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Nights at the Opera

By Steve Ramos · July 27th, 2005 · Arts Beat
Throwing out the baby with the bath water regarding the heavily hyped Richard Danielpour-Toni Morrison opera, Margaret Garner, means dismissing appreciative packed houses, community good will and the bragging rights that accompany the first commission in Cincinnati Opera's 85-year history. (Opera Company of Philadelphia and Michigan Opera Theater partnered on the production.)

Badmouthing Margaret Garner is not going to happen, at least not publicly, because Cincinnati audiences are predictably kind to a new opera that portrays a key event in our region's history. Margaret Garner is our baby, and it will be loved no matter what.

The luster is already off the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center -- the opening of which Margaret Garner was supposed to help celebrate. Without the prestige of the opera's first performances (which happened in Detroit in May), it took bushels of civic pride to make Margaret Garner's three July performances at Music Hall must-see events.

Danielpour and Morrison's opera recounts the 1856 escape and trial of Boone County slave Margaret Garner, who killed her 2-year-old daughter to prevent a life of slavery. Garner's story was the inspiration for Morrison's novel, Beloved, and the film based on it, meaning many people know the plot and players. Unlike many contemporary operas, Margaret Garner is not the least bit challenging artistically (as was, say, last summer's The Maids), which might explain its appeal to audiences.

But the dirty bathwater, the portions of Margaret Garner many would like to discard and forget, include the poorly drawn character of Maplewood Plantation master Edward Gaines (Rod Gilfry), the character with the greatest dramatic potential and opportunity to say something important about America's pro-slavery past. The set design by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg, while inspired by the colors of African folk art, was simple and almost cheap looking. Imagine what might have been done with Garner's escape across the frozen Ohio River to Cincinnati. By its first intermission, Margaret Garner felt too long. Its score of spirituals and jazzy influences is more musical patchwork than a true musical vision. Morrison's libretto fails to create emotional payoffs.

Margaret Garner can be forgiven for failing to challenge audiences with the issues of slavery and race relations. What's surprising is its failure to generate heartbreak and tears, something operas do better than any other art form.

Margaret Garner was a star vehicle created for soprano Denyce Graves, who sang the title role. To answer the question whether Danielpour crafted a few good arias for Garner or whether she made his arias good, one only has to remember this: Graves could sing the phone book and it still would be a show worth the money. Angela M. Brown dazzled as Cilla, Margaret Garner's devout mother-in-law, confirming her acclaim as Jessye Norman's late replacement in Detroit.

Even more than a work that returned Graves to Cincinnati, Cincinnati Opera celebrated a work that drew massive attendance. This opera proved that people from the suburbs and beyond can be motivated to come to Music Hall for something they want to see. Cincinnati Opera once again has its summertime crowds, but they have yet to generate the type of mass development needed to invigorate the neighborhood. The bright lights around Music Hall, largely the headlights on cars exiting Over-the-Rhine immediately after the closing curtain, prove that opportunities and challenges remain.

There are many players surrounding Cincinnati Opera and Music Hall, including Cincinnati Center City Development Corp (3CDC) and the Washington Park Community Partners. For the first time, a legitimate chance at redeveloping the neighborhood around Music Hall is taking shape. Sometime soon, Opera crowds might stop nearby for a drink or dessert and not zip home.

Onstage, hope springs from the latest of many productions of Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto. The Seattle Opera sets, while not too avant-garde, were stunning. Tenor Frank Lopardo as Duke of Mantua, Polish baritone Andrzej Dobber as Rigoletto and Russian soprano Dina Kuznetsova as Gilda, Rigoletto's daughter, made it a night to remember.

Timed with the long awaited announcement of a new artistic director, veteran recording producer Evans Mirageas, the summer's last opera ended with a bang -- one good enough for me to forgive Margaret Garner a little more.



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