By Louis Snyder
Christian Science Monitor 12-23-70
In three performances on Friday, Sunday, and Monday, the Opera Society of Washington added to its very considerable 13-year stature with the first presentation in the United States of Frederick Delius's "Koanga" - the first, in fact, of any of his operas to be staged here. What was more, the Delius work, with only three Covent Garden performances to its credit since its premiere in 1904 at Elberfeld, Germany, burst with tremendous impact on an audience unprepared for the moving impressionistic beauty of its score, and the very contemporary implications of its plot, both magnificently realized in the society's production at Lisner Auditorium.
The opera, set in a Louisiana plantation in the early 1800's, is bracketed by a prologue and epilogue a century later, so that the main plot is in essence a story told to a group of young girls by a conjureman. It deals with the purchase by a planter, Don Jose Martinez, of Koanga, a proud African prince and voodoo priest, who refuses to submit to slavery, but is persuaded to do so by his attraction to Palmyra, a mulatto slave girl, also strangely drawn to him. Following Christian wedding ceremonies, the girl is stolen away by .a jealous overseer, and Koanga escapes to invoke a curse on the plantation in weird voodoo rites. He kills the overseer, whose followers slay him, and Palmyra stabs herself.
Blend of influences
Although Delius was born in England of German parents, he spent his early years in Florida, and after some musical study in Germany settled in France. It is not surprising then that "Koanga" blends the flavor of the South (there is a banjo in the orchestration, 30 years before "Porgy and Bess" used one) with the impressionism of the French school, and a hint of the dark majesty of Wagner.
The result, however, is neither patchily variegated nor derivative. The score flows like hot, glowing lava, bright, forceful, and menacing by turns as the plot demands. It is a succession of stunning passages: the Monet-like quality of the girls' choruses in prologue and epilogue; the colorful, insinuating rhythms of "La Calinda," a Creole dance which prefaces the wedding, itself a vocal ensemble of great richness; the palpitating voodoo rites and the encounter between Koanga and Perez, his rival; the love music for Palmyra and Koanga; the velvety orchestral interludes, and an overpowering tragic scene which brings the opera to a close. Captured in music is the wild beauty and basic starkness of a time that no longer exists as such but is immediately and startlingly recognizable.
Complementing this unexpected revelation (the first "American" opera?) were the splendid musical performances under Paul Callaway's baton, and Frank Corsaro's superb production, which used film, projections, scrims, and misty light around the performers to speed the plot on its way. From a visual point of view, Ronald Chase's films and projections, taken on the spot in the South, were breathtaking, and the lighting of Nananne Porcher partnered them with continual effectiveness.
As Koanga, baritone Eugene Holmes rose to the demands of a grueling role with tremendous vocal and dramatic strength, and Claudia Lindsey's warm soprano and commanding stage presence made her a perfect Palmyra. There were outstanding performances too, on Friday, from Will Roy as Martinez, William McDonald as Perez, Joyce Gerber as the planter's wife, and Edward Pierson as the conjureman. Orchestra and chorus were of top quality.
Too much credit cannot be given the Opera Society of Washington for
this spectacular reexamination of "Koanga," which will and should lead
to assigning the largely unappreciated works of Delius their rightful place
in the musical spectrum. Perhaps the unrelenting efforts in the past of
Sir Thomas Beecham and a few others in their behalf have at last reached
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