Work, Written in 1897, a Deals With Negro

New York Times, 12-20-70

WASHINGTON, Dec. 19 - Any nomination for the most unplayed opera of the last hundred years would have to include "Koanga" by the British composer Frederick Delius. It was composed in 1897, had a few performances, and promptly submerged. Even the efforts of Sir Thomas Beecham could not keep it alive.

It has remained for the Opera Society of Washington to revive the work, which it did last night at the Lisner Auditorium. To the best of anybody's knowledge, it was the first staged performance in the United States of any Delius opera.

As it turned out, "Koanga" had several things going for it. Its libretto deals with slavery, racism and revolt. It probably is the first opera to deal with the Negro; nor has it had many successors. The subject matter of "Koanga" has, of course, peculiar relevance today. Another thing going for it was its rhapsodic music. And there was the unusual production by Frank Corsaro.

Delius, who lived in Florida for a while, had ample opportunity to learn something about the situation of the black man. He took the idea of his libretto from a novel by G.W. Cable. The action concerns a slave who is goaded into rebellion, casts a voodoo spell over the plantation and finally kills the overseer who lusts after his beloved. He is captured, flayed to death, and his wife kills herself. For its day, this was strong stuff.

Musically the opera illustrates Delius's fantasy?like manner of composition. "Koanga" sounds like a long rhapsody, full of the composer's slippery, voluptuous chromaticisms. Wagner plays a part, and that is strange for Delius was very successful in avoiding Wagner in his orchestral music. The ensemble at the end of Act I recalls the "Meistersinger" Quintet, and sequences toward the end of the opera suggest "Gotterdammerung."  There are also sections that look forward to Debussy's "Pelleas et Melisande." A good deal of the vocal line in "Koanga" is declamatory, with the orchestra carrying the melodic burden.

But there are set pieces too, some of them, including the choruses, are gorgeous. Delius also worked Negro and Creole melodies into the score, and these can especially be heard in the "Calinda" dances (the only relatively well?known part of the opera).  "Koanga" does have some dull spots, but there also are moments of melodic inspiration, and the orchestral sequence leading to the epilogue is Delius at his poetic and heartbreaking best. If "Koanga" is a flawed opera, it is an interesting and frequently beautiful one.  The Opera Society of Washington can be proud of its accomplishment.

It appears that the director, Frank Corsaro, is a Delius admirer, and he approached "Koanga" with special love. Most of the staging is accomplished with projections. Mr. Corsaro sent a photographer to Louisiana, and has used many slides with startling effect.  Using a front scrim, with slides coalescing to fill the entire stage, the director and his lighting designer, Nananne Porcher, have achieved brilliant results.

The imaginative use of projections through the scrim gave an extraordinary illusion of depth. This was by far the most brilliant use of projections ever seen on the American operatic stage. With the scrim up, the staging was more routine. There still remain technical problems to be solved. But this production points the way to an opera of the future that will make orthodox staging obsolete.

The cast last night was superb. Black singers of course took leading roles, and the two most important were Eugene Holmes as Koanga and Claudia Lindsey as Palmyra. Mr. Holmes did not have an easy role. The voice part, for baritone, lies very high, and the action calls for an intense and athletic?looking actor. In all respects Mr. Holmes was superb. He had the bearing, the dignity, the body and a voice of commanding depth and timbre. Miss Lindsey was a perfect foil, a sweet?voiced soprano who blended beautifully with the baritone.

In other leading roles were William McDonald as Simon Perez, Will Roy as Don Jose Martinez and Joyce Gerber as Clotilda.  All were professionals in the best sense of the word.  Paul Callaway conducted, with real flair for the color and pliancy of the score (though his orchestra is not of top caliber, and there were out?of?tune patches in the strings).

At the end, "Koanga" received an ovation. The audience loved what it had heard, and the tribute was as much for the music as for the participants. The Opera Society of Washington may have stumbled into treasure. Delius composed six operas; and "A Village Romeo and Juliet" is even a better work than "Koanga."  Dare we Delius lovers hope?