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Richard Danielpour: Margaret Garner (2004, East Coast premiere), Libretto by Toni Morrison, Soloists, Opera Company of Philadelphia Orchestra and Chorus, Stefan Lano, Conductor, Members of the Morgan State University Concert Choir, Dr. Eric Conway, Director, Academy of Music, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 12.2.2006 (BH)



Conductor: Stefan Lano

Director: Kenny Leon

Scenic Design: Marjorie Bradley Kellogg

Costume Design: Paul Tazewell

Lighting Design & Concept: Duane Schuler

Wig & Make-up Design: Tom Watson

Chorus Master: Elizabeth Braden

Choreographer: Patdro Harris



Cast (in order of vocal appearance)



Margaret Garner: Denyce Graves

Cilla, Robert’s mother: Angela Brown

Robert Garner, Margaret’s husband: Gregg Baker

Auctioneer: Roger Honeywell

Edward Gaines, Owner of Maplewood Plantation: Rod Gilfry

Casey, the Foreman of Maplewood Plantation: John Mac Master

Caroline Gaines, Edward’s daughter: Kelly Kaduce

George Hancock, Caroline’s fiancé: Chad Shelton

Judge 1: Roger Honeywell

Judge 2: Michael Mayes

Judge 3: Michael Riley



“Bloody pillows…under my head…wishing, praying…I was dead.”

-- Margaret Garner in Act I, Scene 1




With a stark libretto by Toni Morrison, inspired by the structural elements and emotional resonance of her 1988 book, Beloved, Richard Danielpour has created a powerful, tonal-with-no-apologies score.  The result is a wrenching piece of theater – one that deserves to be heard well beyond its premiere engagements (Margaret Garner was co-commissioned with the Michigan Opera Theatre and the Cincinnati Opera), and that ideally could convince thousands who have dismissed opera to return and give the genre another chance.  The Opera Company of Philadelphia can only be congratulated for mounting a major new piece, and for doing it the right way.


Beginning in 1856, the story details the sad path of Margaret Garner, a slave in the household of plantation owner Edward Gaines, who owns her, protects her, admires her singing – and at the conclusion of Act I, he rapes her.  In the second act, as Margaret’s husband Robert arrives to lead her and their two children to freedom, they are stopped by Gaines’ foreman Casey, who calls her a “black slut” and is then strangled by Robert, who is hunted down and killed by Gaines’ men.  As Margaret and her two children witness his murder, she makes a split-second decision to spare them from similar misery and slits the throat of one daughter, then stabs the other.  In the trial that ensues, she is charged with theft and destruction of property (i.e., her children), and when the judge asks, “And in what condition were the stolen goods found?” the bailiff replies, “Unusable.”  Margaret is sentenced to be hanged, and as she quietly waits on the scaffold with a noose around her neck, Gaines rushes in with a note of clemency from the governor, who has agreed to spare Margaret’s life and return her to Gaines’ custody if she will confess to her crimes.  As she sings, “I live, oh yes, I live!” she defiantly kicks the stool out from under her and hangs herself.

The Philadelphia cast was a strong one, headed by a supercharged Denyce Graves in the title role, lambent with passion and with gorgeous singing to match.  The final aria before she kills herself was a chilling high point, but she didn’t have a weak moment the entire evening.  The opera needs a singer who can act, thrillingly, and Ms. Graves was probably ideal for the part.  As her mother, the mellifluous Angela Brown projected strength itself, such as in Act II when she gently chides Margaret: “You have changed so.  Each time you visit I see less of you and more of a wet hen.”  Gregg Baker towered over the rest of the cast as Margaret’s doomed husband Robert, and with an equally imposing voice, making his downfall all the more touching.  Near the end, it’s not a pleasant scene when he is roped by the men of the town who are preparing to burn him, but I couldn’t help chuckling recalling one chorister later joking, “Baker could probably beat up the whole group.”




Rod Gilfry sang well and made the most of a role that could have been perilously one-dimensional, finding sympathetic notes as well as noxious arrogance.  Caroline (his daughter, sung by Kelly Kaduce) and George (Chad Shelton) were perhaps more flatly imagined as Gaines’ liberal daughter and her fiancé, who try to teach her father a different way of living, but again, both sang beautifully.  Casting was excellent even in the smallest roles, such as Roger Honeywell as a cheerful slave auctioneer, and John Mac Master as the vindictive foreman Casey.

As mentioned, Danielpour’s idiom is primarily consonant, albeit with fluctuating tonal centers.  If as one friend said, the phrases evoke the best kind of film writing, he meant it as praise, and I agree.  Invoking masters like Jerry Goldsmith, Howard Shore or Ennio Morricone is not a vote of condemnation, but the mark of a composer who knows his drama, and Danielpour summoned up plenty of gravitas and emotional weight for the scenes that needed them.  The production by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg was persuasive, with light, moveable building parts lowering into place from above, and surrounded by panels painted with a colorful African quilt motif, all with evocative lighting by Duane Schuler.  Paul Tazewell’s costumes, sprung from a palette of dusty browns, effectively marked the grim divisions between the townspeople and the slaves.  And director Kenny Leon staged the huge masses of people in ways that were always fresh, believable and never seemed to reek of those who can’t resist shuttling folks around for no apparent reason.  



The entire affair was conducted with sweep and drama by Stefan Lano, who made the most of the climaxes that Danielpour has sculpted so well, and got handsome playing from the company’s orchestra.  The vibrant singing from the Opera Company’s choral contingent was augmented by students from the Morgan State University Concert Choir, all focused and well-prepared, and dramatically fiery in the opera’s big moments.  And just to make the afternoon complete, the great Toni Morrison took the stage for curtain calls, along with Danielpour, Lano and the cast, to an overwhelming ovation.



Bruce Hodges



Photographs © Kelly and Massa Photography







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