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Vanqui at Clarice Smith Center

We welcome this review from Ionarts guest contributor Karren L. Alenier, whose last review here was of the premiere of John Adams's Doctor Atomic last October. Karren recently wrote the libretto for a new opera with William Banfield, Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On, which was premiered last June in New York.

Leslie Savoy BurrsArtist David C. Driskell’s stained glass window, installed at Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ (4704 13th Street NW) and depicting a black female Christ figure bearing the Cross, served as the introductory symbol of the new classical and jazz opera Vanqui by Leslie Savoy Burrs. A world-class set of virtuoso artists -- including the composer, who is an accomplished flutist -- performed the opera in concert version at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland on March 5. Vanqui, with a libretto by two-time American Book Award winner John A. Williams, tells the story of resurrected American plantation slaves Vanqui and her husband, Prince, who die separated from each other and then “ride the wind,” encountering such freedom fighters as Nat Turner and John Brown as they search for each other.

Employing six solo voices (Carmen Balthrop, Lisa Edwards-Burrs, Delores Ziegler, Brian Johnson, and N. Cameron Chandler), an orchestral ensemble of 13, the 50-singer chorus known as the Voices of Gwynedd from Gwynedd-Mercy College, and a running slide show of Driskell’s art, Maryland’s concert version, which cut out all the spoken text of this two-act opera, appeared more as an oratorio than a dramatic work. Burrs’s music, which fluidly embraces classical, jazz, blues, and gospel elements, has the majesty and sophistication of Duke Ellington without being derivative. Internationally acclaimed soprano Carmen Balthrop, a professor of voice in the School of Music at the University of Maryland, beautifully rendered the lyrical and rhythmically challenging art song “Sweet The Savannah” as she introduced the principal character, Vanqui, which she created in the opera’s 1999 premiere.

What made this production particularly compelling were solo performances by the musicians. In the musically and lyrically impressive choral number “Many Thousand Going,” violinist Diane Monroe delivered a bebop riff equivalent to the pyrotechnics of Dizzy Gillespie on his bent-bell trumpet. Monroe also exhibited her virtuosity, this time with sweet lyric passion, in a solo passage of “Moremi’s Lullaby,” another song interpreted with aching sorrow by soprano Balthrop.

Other Reviews:

Cecelia Porter, Powerful 'Vanqui' Joins a Love Story and the Antislavery Struggle (Washington Post, March 6)
Percussionist Mogauwane Mahloele enhanced Burrs’s musical landscape with measured African-influenced flair on Dikonokon and Dundun (talking) drums and the Berimbau, a musical instrument built on a long pole that is strung with a single steel wire and features a gourd resonator. Pianist George Alfred Burton III stole attention in the opening number “The Chant of the Slave Ships” by standing up to pluck the strings inside the piano with his left hand while he fingered the keys with his right hand. The combination of percussion, piano, electric bass (Gerald Veasley), flute, and violin provided a rich resonant sound that supported the solemnity of naming those ships that transported kidnapped Africans into slavery in America.

The continuous slide show of David C. Driskell’s art, which added African symbols and images to this stream of consciousness tale, was occasionally annotated by song titles from the opera. What was needed were surtitles to help the listener understand the story line. Although the singers used microphones, the text was dense and hard to absorb. Although many opera critics object to amplifying singers, in this story where the characters are spirits, amplification seemed to reinforce the dream-like scenario.

The University of Maryland has been courting a production of Burr’s opera since 1999, when it was premiered by Opera Columbus. The opera, which still seems to be a work in progress, was a one-performance production at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. Vanqui deserves further development and many more productions.

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