by Robert Finn
Cleveland Plain Dealer 12-27-70
An upsurge of interest in the music of Frederick Delius – something which I have been promoting and propagandizing for for years - seems to be in the making.
Conductors are programming Delius more frequently, and one hears more and more of them declaring their personal advocacy of his work. Henry Lewis, for example, told me recently of his own great admiration for the English master. And best of all, the Washington Opera Society, under the leadership of two more DeIians, conductor Paul Callaway and stage director Frank Corsaro, has just given the American premiere of Delius' beautiful slave opera "Koanga" before three sold-out and cheering houses. Honolulu, of all places, will hear Delius' operatic masterpiece, "A Village Romeo and Juliet," next season.
"KOANGA" has had only a handful of performances since its premiere in 1904, but it is nevertheless a moving and beautiful work. In truth, it takes the rhapsodic music of Delius to make C. F. Kearv's libretto palatable today, for the operas text reads to a modern ear almost like a minstrel-show parody: "The indigo fields are awaiting your care, so the sickle truly test ere you pause for rest," etc., etc., etc. Keary's Victorian notions of what went on among the Negroes on a Southern plantation 140 years ago are quaint, to put it mildly.
But Delius transcended all this with his masterly score, which reflects and illumines the drama, making it not only credible but gripping. Delius is known for the harmonic richness and emotional expressiveness of his music, but it is surprising how much dramatic power he mustered in many pages. And in the commanding figure of Koanga, the African prince, voodoo priest and plantation slave, he created a character of genuine pathos.
The music flows in a continuous stream, with melodic lines usually sung by the orchestra or doubled by the voices. Delius admirers will recognize his orchestral fingerprints in the frequent bucolic touches with woodwind solos, in the rich chromaticism and the sense of continuously evolving musical line.
Delius was no oom-pah orchestrator. His orchestra buoys up the voices on a tide of sound, making it almost mandatory for the listener to study the libretto beforehand, since most of the words do not come through clearly.
The Washington production, which I saw on a recent visit, was both innovative and imaginative (those terms are not always synonymous). Beyond a few prop chairs there was virtually nothing at all standing on the Lisner Auditorium stage. But there were three retractable scrim screens on which a constantly changing kaleidoscope of atmospheric, semi-abstract or abstract color projections were thrown.
These worked quite well in suggesting the opera's decadent, moss-hung atmosphere, though one did defect a desire on the part of Corsaro and film specialist Ronald Chase to "compose" a slide show in rather the same sense that Delius "composed" a musical score. The projections succeeded in direct ratio to their abjuring any attempt to compete with (and thus distract from) Delius.
This projected scenery technique has all kinds of marvelous theatrical possibilities, many of which were realized in this production. But one hopes that as the technique is refined the projection-makers will resist the urge to overdo things. Suggestion and restraint are the keys to success.
The Washington cast was headed by two fine singers, Eugene Holmes as the proud Koanga and Claudia Lindsey as the mulatto girl Palmyra. William McDonald, Will Roy and Joyce Gerber were fine in supporting parts. Callaway's conducting allowed the full sonority of Delius' orchestra to sound forth yet never blotted out the singers, and the playing of the orchestra was quite idiomatic.
This production of "Koanga" could prove a historically valuable occasion both far its innovative staging and for the impetus it hopefully will give to revivals of other Delius operas. If ambitious companies would look into "A Village Romeo and Juliet," audiences would find themselves, in Sir Thomas Beecham's pungent phrase, "stupefied" by its beauty.
Sociological footnote: "Koanga," an opera on a black theme, with a largely black cast and produced in a city with a black majority in its population, drew a virutally lily-white audience at the performance I attended.
Comparative footnote: Lisner Auditorium was sold out for three performances
of this practically unknown opera. In Cleveland we cannot fill Severance
Hall for two performances of such a well-known item as "Cost Fan Tutte."
Operatically, we are indeed a depressed area.
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