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Amistad.

Amistad, by Anthony Davis and Thulani Davis, at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

In case anyone missed it or was trapped in a cave, December was Amistad month. Within less than a week, we saw premieres of a new opera and a Steven Spielberg motion picture based upon the historical tale of the 1839 African slave rebellion on the Spanish slave ship La Amistad. For those without newspapers or electricity, Amistad relates the story of fifty-two Mendes slaves from Sierra Leone, who mutinied, then sailed to America, where they were imprisoned. Following much behind-the-scenes political and judicial wrangling, and after an argument before the Supreme Court by ex-president John Quincy Adams, the captives were granted their freedom and allowed to return to their homeland.

It would be difficult for any Hollywood depiction touching on racial issues not to seem simplistic or even disingenuous, viewed against the broader, much more complex tapestry of racial unease in the land. Yet, such lapses in Spielberg's film seem minor indeed when set against the catastrophe that is the opera Amistad, which had its world premiere at the Lyric Opera of Chicago days before the movie opened. In fact, the ER. onslaught in Chicago was nearly as extensive for the opera as it was for the film, with symposia, lavish pre-publicity by both major dailies, and educational outreach to "up to 20,000 area schoolchildren."

One would think it almost impossible to create a version of this stirring tale that is completely devoid of passion and intensity, but, miraculously, the composer Anthony Davis and the librettist Thulani Davis (the composer's cousin) have managed to do just that. The opera provides an almost parallel structure to the film, opening aboard the ship and continuing on to the final Supreme Court decision. Unlike the film, however, with its deft pacing of what is an essentially undramatic series of courtroom maneuvers, the opera falls flat. Turgid and devoid of dramatic impetus, the Davises' opera lurches from one stiff and static tableau to another with much wooden speechifying by the characters, the production a kind of panegyric pageant to the slaves' inherent nobility rather than an unfolding of the actual events. Lest we forget the culpability of all white people in this version of the story, John Quincy Adams emerges as morally ambivalent at best, and the recurring chorus of townspeople, Christian abolitionists, and journalists wears grotesque, piglike masks, reminiscent of some of the less prepossessing Wizard of Oz munchkins.

Amistad is as great a mess structurally as any opera I've ever seen, with the tale of the mutiny and courtroom proceedings continually interrupted by scenes--depicting African deities--that serve no dramatic purpose. With a complete lack of forward momentum or dramatic arc, Amistad is a series of disconnected tableaux, each adding nothing to what precedes or follows. Florence Quivar's solo scene as the "Goddess of the Waters" seems to exist for no reason except to give Florence Quivar a star turn, and Thomas Young's repeated appearances as The Trickster--a kind of African deity/ Greek chorus providing superfluous commentary on the action--provoked titters from the audience with his insinuating, snakelike body language. As the slave leader, Cinque, the bass Mark S. Doss cut a noble figure with his resonant singing, and Stephen West's fine bass-baritone and considerable stage presence made more than a caricature out of John Quincy Adams.

The lack of theatrical impetus would be less fatal if there were more meat to Anthony Davis's music. Though occasional jazz-tinged passages surface, Davis's score is mostly a pallid and unvaried monochrome of ceaseless counterpoint, lacking even a rudimentary connection to the dramatic events it is presumably depicting. The gray, anticlimactic music for Adams's Supreme Court summation lacks the slightest bit of grandeur or dramatic weight, sounding like John Adams--the composer, not JQA's father--on laudanum. Thulani Davis's repetitive words rarely stray from the banal.

The Lyric Opera gave Amistad a first-class mounting, proving the house's reputation yet again as one of the class acts of contemporary operatic production. George C. Wolfe's direction kept the disjointed action moving fluidly with graceful transitions, and Riccardo Hernandez's sets were the opera's most striking element, with the gleaming, varnished courtroom most notable. The conductor Dennis Russell Davies is one of today's most underrated musicians, and the attention and care he lavished on Anthony Davis's score was more than it deserved. Davies elicited characteristically professional excellence from the superb Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

Lawrence A. Johnson is a regular contributor to the Chicago Tribune and Fanfare magazine.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Johnson, Lawrence A.
Publication:New Criterion
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Feb 1, 1998
Words:752
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