Delius's Koanga at Trier
Musical Opinion - June 30, 2000
Robert Boas

Word count: 676.

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The Rhineland city of Trier has adopted the valiant policy of reviving unfamiliar operas, even at the expense of not filling the house. Zemlinsky's Sarema, Goldmark's Merlin, Manfred Gurlitt's Soldaten and Korngold's Kathrin have recently been given and on 21 December I attended a revival of Delius's Koanga. A product of the composer's Florida experience, the work features the attempts of the slave owner Martinez to tame the African Prince Voodoo priest Koanga into servitude. The story has a predictably tragic end. Koanga's love affair and marriage with Palmyra, Martinez's mulatto half-sister, leads to the death of both lovers in a denouement prophetic of A Village Romeo and Juliet.

Koanga has a complicated performance history. The story, taken from George Washington Cable's 1880 novel The Grandissimes, was converted into a libretto by Charles Keary and the opera had its stage premiere, sung in German, at Elberfeld on 30 March 1904. Not until 23 September 1935 was it staged in England, at Covent Garden under Sir Thomas Beecham with a revised libretto, and the book was again radically changed by Douglas Craig and Andrew Page for the Sadler's Wells performances in 1972. It was for this version that Trier opted, using a new German translation by Gunter Selling.

Koanga may not be fully vintage Delius but it shows the hand of an assured musical dramatist ; particularly masterly are the conclusions of Acts 1 and 2, the first featuring a fine vocal quintet and thundering orchestral reference to 1 come from Alabama while in second contains Koanga's terrifying curse on the plantation that has used him so ill.

Andreas Scheel as Koanger and Simon Perez as Jochen Schafer.

The score contains material familiar from the Florida Suite, including the popular dance La Calinda, famous as a Beecham lollipop, which is heard during Koanga's marriage in which hints of Stephen Foster's sentimental sound-world are never far away.

The libretto has been much criticised but my only reservation here was the framing of the drama by a seemingly superfluous Prologue and Epilogue showing a black Uncle Joe telling the story to a group of planters' daughters; perhaps I was prejudiced by the producer's siting of these episodes in the front stalls with the girls svelte and sophisticated instead of adolescent and starry-eyed.

There are problems about giving Koanga in present-day England where the blacking up of white singers is considered politically incorrect. However, no such restraints obtain in Germany though for some arcane reason the Trier make-up department was content to black the faces of the Slave Chorus leaving other body parts their natural colour. Except in the Prologue and Epilogue Heinz Lukas-Kindermann's handling of the drama was exemplary while Manfred Breitenfellner's simple, angular decoys never jarred. Costumes were highly provocative, however; to portray the white female guests at Koanga's wedding as 1920's flappers, implying that black slavery lasted into the 20th-Century, was a gross libel on the United States.

The cast was strongly diversified nationally. As Palmyra the American soprano Karin Clarke showed dramatic as well as lyrical gifts and made a fine thing of her Second Act tribute to her betrothed and Heidi Zehnder was a smooth-toned, prepossessing wife to Martinez. Andreas Scheel offered an impressively dominating Koanga and coped manfully with the high baritone tessitura of his music. Juri Zinovenko's Martinez was vocally all a Russian bass should be but he acted stiffly; Jochen Schafer, on the other hand, played the brutal Overseer Simon Perez to the life though his tenor voice was too small for the part. The cast was completed by the Hungarian bass Laslo Lukas, who appeared first as Uncle Joe and later, more effectively, as the Voodoo priest Rangwan. The Trier Orchestra under Istvan Denes started tentatively but soon found its form and gave a finely textured account of this fascinating Delius score.


Citation Details

Title: Delius's Koanga at Trier
Author: Robert Boas
Publication: Musical Opinion
Date: June 30, 2000
Publisher: Musical Opinion Limited
Volume: 123    Issue: 1421    Page: 169