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Summer Opera: Danielpour's Margaret Garner

Other Newspaper Reviews:

Bernard Holland, Giving New Voice to Former Slave's Tale of Sacrifice (New York Times, May 9)

Mark Stryker, 'MARGARET GARNER': Swooning music lifts up a tragedy (Detroit Free Press, May 9)
Ionarts can only go to so many opera locations in one summer, and we have seen opera this summer in Washington, New York, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Santa Fe. One place I really wanted to go this summer, but could not, was Cincinnati Opera Summer Festival. For the first time in their history of 85 years, Cincinnati presented a newly commissioned opera, Richard Danielpour's Margaret Garner, with a libretto by Toni Morrison (actually premiered back in May by Michigan Opera Theater. For some background on the historical events, which took place in the Cincinnati area, and Morrison's fictionalization of them, we read an article (Uncomfortable opera, July 23) in the Cincinnati Post:
The opera has received national acclaim and has set modern attendance records in Cincinnati, with more than 10,000 tickets sold to its three shows, the last of which was Friday night. That interest has been so high and that local reaction has been so intense is just further evidence that we as a region - and as a nation - have yet to finish grappling with the issue of slavery, and some of our personal ties to it. By bringing us face to face with our consciences, and by bringing together whites and blacks both symbolically and physically (via diverse crowds) to discuss this issue, the opera has done this region a service.

Composed by Richard Danielpour with libretto by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, the opera focuses on the life of a slave named Margaret Garner, who lived on Maplewood Farm in Boone County, and her attempt to escape her tragic destiny. The opera is not literal truth, changing dramatically what little is known about Garner and her life, much as Morrison put a literary spin on the story with her best-seller "Beloved.'' Further complicating the debate is Steven Weisenburger's locally famous 1998 book "Modern Medea,'' whose facts have been questioned furiously by descendants of the Gaines family, who owned Maplewood. What is certain is that 22-year-old Margaret killed her 2-year-old child, Mary, when confronted with slave catchers after escaping with her husband and his family across the frozen Ohio River in 1856. They were tried before a federal commissioner in Cincinnati under the terms of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act and remanded to slavery in Kentucky. Margaret died of typhoid fever on a Mississippi plantation in 1858. Her husband, Robert, fought with the Union in the Civil War and died later in the North. There is plausible speculation that Margaret's owner fathered the slain child. In the opera, Margaret is raped by the Gaines patriarch, Robert is lynched, she kills two of her children, she is tried for "theft of property" in Kentucky and is sentenced to death by hanging.
Andrew Adler reviewed the opera ('Margaret' retells story of slavery, July 21) for the Louisville Courier-Journal (the plantation Margaret escaped from is just south of the Ohio border in Kentucky):
Running about three hours and structured over a broad first act and a swifter second, the opera revels in its bigness. The choral writing is particularly vivid, with Danielpour reaching back to gospel-derived traditions for his slave ensembles. Overall his music extends an aesthetic defined by such composers as Barber and Bernstein: tuneful, conservative in harmonic design, with an imperative to drive the action forward. I wish there was more nuance to his method, which often sounds too facile for its own good. Still, at the second Cincinnati Opera performance, Saturday night, most of the capacity Music Hall audience was clearly enthralled.

No doubt listeners were responding to the exceptional singing of mezzo Denyce Graves in the title role, and perhaps above all to soprano Angela M. Brown's Cilla, Margaret's mother-in-law. [Danielpour wrote the role specifically for Jessye Norman, who was not able to participate at the last minute.--CTD] Both of these artists projected their characters with vocal confidence and, frankly, plenty of guts. Graves also responded credibly to Kenny Leon's muscular stage direction, no matter how physically taxing. She had a capable partner in baritone Gregg Baker's Robert Garner, though baritone Rod Gilfry was in raspy voice as Edward Gaines, Maplewood's master. Stefan Lano conducted members of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra with an appreciation for the sweep of Danielpour's music and evident care for his singers. The remaining Music Hall performance is tomorrow; like the first two, it is sold out.
For more information, Janelle Gelfand wrote a great interview/article (Composer learns from 'Garner', July 17) on Danielpour and the process of writing the opera for the Cincinnati Enquirer, and I also enjoyed this photo gallery of opening night from the Cincinnati Enquirer on July 17. This photo of the opening night, which I would show here except that it's copyrighted, is thrilling to see, because the opera house in Cincinnati is full to the brim with faces both black and white. The performances, I understand, were intense for the audience. The opera's Web site (Margaret Garner) has a page of reviews, too.

Margaret Garner was a joint commission of Michigan Opera Theatre, Cincinnati Opera, and the Opera Company of Philadelphia. Ionarts will hopefully be going to see the latter's production of the opera, scheduled for February 10 to 26, 2006. Charlotte's Opera Carolina is planning a production for April 2006, and given the work's critical popularity so far, it will surely be mounted in other cities in the following season.

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