|Lindell Carter, MaKayla McDonald, William Remmers, Markel Reed, Karmesha Peake, and Virdell Williams in Thea Musgrave's "The Story of Harriet Tubman"|
The story must be told and who better to stage it than William Remmers' Utopia Opera! Maestro Remmers has never shrunk from a challenge and audience members who voted for this work never shrink from providing him with these challenges. So this, his eighth season, began with a chamber reduction of Ms. Musgraves grand opera Harriet, the Woman Called Moses, which premiered at Virginia Opera in 1985.
With ongoing assistance from the composer, Julian Grant accomplished the orchestration for three strings, three winds, percussion and keyboard, conducted by Maestro Remmers. Direction by Viktoria I.V. King was effective in telling the story, which left us inspired and moved.
Harriet Tubman was a slave who escaped from slavery and sacrificed her personal happiness and safety to return to the south 18 times to rescue over 300 slaves over the Underground Railroad, aided by the Quaker abolitionist Mr. Garrett, here portrayed by Andrew Dwan.
The work opened strongly with Harriet's father Ben (portrayed magnificently by the deep voiced Virdell Williams) singing the heartfelt spiritual "Go Down Moses". Prose narration was offered by Harriet's brother Benjie (portrayed well by tenor Lindell Carter) and was augmented throughout the work by various other cast members.
The eponymous Harriet was given a superlative interpretation by MaKayla McDonald who elicited both admiration and sympathy by her fine portrayal. As her beloved Josiah, Markel Reed was appealing and completely believable. Mama Rit was performed by Karmesha Peake who held the stage with her excellent presence and fine singing.
The story is told fairly and Caucasians are presented as both bad guys and good guys. The Master, sympathetically portrayed by Tadeusz von Moltke, cares for his slaves as part of the family and does not want to sell them to other masters who might mistreat them. But his son Preston (nastily portrayed by Luke Jackson) is a wastrel and wants his father to sell off some slaves to pay his gambling debts. We don't want to reveal how this plays out because we want you to see the show! The other bad dude is the Overseer, convincingly acted by Kristoffer Infante who comes across as one scary dude.
The ensemble had voices as strong as the principals. Costumes by Eric Lamp and Angel Betancourt were simple but effective.
Every culture has its myths (i.e. American Thanksgiving) and every country has its shame (i.e. Germany's Holocaust). How one deals with these is relevant beyond words. Our nation is now dealing with the myth espoused by our own Statue of Liberty versus the reality and shame of the way POTUS is dealing with Latin American refugees. Slavery is part of our past and can never be denied.
Art is a wonderful way to confront people with issues in a way far better than hectoring and writing an opera is a fine way to show us our shameful history. We just wish we liked the music and libretto better. The instrumental music is more "interesting" than beautiful and there were no appealing vocal lines except for the aforementioned "Go Down Moses" and "Swing Low Sweet Chariot", beautifully sung by Ms. McDonald. Mr. Reed sang "Lonesome Road" in a tender touching fashion.
Ms. McDonald was given a tuneless aria "Can't Live Without Ben" and we couldn't help thinking of "My Man's Gone Now" from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. There's a reason that Gershwin's opera stays in the repertoire. There's a reason that singers use the arias as audition pieces and in recital. That reason is that there is melody. When will contemporary composers realize that melody is memorable!
Although the "book" is excellent, the libretto is less so. Dialect was mixed with what we would call contemporary educated speech and the sentences were too long. We think it would have worked better with short conversational phrases spoken completely in dialect. We were grateful for the surtitles accompanying the singing and would have enjoyed them for the dialogue as well.
In spite of these minor disappointments, we recommend this work highly for its dramatic impact and convincing performances. We would welcome the opportunity to hear any of the singers again; we honor the idea of dramatizing the struggle of Afro-Americans and the reality of giving so many worthy singers an opportunity to perform.
(c) meche kroop