'Koanga' at Sadler's Wells

The British composer Frederick Delius spent two years in Florida as a young man, from 1884 to 1886, where he was much influenced by the music of the African-Americans (who of course had been freed only twenty years earlier). In 1896 he composed his third opera, Koanga , the story of the love of two plantation slaves and its tragic end caused by a cruel overseer and a thoughtless slaveowner; it was premiered in 1904.

The opera is rarely performed, partly because the libretto, by C.F.Keary, is poorly written: though revisions were made to it for a production in 1972 (also used for the 1974 EMI recording) and further revisions were made for the production last week at Sadler's Wells by the Pegasus Opera Company.

The Pegasus Opera Company offers an opportunity for singers from various ethnic backgrounds to appear in a wide variety of roles, often ones for which they would not normally be cast: in Koanga they were able to improve on earlier productions by having the two main parts and many of the slaves' chorus sung by performers from a suitable ethnic background, thus avoiding the blacking-up which inevitably undermines the work.

Delius's music is warmly romantic, and filters the native music he heard through his own particular vision: despite any flaws in the libretto the story came over well and all the singers gave convincing and involving performances. Koanga, the enslaved African Prince was sung by Leonard Rowe and Palmyra, the slave girl who loves him, by Alison Buchanan. Adrian Dwyer was suitably villainous as the white overseer Simon Perez. The opera has a brief prologue in which an elderly ex-slave tells the story to some young ladies: in this production it was set in a museum of slavery where an attendant tells the story to a modern group of students, thus emphasizing the relevance of the subject in the modern world.

This was one of a number of events celebrating the 200th anniversary of the outlawing of slavery in Britain, and the whole company did full justice to the opera and the important background to its welcome presentation.

Posted: Mon - April 16, 2007 at 08:29 AM by Roger Wilmut          



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Published On: Mar 11, 2016 05:00 PM