Chicago Classical Review » » COT’s ‘Quamino’ premiere, uplifting story undone by weak book and music
By Lawrence A. Johnson
Are the new operas still being worked on or developed?
Such were the thoughts of one seated at the Studebaker Theater on Saturday night for the premiere of Map of Quamino Errollyn Wallen’s new opera was commissioned by the Chicago Opera Theater and will have its world premiere until May 1.
Map of Quamino is “loosely inspired” by SI Martin’s novel, Incomparable world. The storyline involves the story of Juba Freeman, a fiddle-playing American slave who won his freedom by fighting for the British during the Revolutionary War. He arrived in London after the war as a free man and befriended his friend Quamino, also a former slave, who worked as a cartographer. Juba meets and falls in love with the beautiful Amelia Alumond, a member of London’s black upper class whose family despises poor Juba. He steals clothes and a ring to make an impression on them at a wedding reception for Amelia’s sister where he proposes to Amelia. His theft is discovered, however, and the disgraced Juba is thrown into prison. He is rescued by the friendly sea captain who brought him to England, but Amelia leaves him for another of her class, driving Juba to despair. But his faithful friend Quamino has saved his money to buy a violin in Juba and finds him a job as a musician. The opera ends on a hopeful note as a determined and invigorated Juba pledges to work hard and succeed.
The story is historically significant, compelling, and ultimately encouraging. And who doesn’t love a (rare) happy ending at the opera?
Unfortunately, Map of Quamino marks yet another COT misfire, let down by a weak libretto and immemorial music that fails to reach the opera’s dramatic high points.
The general arc of Deborah Brevoort’s libretto makes sense, but with the exception of Quamino almost all the characters are two-dimensional or, in the case of the Alumond family, board-like caricatures of the smug and insensitive wealthy. . Juba’s romantic pursuit of wealthy Amelia quickly turns into a boring domestic comedy-drama. And, for some inexplicable reason, our hero’s non-progress is intercut with repeated scenes of the debauched sex vendors of Fleet Street, including a chubby dominatrix gleefully whipping her clients.
Although clearly inspired by Sweeney Todd, such scenes fall completely flat, being more gritty than funny or sexy – Wallen possessing nothing like Sondheim’s light touch to elevate such proceedings. Likewise, in the scenes at the Alumond mansion, Wallen’s echt-rococo harpsichord music and silly trills for the wealthy family are so cartoonish that it becomes impossible to take the characters or the story seriously. Juba’s confrontation with Quamino about his indentured status being no different from that of a slave provided the only real dramatic spark of the evening.
But the main problem is that Wallen’s music as a whole just isn’t very compelling or interesting. The score is cast in a style of gray notes with vocal lines in incessant parlando and simply loud, declamatory highlights. The story calls for soulful tunes with musical meat that could powerfully reflect Juba’s struggles. Ending each scene with a short, determined admission from Juba and a single high note is not enough.
Despite the weaknesses of the opera, Map of Quamino at least provided a showcase for excellent African-American singers.
As Juba Freeman, Curtis Bannister did everything expected of him in the opera’s central role, singing with a rather dry tenor while delivering his top notes with apparent ease. Bannister proved to be an always forceful if not always subtle actor. (Juba takes off his shirt in one scene and Bannister’s titanium six-pack elicited whispers from several opening night viewers.) We wish Wallen had given Bannister some more substantial music to build his character, especially in key moments like Juba. jail scene.
Damien Geter clearly stood out in the cast, making his corporate debut as Quamino. The towering singer – who is also a composer – owned every scene he was in and almost single-handedly elevated the libretto’s unremarkable dramaturgy. Geter sang with a rich, imposing bass-baritone and delivered the fullest characterization as Juba’s loyal friend. Acting and moving with natural ease and authority, he conveyed the character essence of Quamino, a cartographer and ex-indentured slave who agreed to carve out a life for himself in a racist class system in his own way.
As Juba’s beloved Amelia, Flora Hawk also made an impressive TOC debut, displaying a pleasant light soprano and charming stage presence.
Great supporting cast include Keanon Kyles as the compassionate Captain Campbell, Cameo Humes as the warm-voiced Reverend Allison, and lifelong Tyrone Chambers II as the half-mad drifter Dele Piebald, who functions as a sort of truth-telling ‘holy fool’ to the proceedings.
The musical and production side was largely well served and gave this premiere as dignified a send off as the hardware would allow.
Director Kimille Howard made sure the action flowed efficiently through several scene changes over the uninterrupted 90 minutes. Danielle Preston’s period costumes effectively evoked the era, as did Steven Kemp’s minimalist stage design. Not so much Kia Smith’s mournful choreography, which brought back quirky memories of high school halftime ceremonies.
We often wanted a more varied palette of colors and dynamics from the orchestra, but that’s probably Wallen’s score rather than Jeri Lynne Johnson’s conducting. In his TOC debut, Johnson pulled off solid orchestral playing, kept things on track, and maintained an admirable balance between singers and orchestra.
Map of Quamino will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday and at 3 p.m. on May 1.
COT has announced its 2022-23 schedule: Szymanowski’s King Roger in November; by Britton Albert Herring in January 2023; and Justine Chen The Life and Death of Alan Turing in March. chicagooperatheater.org
Posted in Shows