Enter your email address and click subscribe to receive new articles in your email inbox:

"Margaret Garner" Rivets Cincinnati

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Jul 16, 2005 - 12:33:23 AM in reviews_2005

(first published in The Cincinnati Post July 15, 2005)

Now what?

That was the question when the curtain got stuck and wouldn’t come down at the end of act I of Cincinnati Opera’s "Margaret Garner" Thursday night at Music Hall.

With baritone Rod Gilfry and mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves grappling on the floor -- rape’s progress, you might call it – there was a sudden need for excellent improvisatory skills.

Fortunately, the situation came unstuck without undue delay and the remainder of the evening went without a hitch.

It was an historic event, the premiere of the first commissioned work in Cincinnati Opera’s 85-year history.

Although the world premiere was in Detroit in May – co-commissioners were Michigan Opera Theater and Opera Company of Philadelphia – there is special significance to its performances here, since the opera is based on events that took place in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.

Music Hall was full at 3,278 seats sold -- a sellout for the opera, since over 200 of the 3,400-plus seats are obstructed views. The audience was large and diverse, making it a grand night for the opera and the city, which experienced race riots in the vicinity of Music Hall in April, 2001.

Composed by Richard Danielpour with libretto by Toni Morrison (author of "Beloved" based on the same historical subject) "Margaret Garner" pulls no punches. Directed vividly by Kenny Leon, it has murder, rape, suicide and a lynching by fire.

The real Margaret was a slave at Maplewood Farm in Boone County (which still exists). She escaped across the frozen Ohio River with her children and husband Robert in 1856. Faced with recapture, she killed her young daughter and was tried under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act and remanded to slavery. In the opera, Robert is lynched (he lived until after the Civil War). She is convicted of theft of property and condemned to death.

Morrison’s goal was to present slavery in all its horror, not re-tell the actual story. Her evocative prose does just that. Danielpour’s music isn’t always equivalent to the high drama of the story, and it has its slow moments, but the overall effect is profoundly moving.

Much of the best music is in the first half. The slave chorus, "No More," with Graves as soloist, begins the opera on a wave of lamentation. By contrast, the chorus’ swaying, clapping "Gift of Little More Time" and their call-and-response song coming in from the fields express jubilation.

Despite cuts since the Detroit premiere, the wedding scene (of Gaines’ daughter Caroline) still gets bogged down in a debate about love, though it is capped by Margaret’s folk-like "Quality Love," sung in satiny tones by Graves as she gazes through a champagne glass.

The recapture scene – a virtual auto da fe of Robert -- is gripping dramatically, with its blazing torches and Margaret’s spitfire defiance. Curiously, however, this is not reflected in the music, which remains low-key, reducing the effect of Margaret’s hushed soliloquy, "Darkness, I Salute You," which immediately follows.

The slaves’ strong family feelings are evinced throughout, from the first scene with Margaret, Robert, Cilla (Robert’s mother) and the baby, to Robert’s agonized goodbye as he succumbs to the posse.

As Robert, baritone Gregg Baker’s "Go Cry Girl" is one of the opera’s most touching moments, an unspoken reference to Margaret’s unspeakable suffering at Gaines’ hands as they prepare to make their escape (and followed by the longest onstage kiss I have ever seen).

The principals were superb. Graves projected a steely girlishness, Baker strength and dignity in a big, burnished voice. Soprano Angela Brown stole the show as the wise, spiritual Cilla. Gilfry – dressed in white throughout, as was his daughter Caroline and her husband -- softened his villainous persona in his act one aria, "I Remember," sung in a smooth lyric baritone under dimmed lighting.

Tenor Mark Panuccio as the foreman Casey was a cookie-cutter sadist, as his role requires, and in fine voice. Soprano Nancy Allen Lundy as Gaines’ abolitionist daughter Caroline (modeled on real-life abolitionist Lucy Stone, who actually spoke at Margaret’s trial in Cincinnati) was sweet-voiced, comely and earnest, as was her husband George Hancock, sung by tenor Chad Shelton. Tenor Roger Honeywell made a spirited auctioneer.

Visually, the production is a beauty, a layered shadow-box frame covered with sampler designs and lit warmly by opera lighting designer Thomas Hase. The slave cabin, Gaines’ mansion, the Garner’s shed in Ohio, fly or roll in. The Cincinnati Symphony, led by Stefan Lano, sounded fabulous, with three percussionists wielding a raft of drums and wood and metallic instruments.

A whoop went up when Brown took her bow after the final curtain, having led the final, plaintive "Help Us Break Through the Night," sung by the white and black choruses as Margaret’s body was loosed from the gallows and held aloft. Her accolade was shared by the entire creative team, who took repeated bows before the standing, cheering crowd.

Technically, the repeats are sold out except for obstructed views, but tickets may become available at the last minute. For information, call (513) 241-2742.