By HAROLD C. SCHONBERG
New York Times 12-27-70
0RIGINALLY the Opera Society of Washington was going to stage Virgil Thomson's “Mother of Us All." Difficulties of one kind or another ensued, and the production was scratched. What to substitute? Frank Corsaro, who was to direct "Mother," happens to be a Delius-lover. He suggested "Koanga" which had never been staged in the United States - nor, indeed, in many other places since it was composed in 1897.
"Koanga?" The "Calinda" episode is known, and has been recorded several times. The prewar Delius Society album (Vol. 1) did have the closing scene. But to almost everybody, "Koanga" was a completely unknown quantity. At least a few of us had beard the concert version given by the Delius society in Jacksonville, almost 10 years back. I had, and the other week went to the Music Library to read a score and refresh my memory. No score. Not even a libretto. Nor was Boosey and Hawkes, which publishes Delius, of any help. Whatever material Boosey and Hawkes did have was in Washington. A libretto, however, was available there, and it was promptly mailed to me.
It is an unusual libretto, adapted from an episode in George Washington Cable's novel, "The Grandissimes." Probably it was the first operatic libretto in history to deal with the plight of the Negro. The action concerns a slave named Koanga who revolts and casts a voodoo spell over the plantation. He then kills the overseer who is trying to seduce his wife, and is flayed alive. His wife joins him in death. Considering its time and place, this was strong stuff. And of course it is of particular relevance today.
But one reads the libretto by Charles Francis Keary with a sinking heart. It is written in the worst lit'rary elegance of the period, of the "But hark, she curves" variety. Slaves in the field sing such lines as "We are pulling, we are pulling / Downy seeds as soft as snow;/ We are culling, we are culling / Dainty heads of indigo" - which have to be the lines least likely ever to have been song by Negroes in the field. Koanga has such lines as "My bride thou shalt soon be, ere clouds conceal the moon."
From the beginning there was doubt about the libretto. Sir Thomas Beecham and Edward Agate revised it; and the production in Washington's Lisner Auditorium on Dee. 18 had a few more revisions. Director Corsaro has never been a purist, and he inserted some action that strengthened (or so he thought) the basic idea of the libretto. For instance, when Koanga is brought in, hear death, a priest stands by with a Bible. Palmyra, Koanga's wife, scornfully knocks the Bible from his hands to the ground. That is not in the libretto (nor is the priest, for that matter). Certain words, such as "nigger," have been dropped. As a literary work, the libretto is a period piece and must be accepted as such.
But at least Koanga himself rises shove the stereotypes of the libretto. He is bigger, much bigger, than the white men in the opera; he has authentic power and dignity. Delius, it must be remembered, lived in Florida for some years, and had plenty of opportunity to observe the plight of the black man. What his observations were, it is hard to say. In later life he did not speak much about his American sojourn. But he would not have set "Koanga" to music lied he not had sympathy for the hero.
The music is interesting and frequently beautiful. Surely the interlude leading to the epilogue is one of the great things in Delius - sweet, sad, penetrating voluptuous in its chromaticism. Another thing worth noting about the score is its Wagnerism. Probably no composer of operas in the last half of the 19th century could avoid the influence of the Mighty Richard. The ensemble that ends the first act of "Koanga" calls to mind the "Meistersinger” Quintet; and in the last act there is a stark, almost note-for-note quotation from "Gotterdammerung." And the long Palmyra aria over the body of Koanga is a sort of Immolation Scene.
Wagnerisms aside, the score is in the familiar rhapsodic Delius idiom. Poignant melodies flash by and disappear, while the harmonies slither from tonality to tonality. Does any composer have a greater number of altered chords per measure? One doubts it. The thing that saves "Koanga" and the other Delius music from becoming cloying was his aristocratic musical mind. The modulations are not done for the sake of modulation, as so often in Franck, but as part of a constantly shifting tonality. And the music, as in the voodoo scene, can build up to real strength. Delius, it should not be forgotten, was not only the composer of the orchestral vignettes by which he is best known. He also was the composer of "Appalachia," "Sea Drift" and the "Mass of Life," powerful, large-scale conceptions.
It would be unfair to discuss the Opera Society of Washington's production
of "Koanga" without mention of the staging. Frank Corsaro decided to concentrate
on projections. He sent a photographer to New Orleans to get appropriate
material, from which were made many color slides. Corsaro, Ronald Chase
(scenery and film designer) and Nananne Porcher (lighting effects) got
together and worked out a system by which the slides could be manipulated
and seen through an outside scrim. Before the conductor, Paul Callaway,
even lifted his baton, a series of projections suggestive of the Old South
were flashed. Then came the music, and the curtain went up on the Prologue.
This was fabulous. As seen through the scrim, figures moved against and
into a three-dimensional
illusion that actually seemed to be in the antebellum South. The opera relied heavily on this through-the-scrim effect. In the voodoo scene, Corsaro introduced fire, smoke, blood, a huge staring eye, a swirl of destruction. It was only in those scenes where the scrim was lifted that the production became flat and literal.
But Corsaro was handicapped by the limited resources of the Lisner Auditorium. He claims that, given the proper equipment, anything con be done. In addition, projections are less expensive than actual scenery. This production of "Koanga," so often brilliant in its use of new lighting and film techniques, is a bit of the future. We are going to have more and more along that line; and if the medium is as flexible as Corsaro indicates it is, it can leave conventionally staged opera far behind. "Koanga" gives an idea of how it can be done. Surely it was the most imaginative use of projected scenery ever accomplished on an American operatic stage.
The opera was extremely well received at its Washington premiere.
As Corsaro is such an admirer of Delius, it may be that - thanks to the
success of "Koanga" - we shall be hearing ether Delius operas. The
most logical would be "A Village Romeo and Juliet,” though those who know
"Fennimore and Gerda" will be putting in a pitch for it. It may be
that the Delius operas are rather special fare, not to everybody's taste.
But they contain too much lovely music to be neglected; and, if the behavior
of the "Koanga"audience is any indication, they still have enough to fire
up the listener. I'd go an awfully long way to hear "A Village Romeo
and Juliet." It's a beauty.
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