by John Stoehr
Lindsay Koob already handled the tough part of reviewing Amistad. So I won't burden you with a exposition, analysis, and evaluation. I'll offer instead a few thoughts. Take them for what they're worth.
For me, Amistad gets a B-. It's a good opera — rich, historical subject matter, a poetic libretto, ingenious music, clever and imaginative staging, terrific and sometimes touching performances. But it's flawed. There are too many ideas crammed into a short amount of time.
These ideas take the form of a dialectic: They face off with each other, clash, synthesize, clash again. Meanwhile, these dialectics are being sung in highly symbolic and poetic language in a highly disjointed musical idiom. The arguments alone are hard to keep track off. The fact that you can't understand what's being said unless reading the supertitles (and that's hard to do when your attention is drawn away from the stage) makes connecting with these characters emotionally, and connecting with the ideas intellectually, all the more difficult for the audience.
In order to get around the narrative of victimization (that is, the emotion of the story coming from politically sensitive binary of white guilt versus black blame), Davis and his cousin Thulani Davis (a poet, novelist, and journalist in her own right) created a Trickster God who is responsible for the slaves being captured, shipped illegally aboard the schooner, responsible for their mutiny, and so on.
He's the Lord Riddler, Lord of Illusion, a petty and fallible god in the ancient sense: "Gods are greater than men, not nicer," he says. With the trickster in place, the white man's enslavement of Africans becomes a spoke in the wheel of fortune — a danger that the mindful African has to watch out for. You never know what's going to happen when the trickster god is around. You might get sold into slavery.
The trickster god is the key to Amistad being a good opera (it raises a tragedy of history to a tragedy of theater), but the trickster might also keep it from being a great opera. In trying to avoid the narrative of victimization, Davis and Davis have created a character whose motivations become enmeshed in the clash of ideologies that emerged in this country around the institution of slavery, especially the question of what makes for a man's freedom — the laws of nature (God) or the laws of man.
The entire second act is a legal argument made from multiple perspectives, and they are rife with symbolism, rhetoric, and historical references. The meaning-laden libretto is set to angular musical lines — many of them in high registers, as is the case of Michael Forest, who plays the Trickster God. They are hard to understand, even though they're sung in English. And they are nearly impossible to understand when singers turn to face the other side of the Memminger Auditorium. Supertitles are very important. But they don't help when your attention is drawn away from the center of Memminger's black box.
That said, I think Amistad is an important work, as reported by Dan Wakin in today's New York Times. The social good of staging a revised Amistad is impossible to measure, but it's worth doing. Just having white power brokers using horrible language and bringing to the surface latent hatreds is healthy. My apologies for not enumerating the many good points, but I agree for the most part with Lindsay Koob's review. The music is superb, as is the libretto. The history resonates deeply, as does the language surrounding that history. The legal arguments alone reveal a national identity formerly at odds with itself. Amistad deserves to be seen again, just perhaps with a little more tweaking.