“Amistad” is soon to be a name known the world over.
Few of us were taught in school about the mutiny by African captives on the Spanish schooner Amistad in 1839 and their startling victory in the Supreme Court three years later. Now the subject of a Steven Spielberg film to open next week, the Amistad affair will be obscure no more.
But that obscurity has already ended in Chicago, where Anthony Davis’ new opera, “Amistad,” had its world premiere Saturday night at Lyric Opera. A citywide history lesson seems in progress, with the opera company tirelessly reaching out to schools, the community and the press. Lyric Opera even preceded the premiere with a daylong symposium on the Amistad affair and the opera.
The coincidence of film and opera is unquestionably exploitable, and the Amistad case is, moreover, certainly pertinent to an understanding of our own times and how they got the way they are. Fifty-two Africans, Mendes from Liberia and Sierra Leone, had been captured by Portuguese slavers, but the captives, led by a handsome and charismatic 25-year-old rice farmer named Cinque, rose up in revolt and killed the ship’s captain.
Tricked by the navigator, the Mendes were taken to America anyway and arrested. Their case proceeded to the Supreme Court and was argued with persuasive brilliance by former President John Quincy Adams. The Africans were freed and allowed to return home. But the country debated the case intently. The horrors of the middle passage were dramatized in the press. And consequently battle lines for the Civil War were drawn.
“Amistad,” the opera, is responsible in its consideration of the history and the profound implications of this incident. But opera is not a particularly good medium for historical narrative, nor need it even try to be in this instance, given all the attention the film will surely receive.
To Davis’ credit, and to the credit of the librettist, his cousin Thulani Davis, “Amistad” does, in fact, try to be as much a meditation on history as a history. As a novelist, poet and journalist, the librettist may serve too many muses. But she has created a libretto of soaring poetry.
The libretto is of Wagnerian scope, though not nearly so long. Davis personifies the magic elements of African culture by adding a Trickster god, like Loge in the “Ring.” He opens the opera with the line “The unknown is my realm / calamity my kingdom.” And he closes it wonderfully: " . . . stepped on a pin, the pin bent / And that’s the way the story went.”
Another Wagnerian inspiration is the Goddess of the Waters, who arises from the ocean late in the opera and sings a magnificent aria about the relation of men to magical nature.
“Amistad” is the fourth opera by Anthony Davis. His first, “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X,” a collaboration with his librettist cousin a decade ago, was a pioneering attempt to produce a modern black opera. “Amistad” is an important next step.
Like his cousin, Davis also serves many muses. He is an academically trained uptown composer (he joins the faculty at UC San Diego next month) and a jazz musician. His music inhabits both worlds simultaneously.
Musical influences for “Amistad” range from Schoenberg’s opera “Moses und Aron” to Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew.” One example of this is the deft integration of an improvising quintet into the orchestra. But so rich are the intricacies of Davis’ music that it can get as hard to follow as Schoenberg or Miles on first encounter. Still, it is a style well suited to the librettist’s more extravagant flights of fancy.
It is not, however, so well suited to the third collaborator in this production, director George C. Wolfe, who was responsible for the Broadway hit “Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk.” The all-over-the-map libretto is fluid in its narrative, shifting perspectives between black and white cultures and between past, present and future.
Wolfe attempts to make literal Broadway sense of it. He’s clever at making split-second shifts of tableau and at moving people. He’s got a certain Broadway pizazz. But he is a novice at opera. His straightforward realism deadens gods and poetry. His attempts to include period performance styles of minstrel shows and vaudeville make a heavier music style sound downright leaden.
His design team--Riccardo Hernandez (sets), Toni-Leslie James (costumes)--also appear operatically inexperienced. The open sets offer little acoustic reinforcement. Conductor Dennis Russell Davies, who led an impressively cohesive performance, had spoken at the symposium of having to cut back the orchestration in order to hear the singers and even to cut lines of poetry that couldn’t be heard.
Indeed, the sense of pruning everywhere to fit conventional theatrical needs, rather than grander operatic ones, seems to be the opera’s most limiting factors. Davis’ vocal style in more narrative passages can sound dry and forced, as if he is trying to get too many pitches and too many ideas into too little space. “Amistad” is a drama on a broad canvas: The opera is two hours long; it probably should be four.
The superb cast is certainly appropriate for something more epic, both in its impressive size and the outstanding singing and acting. Among the most notable were Thomas Young, a dazzling Trickster; Mark S. Doss, a compelling Cinque; Stephen West, an eloquent John Quincy Adams; and Florence Quivar, a stunningly rhapsodic Goddess of the Waters. Kimberly Jones and Anisha M. McFarland, two of the captives who have arias, made significant debuts.