By Paul Hume, Music Editor
Washington Post 12-19-70
Koanga is black and “Koanga” is beautiful.
Frederick Delius, as a memorable composer of opera having dramatic force and ravishingly beautiful music, triumphed last night in the Opera Society's production of "Koanga." Lisner Auditorium's stage never seemed lovelier than when illuminated by exquisite projections made from films taken by Ronald Chase, withlighting by Nananne Porcher and costumes by Joseph Bella.
Much of the opera was seen through single and double scrims that gave its tragic story, told in flashback narration, the feeling of unreality that yet rang all too true. It is a story of love between Koanga, an African prince and voodoo priest, and Palmyra, a slave girl whose white father was also father to the mistress of the plantation where the action takes place.
For his films, Chase went south to photograph antebellum plantations, fields of sugar cane, orange groves, and quiet backwaters of the region. Against these the music of Delius, who lived in Florida and listened to the songs of its Negroes for several impressionable years in his 20s, soared or breathed a hushed perfume no other composer ever achieved.
The question that haunts anyone seeing this "Koanga" must be: "Why has it taken so long for this music, this opera to be given for popular enjoyment?" There can be no question of the impact of the work on last night's audience. There was quiet during the unique pages of Delius’ instrumental interludes, where the oboe sings with a song to be heard nowhere else, the trumpet takes on a new tone, and muted strings murmur susurrantly. To the unfounded charge that Delius operas are "not dramatic," nearly every moment between prologue and epilogue belies the comment.
If there is a dominant influence in the music, it is strangely that
of Wagner, whom Delius never echoed in his purely
orchestral scores. But the Wagner of "Gotterdammerung" is there at times, the chords of "Tristan" not far distant. Yet not a note of the music could deceive anyone, for it is purest Delius, in choral as well as instrumental passages.
The vocal writing is always effective and built on long lines in the most romantic manner. But to the baritone in the title role Delius was cruel. He asks for a heroic baritone with a voice of massive metal, capable of remaining for substantial times in the upper fifth of the voice, rising even to a high flat at one point. Neither Wagner nor Verdi ever asked any baritone those things Delius demands of his voodoo priest. In this menacing role, Eugene Holmes showed just such a voice, encased in a physique of impressive appearance and manner. His entrance, his finale to act one, as played last night, his voodoo incantation, and his final scene were all intensely effective.
Now and then his controls slipped a bit and let a tone come out raw
or unfocused, but he is a figure of superb
To match him, and also to elicit from him some lovely quiet singing in a duet of radiant texture, Claudia Lindsey's Palmyra is a jewel. Her voice is the texture of deep red velvet, and she can play with it to make high, quiet notes come out shimmering. There is a quintet at the end of Act One that is indescribable in beauty, and each singer made his part in it memorable. Then, as if to show his virtuoso versatility, Delius follows it with the dance, "La Calinda," often heard as an instrumental excerpt. But in its full form it adds solo soprano and offstage chorus with brilliant effect. In this, Miss Lindsey was particularly captivating both in song and movement.
It is the conductor who must make every performance of Delius live, whatever its form. From the orchestra he must cajole, 'wheedle playing of supplest phrasing and tone of unfailing luster. Paul Callaway took on the assignment of giving "Koanga" its first performances in this country, or anywhere else since Sir Thomas Beecham did it in London in 1935, and drew from his orchestra its finest in every response.
He was a model of plasticity in shaping the beauty of the whole in dances, solo, duo and larger ensemble scenes, while he gave each singer the support arid direction most needed.
The chorus carries an unusually large responsibility in "Koanga," heard only from offstage, as they depict the slaves getting up for work, or in lament or joy. Except for moments of excessive amplification in the last act, the chorus sounded excellent in the elusive intonation and balance.
Ably supporting Holmes and Lindsey were the pathetic figure of Joyce Gerber's Clotilda, and Will Roy as her husband, Don Jose. William McDonald was a convincing Simon Perez, the overseer.
Solving every problem, and capitalizing on the urgency of the opera, particularly telling in its suggestion of today's insistent voices raised in behalf of racial pride and the beauty of black, Frank Corsaro staged "Koanga" with unerring imagination for the ultimate in dramatic effect.
The whole thing was a huge success for the Opera Society. Its
repetitions on Sunday afternoon and Monday night should not be missed.
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