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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Opera Review: A One Man Revolution

The Center for Contemporary Opera presents El Cimarrón
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Esteban Montejo, the subject of Hans Werner Henze's El Cimarrón.
The death of German composer Hans Werner Henze was one of the significant events of 2013. A cosmopolitan figure of towering influence, Henze's operas and symphonies pointed a way forward in the latter half of the 20th century, and yet his vast output for the stage remains mostly unknown to the average opera-goer.

This week, to celebrate Henze's memory, the Center for Contemporary Opera offered two fully staged performances of El Cimarrón, ("The Runaway Slave") a demanding, but compelling hybrid between opera and song cycle written during Henze's two-year residency in Cuba. This was the first performance of this score in a New York stage since 1986.

Based on the autobiography of Estaban Montejo, a runaway Cuban slave who witnessed most of the important events in the recent history of that island, this production (by stage director Eugenia Arsenia) transformed the work into an operatic monodrama, with all the dramatic focus on the tour de force performance of baritone Eric McKeever. This performance staged downstairs at Symphony Space's Thalia Nimoy Theater may have occupied a small theatrical space but was all the more intense for its intimacy.

On Friday evening, Mr. McKeever delivered an 80-minute performance of unrelenting dramatic intensity. Framing the story with episodes narrated by Montejo as an old, bearded man, he launched into Henze's demanding score with fearsome vocal technique, ranging from shouted spoken word to crooning falsetto, with those disparate styles framing a baritone voice that was rich, dark and ultimately satisfying.

As directed by Ms. Arsenia, Montejo's story  reimagines Henze's piece as an operatic monodrama. Although the set was minimal, the graphic imagery (long scarlet sheets depicting blood and slaughter, the use of machetes) help underline the serious nature of this subject and the constant threat of explosive violence. Mr. McKeever turned sweet, menacing and at times, sardonic as he reflected upon the events of this escaped slave's remarkable life, with the whole performance beating with a dark, melancholic heart.

The text of this work (based on Montejo's own account and a biography by Miguel Barnet) is unflinching in its depiction of casual racism, the brutal treatment of field workers and the violent political upheavals of the 20th century. Montejo's story offers a street's-eye view of the fall of Batista and the arrival of Fidel Castro as a political leader. Mr. McKeever related these events with frankness and intensity, adding bold vocal colors to depict the bloody upheavals and the repeated, failed attempts at American interventions.

That dark tone is underlined by Henze's music, a fearless amalgamation of 20th century compositional ideas with unconventional percussion. Under the baton of conductor Sara Jobin, sonorities were created by the means of bowed cymbals, classical guitar and a wide arrangement of flutes. Occasionally the sun blazes forth in sizzling tropical colors, creating a light-and-dark effect with the thundering rhythms of the box drum and congas.

Rustic musical ideas are portrayed by marimbas and melodica, a kind of keyed harmonica played through a plastic hose. The music veered between bewitching melody and unrelenting attack, with the ensemble of three players exhibiting great dexterity and versatility as they followed the complex score.

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