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Margaret Garner, the modern American opera set to the English libretto of award-winning writer Toni Morrison, is quite a rush: There are dramatically challenging & powerful scenes, calling on a comprehensive spectrum of onstage acting: where at the hands of her husband, the young heroine witnesses the death of her boss's foreman on her family's kitchen table; the lewd degradations of her owner and his high society friends and the burning shame of oppression…all gradually vacuuming into the downward spiral of bearing witness to her husband's hanging, the violent slaying of her two young children, and her own inevitable reckoning on the gallows. All of this very heavy stuff, mashed and rolled into Morrison's at-times burdened libretto, and Danielpour's at-times burdened score, but almost always steam-rolling through the deficiencies with superb direction, determination, and passion.
Morrison, with a Nobel Prize in Literature on her mantel since 1993, had previously dabbled in the haunted story of the 19th century Kentucky baby-cide runaway slave, Margaret Garner, using the tale as inspiration for her 1987 novel Beloved, portrayed by the character Sethe. The opera's story strays from Beloved, much less about haunting (thank gawd) and more about the blood & tears of living, although liberties are taken when contrasted with the historical case. NYCO even boasted paperback copies of Beloved throughout their various gift kiosks (right next to the $9.00 Garner libretto).
However, Morrison's libretto can be at times embarrassingly predictable. Act I, for example, has our lead singing a lullaby to her child. Two days later (and many, many glasses of Manischewitz later), I can still recall the rondo lyrics easily something as, "Sleep in the meadow, sleep in the hay; baby's gonna dream the night away"). The libretto hovers poetically, but could stand alone effectively as narrative. After the stylized libretti of long-dead poets in olde tymee prose, Morrison's is filled with just too many superfluous words to be sung fluidly. Watching the supertitles, there were prepositions that could have easily been pruned from the libretto for a more poetic integration.
(MORRISON!!! In the crowds...with sparkly silver shoes, a lovely grey silk pjamay dress, and two gorgeous clips in her hair)
Off to a late start of almost 15 minutes, the curtain raised on a pitched stage, framed by two sky-high white columns, the background strips of weathered wood evocative of a giant barn and a WPA-inspired landscape. It is 1856, Kentucky, and the all-black chorus of slaves begins as a stirring mass. Native New York composer Richard Danielpour's swelling, Broadway-esque music, set to an infectious libretto with equally tenacious tunes such as, "A Little More Time," and the catchy ditties can be imagined as soundtrack-occupying refrains. The inspiration is a strange meld of classic Verdi-esque exposition and American Broadway, which creates an unpredictable elixir. Trickling down to the singers, among a few arias, it seemed that the musical cues were not discernable: the overt, jerky cues given by conductor Manahan to the leads during Act I were especially stressful.
The success of the opera lies in the charisma and draw of the singers internal and external strife, as the enthusiastic standing ovation at the end of the evening demonstrated. Seven debut performances littered the program's copy, including the four meatiest roles of Margaret, her husband Robert, his mother Cilla, and Maplewood Plantation owner Edward Gains.
The audience favorite of the evening was undisputedly Robert Garner's Gregg Baker, a baritone of like 6'6" who was required to howl, lament, carry firearms, and block-out mortal kombat moves throughout the long performance. Hovering a foot over tenor Joel Sorensen's Casey, one of Gain's henchmen, he wrestled the poor tenor to the floor (and table), throwing him around like a bundle of sticks in a death match. In fact, the Act I (scene II) strangling of Casey was so powerful, the audience (unbelievably) broke into spontaneous applause after the dramatic cunning between the two men pronounced Casey dead. Or maybe we were relieved that there would be no more cringing from the smattering of the racial slurs that pepper the libretto.
Robert's mother Cilla was sung by soprano Lisa Daltirus, and she transformed as if melting into the role of a woman like 3x her age, superbly singing through each scene. Of course, mezzo-soprano Tracie Luck slammed it as Margaret, strong and rigid. The other star of the evening was Timothy Mix's interpretation of meanie (half Scarpia/half Germont) plantation owner, Edward Gains, who had apparently been called into the role quite recently when the original bariton cancelled due to a family emergency.
But again, when the clashes between Morrison and Danielpour surface, the heightened dramatic impact elevates the discomfort, and shoulders the success of the opera. One of the most chilling scenes occurs in Act II: After Robert Garner is found hiding in an underground shed for the murder of Casey, he is apprehended by roving lawmakers and prepared to be hanged. Margaret is present before her children, and they all witness his slaughter, but she decides that her children will not live in bondage, and cuts them down with a knife. She is led away, while the corpses of the two children and her husband haunt the stage. It is then in a scene almost too gripping to watch that the slave chorus flows tenderly through the aftermath and slowly gathers the dead bodies for ceremony. It is a direction so frank, startling, unforgiving, and at times heartbreaking.
The opera premiered on May 7, 2005 in Detroit at the Michigan Opera Theatre with the lovely Denyce Graves as Garner. But as the opera parks itself in the fifth venue, and you still get that feel of seeing something unique, an organic work that keeps trying to engage the audience. With a new production by the excellent Tazewell Thompson, this version rawked my stockings as well as the stockings of those in my ginormous 50-person row (can I just ask what is up with those orchestra rows that stretch for like a million consecutive seats without an aisle break at the NY State theater? Fire hazard anyone?). Stark, cool, and as undetached as Garner herself, we’re glad to have the NYCO for productions like this.