Koanga – Leonard Rowe
Palmyra – Alison Buchanan
Clotilda – Yvonne Fontana
Don José Martinez – Aris Nadrian
Simon Perez – Adrian Dwyer
Rangwan – Njabulo Madlala
Warden – Devon Harrison

Florence Okwan, Nasae Evanson, Denzil Barnes & Sarah Akinbiyi (dancers)

Community Chorus

Aurelian Ensemble
Martin André

Lloyd Newton – Artistic director
Helen Kaut-Howson – Director
Kenny Miller – Designer
Jerry Jenkins – Lighting designer

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 12 April, 2007
Venue: Sadler's Wells Theatre, London

Perhaps rather obscurely mounted to “commemorate” the 200th-anniversary of the abolishment of slavery, Pegasus Opera is, nevertheless, to be commended for reviving Delius’s 1897 opera “Koanga” and Sadler’s Wells, with Nicholas Payne as opera advisor, for hosting it.

Claimed to be “the first ‘black’ opera” (pre-dating Scott Joplin’s “Treemonisha” by 10 years and, of course, the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess” by nearly 40), “Koanga” received its British première a couple of years after Delius’s death (in 1934) at Covent Garden, under that indefatigable Delius champion, Sir Thomas Beecham and was last seen, at Sadler’s Wells, 35 years ago.

Then – as now, in Pegasus Opera’s production – the prologue and epilogue was updated from the original Southern belles listening to an Uncle Tom character telling the tale, to a group of school-girls visiting a slavery museum, hearing the story from a warden. The revision to C.F. Keary’s original libretto (based on chapters 28 and 29 of George Washington Cable’s 1880 “The Grandissimes: A Story of Creole Life”) was made in 1972 by Douglas Craig and Andrew Page, with some further updating by playwright Olwen Wymark.

I suspect the opera would work without this topping and tailing (perhaps it could be just orchestral, with no vocal lines at all); although director Helena Kaut-Howson made the best of what was available to her. Essentially though, Delius is not a natural operatic composer and both start and end are, rather than fully operatic, symphonic and sumptuously scored.

Set in late-18th-century Louisiana, the purchase by plantation owner Don José Martínez of a new slave – African prince and voodoo priest, Koanga – sets in motion a tragic story that sees Koanga only agreeing to slavery if he marries Martínez’s wife’s maid Palmyra. Mrs Martínez (Clotilda) knows that Palmyra is her half-sister, her father having sired her from a slave girl, and she persuades worker Perez to spoil the marriage plans. At the end of the second (marriage) act, Palmyra is abducted and Koanga escapes, cursing the plantation and slaves. The final act sees Koanga as a voodoo priest leading ritual worship while the slaves, who are ill and listless pray, for an end to the curse. Perez, still wanting Palmyra, is killed by Koanga who comes to her rescue, but when he is hunted down, Palmyra falls on his ritual spear, embracing voodoo as she dies.

Delius, having spent a few years both in Florida and Virginia in the 1880s on plantations, had an ear for the then emancipated workers’ spirituals and “Koanga” is at its best with the choral ensembles (not far from Tippett’s “A Child of Our Time” spirituals). Indeed, some of the off-stage choral singing had the clearest diction, whereas in much of the first half (the first two acts) it had been difficult to discern much of the libretto. Certainly the opening of the second half – Act Three’s voodoo ceremony – seemed much clearer (although much was vocalise), and this is probably the most interesting part of the score.

While not a singers’ man (much of the recitative-like portions of the score are ungratefully set for the voice), Delius in “Koanga” is quite effective in matching a typical operatic tale of forbidden love in a clash of society/religion/culture: in fact we are not that far from “Aida”, for example – there’s even a high priest to help Koanga officiate at the voodoo ceremony.

Much of the music is distinctively Delian – in his late Romantic phase, akin to Europe rather than his ‘English’ style – and by the second act the musicians of the Aurelian Ensemble, under Martin André, had found their form. The voodoo ceremony in the swamps (rather too much smoke here in an otherwise restrained production) brought out the best in the orchestra, its music the most intriguing part of the score.

The singing was also good, with Leonard Rowe suitably commanding in the title role and Alison Buchanan poignant as Palmyra, more than ably supported by Yvonne Fontana as her half-sister Clotilda, Iranian baritone Aris Nadirian as plantation owner Don José Martínez and Adrian Dwyer as henchman Simon Perez. Bass Njabulo Madlala was particularly impressive as voodoo priest Rangwan (sharing the role with Byron Jackson).

Also impressive was the Community Chorus as the slaves, both acting and singing well. Kenny Miller’s designs created a basic white box, flying in a colonial plantation house (albeit on impossibly long stilts, like an oil platform), which director Kaut-Howson effectively filled, especially with the help of the four dancers, directed by Sian Williams. The guards wearing sunglasses seemed the only anachronistic sore thumb.

Unlikely to inspire the world’s major houses to plan productions, Pegasus Opera has done London’s opera-going public a major service in reviving – in this enjoyable, unobtrusive, production – a work that is certainly worth an occasional airing. Its use, as a glib backdrop, for the oppression of African peoples in America notwithstanding, the production’s piggy-backing on the bi-centenary of Britain’s abolishment of slavery is an astute way of creating a buzz about the piece and, if the first night is anything to go by, it has been successful in finding an intrigued audience.

Certainly worth catching.

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