Saturday, September 22, 2007
19th century painting of the Margaret Garner murders in the highly theatrical style of the period
The opera Margaret Garner turned out to be a very promising contender to enter the repertory rather than suffer the usual syndrome of new American operas--the well-publicized premiere production, mixed reviews, then possibly revision and a second try elsewhere, then nothing. In point of fact, the New York City Opera performances are already the second run for Margaret Garner and when I arrived at the theater in the late afternoon, there were long lines at the box office for the evening’s performance.
What it has is a good story based on an historical event that is close (and troubling still) to the American psyche, a well-structured plot with a good libretto, and a beautiful, sometimes strikingly gorgeous score that sits well for the voice and provides excellent roles that singers should want very much to take on.
Another and possibly decisive factor in favor of Margaret Garner is that it brought into the opera house a part of the American demographic that is generally under-represented there. While the United States has developed a long and distinguished line of black singers who have headlined regularly at the premiere opera houses of the world, opera isn’t an art form that draws a large black audience. But on Thursday that wasn’t the case, and the dynamic between the house and the stage was tangible and exciting. It wouldn’t have mattered quite so much if Margaret Garner hadn’t had the goods, but it did; audience reaction Thursday night was well beyond warmly enthusiastic.
The NY Times review had been mixed, feeling that major, eloquent passages were spread among others that address issues in the libretto inadequately, particularly in terms of tone. The reviewer singled out an aria early in the first act for the slave owner, accusing it of emotional manipulation and a blatant attempt to make the man appear a sympathetic character. His other big complaint was that a duet between Margaret and her husband, on the eve of their separation so he could be “rented out” to another plantation, was warmly and lyrically serene when it should have been agitated and filled with angst.
What he didn’t mention was something that became obvious in the first five minutes of the opera—Toni Morrison, in making the libretto from her novel "Beloved," was not writing grittily realistic dialog. Her language does not attempt to recreate the manner in which slaves might have spoken, nor the flowery and elaborately formal language of the planter class. In the program notes, she speaks of wanting to get into the heads of the characters; both she and composer Richard Danielpour state that while they respect Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, for example, neither of them wanted a work that depicted black Americans from a white viewpoint, but as they saw themselves. As a result, there are many contemplative moments in the score and Morrison brings to these a kind of poetic prose that allows Danielpour to explore a wide, unfettered range of emotions.
Moreover, in bringing the slave owner and his family on the stage, the libretto is careful not to present cardboard, old-style melodrama “villains.” Edward Gaines does thoroughly hateful things but is a whole, fully rounded character with his share of doubts and insecurities. His daughter and son-in-law are part of a new Southern generation deeply troubled by the prevailing attitude toward slavery and individual slaves—to keep the cast list of the opera under control and the plot manageable, they take the place of the large Northern Abolitionist contingent that became active at Margaret’s sensational trial, attempting to convince the Judges that human beings and not property were the subject of the proceedings (they failed--the conviction was for theft of property, not murder).
It is exactly this refusal to go with stereotypes or the easy way out dramatically that I think gives Margaret Garner the strength to last. Morrison states that she’s been asked why she didn’t take her years of research and write a detailed history of the Garner case instead of a novel. She had a great deal of difficulty tracing Margaret through her short, turbulent life (Margaret didn’t die of hanging but of typhus several years after her murder of the children; her husband Robert told the whole story to the press after Emancipation and the end of the Civil War).
Morrison found only ghostly references to the slaves on plantation lists, with no names, merely a listing like, female aged 17, not insane, not physically deformed, not weak, not troublesome—so much of what they weren't but little or none of what or who they actually were. She invented Margaret’s death by suicide on the gallows because Margaret clearly showed a desire to escape slavery by this method when the trial was over and she was being transported by riverboat to another plantation. She leapt over the side with another of her children in her grasp during a winter storm, but both were rescued and returned to servitude. It was this determination to escape by whatever means, no matter how extreme, that led Morrison to novelize the story in order to examine Margaret in psychological depth.
The production was smart, beautifully directed and performed with Tracy Luck as a luminous Margaret, Gregg Baker a tower of strength as Robert, and with a close to star performance by Lisa Daltirus as Margaret’s mother-in-law Cilla. I suspect that Margaret Garner will "have legs" and be seen in other houses around the country in years to come.
Raspberries are ripening at a couple of pints a day now. Picking them is one of the pleasures of the late afternoon these days when the trees shade the berry patch and the bees work the new flowers that come constantly on the bushes. They take little notice of us, they and we each going about our own business without bothering each other.
The pictures are of one of the berry clusters and of the little stand of Christmas trees we planted next to the raspberries and blueberries. One of the larger ones may be the tree in the new house for the holidays this year.