake God. Cleota has been abducted and given the choice of death or giving up Mando;she will not relent. She is apparently killed by Lolo's voodoo magic but Mando shoots the snake and Chloe resurrects Cleota with holy water. But Lolo kills her again with voodoo magic and Mando shoots Lolo.
By this time, there is onstage pandemonium with wild orchestral textures and choral shrieking. One could be forgiven for forgetting that one was sitting in a theater in 2015. We were completely taken up by the onstage drama--good opera will do that! People kill for love and die for love! This is not the Age of Irony.
The singers were all superb and transcended the use of music stands to achieve dramatic validity; Melissa Crespo did a fine job directing. Rear projections by Caite Hevner Kemp suggested various scenes around the plantation and by some kind of modern magic, layered on a steamboat chugging on the Mississippi and scary flashes of lightning in the voodoo ritual. The outstanding make-up and third act costumes were by Everett Suttle.
Although the African-American experience has a great effect in our own time on the worlds of art, music and fashion, we have difficulty naming operas that dealt with the African-American experience. Scott Joplin's Treemonisha lay dormant from 1910 until it received a production in 1972! Porgy and Bess was not to come along until 1936 but that was composed by Gershwin, a Caucasian man. Voodoo was part of the Harlem Renaissance. Perhaps it's time for a Second Renaissance. We wonder whether there are any more undiscovered masterpieces waiting to be discovered.
(c) meche kroop