Review: Slaves to the rhythm
Opera: Koanga, National Opera House
For its opening gambit, the 64th Wexford Festival has unearthed Koanga, an early work by Frederick Delius. Since its 1904 première, this plantation opera has been virtually ignored.
Yet, director Michael Gieleta points out in the programme that, in dealing with 'individuals tragically trapped between two mutually exclusive cultures', Koanga is one of the most avant-garde works of its time.
Besides, Delius uses African musical idioms and plantation songs in his score and the idea of writing for black voices is also quite novel for the period, pre-dating, as it does, both Showboat and Porgy and Bess.
The opera is set in Louisiana, where estate manager Simon Perez is sexually harassing mulatto Palmyra. A new batch of slaves from Dahomey brings royal prince Koanga who soon finds the housemaid irresistible. Death for each of them becomes the inevitable outcome.
James Macnamara's enclosed set design is initially rather drab but flaps open to reveal a more verdant aspect beyond, while ingenious effects produce a balcony, parlour and prison. Act III offers a more open scene but Ian Sommerville's lighting here cloaks Koanga's voodoo rituals in forbidding mystery.
Delius' often luscious score is uneven and, while the once popular dance movement La Calinda retains its charm, I wait until Act III for the music to sustain my interest. And one cannot blame empathising conductor Stephen Barlow who guides Koanga with a gracious hand.
In the title role, US baritone Norman Garrett is physically and vocally striking and, with particular stage presence, his interpretation commands respect and admiration. US tenor Jeff Gwaltney is also strongly cast as Perez while South African soprano Nozuko Teto engages solidly with Palmyra's undulating lines.
There is stentorian delivery in Christopher Robinson's overbearing estate owner Don Jose while the rest of the large cast contribute firmly to Koanga's revival. The festival chorus also provides a stalwart body.
However, for me, this meandering Delius remains less than satisfying.