Im very glad that Anthony Daviss Amistad got another chance to succeed. Its first outings in Chicago and New York a decade ago underwhelmed the critics. One of them described it as a well-done school pageant. But Spoleto Festival USA commissioned Davis to revise the opera, and the end result imaginatively staged at the new and improved Memminger Auditorium got a well-crafted and effective first performance Thursday night.
Anybody whos seen the movie knows the basic story: a Spanish schooners cargo of slaves, newly nabbed from Africa, takes over the ship, which then runs aground near New York. A legal battle ensues, led by ex-president John Quincy Adams, who eventually secures the Africans freedom.
One of the apparent improvements in the opera is the flow of action. As Davis told us in a pre-performance talk, he strove for a sense of fluid motion, helping his ship sail seamlessly from scene to scene. The often surreal staging lent a certain dreamlike aura to the proceedings, a sense that was reinforced by the action shifting back and forth in time.
The music needed no improvement. Rich and vital, its ever-shifting rhythms and constant allusions to Afro-American idioms (blues and jazz) and Afro-Cuban styles kept our ears happy and our toes tapping. You couldnt whistle all of the tunes, but it was mostly very catchy and accessible. Moods and styles changed according to the scene and character at hand, as in the noble altruism of the music accompanying Adams.
The freshly refurbished Memminger made for a dandy new venue. Something of the wide-open, building-length staging environment that helped make Spoletos 2005-2006 runs of Mozarts Don Giovanni so radical is still there. But the expanded bleacher-style audience seating scheme now compresses the central stage area from both ends of the auditorium, keeping the action less scattered. Most of the main characters perform on a large, raised oval platform, with room for the orchestra off to one side. Still, there is plenty of vacant wall space for additional sets and supporting action.
Performances, as weve come to expect at Spoleto, were first-rate. The mini-orchestra (under 30 players) dug into Daviss engaging and complex score with infectious gusto and impressive skill. There were a few small instrumental bloopers, but I bet thosell go away as Amistads seven-performance festival run continues.
Conductor Emmanuel Villaume looked busier and more animated on the podium than Ive ever seen him before, as he kept his minions in lock-step with the musics constantly shifting meters. As he quipped to me during intermission, I felt like Shiva! (alluding, of course, to the many-armed Hindu goddess). He also kept his chorus, the fabulous Westminster Choir, in sonorous accord. Their magic moment came as sub-choirs of men and women slowly approached each other, each singing in a different key, a half-step apart. Truly spine-tingling stuff.
And, ah, the soloists. The festival managed to put together a sizeable team of excellent voices to fill the many singing roles, and there were few, if any, vocal weak spots. Theres no way I can cover the whole 23-name cast list here, but there were some real standouts, especially among the lead roles. The ambiguous nature of the Trickster God (one of two resident African deities) was portrayed with cocky flippancy by tenor Michael Forest. Soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams delivered some very expressive singing as the other deity, the Goddess of the Waters. Gregg Baker as Cinque, the African captives leader impressed mightily, with a booming bass voice that matched his big, buff physique. An emotional high point was Margrus (soprano Janinah Burnett) keening aria telling of her capture by slave-traders. Baritone Stephen Morscheck was a solemn and dignified John Quincy Adams.
The drawbacks of this sort of multi-directional staging comes from the muffled sound you sometimes get when a character is singing away from you and the limited rear view of the action. The opera also seemed to lose some of its momentum in the second acts courtroom scenes. But the tedious moments were few, short, and far between. I only yawned once. All else was in good order. Director Sam Helfrich saw to a memorable production. Caleb Hale Wertenbakers uncluttered sets served their purpose well. Peter Wests lighting design was effective, and Kaye Voyces mixed bag of costumes (African, period and modern) generally worked.
Theres been widespread banter about the delicious irony of bringing this opera to Charleston: a one-time hub of the slave trade, where the place they used to sell human beings remains a tourist attraction. But in his talk, Davis stipulated that this is not a preachy social docudrama. As with any art that deals with old pain and deep emotion, he aims to make his listeners think and ask questions.
And, as he also pointed out, such ancient injustice can indeed have a bright side. Even our domestic holocaust of slavery produced beauty, like the blues and jazz that have become Americas unique contributions to the world of music. And it was Daviss very American music more than anything else that made this an evening that will haunt me for the rest of the festival. Dont miss it: this sort of event is what Spoleto is all about.
Amistad Spoleto Festival USA $25-$150 2 hours May 25, 27, 29, 31; June 2, 7 at 8 p.m. Memminger Auditorium, 56 Beaufain St. (843) 579-3100