The Beauty of Pain: Amistad gets a potent second lease on life

I’m very glad that Anthony Davis’s Amistad got another chance to succeed. Its first outings in Chicago and New York a decade ago underwhelmed the critics. One of them described it as a “well-done school pageant.” But Spoleto Festival USA commissioned Davis to revise the opera, and the end result — imaginatively staged at the new and improved Memminger Auditorium — got a well-crafted and effective first performance Thursday night.

Anybody who’s seen the movie knows the basic story: a Spanish schooner’s cargo of “slaves,” newly nabbed from Africa, takes over the ship, which then runs aground near New York. A legal battle ensues, led by ex-president John Quincy Adams, who eventually secures the Africans’ freedom.

One of the apparent improvements in the opera is the flow of action. As Davis told us in a pre-performance talk, he strove for a sense of “fluid motion,” helping his “ship” sail seamlessly from scene to scene. The often surreal staging lent a certain dreamlike aura to the proceedings, a sense that was reinforced by the action shifting back and forth in time.

The music needed no improvement. Rich and vital, its ever-shifting rhythms and constant allusions to Afro-American idioms (blues and jazz) and Afro-Cuban styles kept our ears happy and our toes tapping. You couldn’t whistle all of the tunes, but it was mostly very catchy and accessible. Moods and styles changed according to the scene and character at hand, as in the noble altruism of the music accompanying Adams.

The freshly refurbished Memminger made for a dandy new venue. Something of the wide-open, building-length staging environment that helped make Spoleto’s 2005-2006 runs of Mozart’s Don Giovanni so radical is still there. But the expanded bleacher-style audience seating scheme now compresses the central stage area from both ends of the auditorium, keeping the action less “scattered.” Most of the main characters perform on a large, raised oval platform, with room for the orchestra off to one side. Still, there is plenty of vacant wall space for additional sets and supporting action.

Performances, as we’ve come to expect at Spoleto, were first-rate. The mini-orchestra (under 30 players) dug into Davis’s engaging and complex score with infectious gusto and impressive skill. There were a few small instrumental bloopers, but I bet those’ll go away as Amistad’s seven-performance festival run continues.

Conductor Emmanuel Villaume looked busier and more animated on the podium than I’ve ever seen him before, as he kept his minions in lock-step with the music’s constantly shifting meters. As he quipped to me during intermission, “I felt like Shiva!” (alluding, of course, to the many-armed Hindu goddess). He also kept his chorus, the fabulous Westminster Choir, in sonorous accord. Their magic moment came as sub-choirs of men and women slowly approached each other, each singing in a different key, a half-step apart. Truly spine-tingling stuff.

And, ah, the soloists. The festival managed to put together a sizeable team of excellent voices to fill the many singing roles, and there were few, if any, vocal weak spots. There’s no way I can cover the whole 23-name cast list here, but there were some real standouts, especially among the lead roles. The ambiguous nature of the Trickster God (one of two resident African deities) was portrayed with cocky flippancy by tenor Michael Forest. Soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams delivered some very expressive singing as the other deity, the Goddess of the Waters. Gregg Baker — as Cinque, the African captives’ leader — impressed mightily, with a booming bass voice that matched his big, buff physique. An emotional high point was Margru’s (soprano Janinah Burnett) keening aria telling of her capture by slave-traders. Baritone Stephen Morscheck was a solemn and dignified John Quincy Adams.

The drawbacks of this sort of multi-directional staging comes from the muffled sound you sometimes get when a character is singing away from you and the limited rear view of the action. The opera also seemed to lose some of its momentum in the second act’s courtroom scenes. But the tedious moments were few, short, and far between. I only yawned once. All else was in good order. Director Sam Helfrich saw to a memorable production. Caleb Hale Wertenbaker’s uncluttered sets served their purpose well. Peter West’s lighting design was effective, and Kaye Voyce’s mixed bag of costumes (African, period and modern) generally worked.

There’s been widespread banter about the delicious irony of bringing this opera to Charleston: a one-time hub of the slave trade, where the place they used to sell human beings remains a tourist attraction. But in his talk, Davis stipulated that this is not a preachy social docudrama. As with any art that deals with old pain and deep emotion, he aims to make his listeners think and ask questions.

And, as he also pointed out, such ancient injustice can indeed have a bright side. Even our domestic “holocaust” of slavery produced beauty, like the blues and jazz that have become America’s unique contributions to the world of music. And it was Davis’s very American music more than anything else that made this an evening that will haunt me for the rest of the festival. Don’t miss it: this sort of event is what Spoleto is all about.

Amistad • Spoleto Festival USA • $25-$150 • 2 hours • May 25, 27, 29, 31; June 2, 7 at 8 p.m. • Memminger Auditorium, 56 Beaufain St. • (843) 579-3100

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