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Angel of the Amazon
Mathes, Caruana, Isaac, Lee, Palmer; Rubio, Barr, Candelaria, Jabara, Mack, Russell, Ryan, Vann; IONISATION New Music Ensemble, Waldman. English text. Albany Records, Troy 1323/24 (2)
Sister Dorothy Stang, the protagonist of composer/pianist Evan Mack’s new opera Angel of the Amazon, has to face down a lot of obstreperous men in the course of her thirty-six-year mission to educate and liberate a community of peasants in the Brazilian Amazon. There’s Luiz, the often resistant peasant leader, who understandably questions his Catholic faith in the face of drought and destruction and frequently locks horns with the unfailingly fervent Dorothy. He’s the good guy; the bad guy is Vito, the head of a logging company, who fights for rights to the land in question, at one point setting the villagers’ homes on fire. Corrupt police officers also figure in the action, and even the Bishop’s hands aren’t entirely clean. This is all before we even consider the two hired gunmen who murder Dorothy when the threat she represents becomes too great.
Mack, who wrote his own libretto (based on a true story), is obviously inspired by these characters, and he does a good job of differentiating them musically; he seems to have calibrated their respective levels of menace and venality. The police chief has an intense, expressionistic love aria to his gun. Vito makes his presentation to the Bishop in a driving passage with slashing accompaniment that is one of Mack’s edgiest and most imaginative. The scenes with the gunmen feature adventurously grinding chromatic writing and rhythmic jaggedness; Mack knows how to turn up the unsettling dissonance as a scene intensifies.
By contrast, Sister Dorothy’s music is in the more tonally grounded realm of Barber, Menotti and Carlisle Floyd. Relentlessly virtuous and self-sacrificing, Dorothy is often less interesting than the threatening men around her. This, however, is not the fault of soprano Caitlin Mathes, who sings the part with a remarkably inviting, directly communicative delivery, retaining both clarity and lyricism into her high register.
The men are also outstanding. Clarion-voiced baritone José Rubio plays Luiz as a sometimes embittered but always colorful and sympathetic provocateur. Adam Russell, as Vito, creates a fully-fleshed villain and even garners some sympathy in his centerpiece scene. Justin Ryan, as the Bishop, displays an intimidating, cavernous voice; Douglas Jabara and Elex Lee Vann also turn in strong performances as assorted heavies.
Temporally, the opera is somewhat confusing: each scene takes place one day earlier than the previous one, moving backward from February 12 to February 6, 2005. That much is fine, but in addition, these scenes alternate with flashbacks that move forward in time, starting in 1969, with Dorothy’s first day in the Amazon. The flashbacks leap ahead through the decades, ending back on February 12, 2005, returning us to the opening scene. Got it? Fortunately, all the scenes function well as self-contained dramatic units.
The ensemble is used well, in the rousing “Brazilian Farmer’s Song” and in the mournfully beautiful choral “Lacrymosa” during the torching of the village, among others. The singers in this Encompass New Opera Theatre production, which was recorded live in May 2011, are accompanied by IONISATION, whose seven members — two violins, two violas, marimba, guitar and piano — play with great expressive vigor and gratifyingly pure intonation. Mara Waldman conducts with skill and precision; Albany Records continues its admirable commitment to worthy contemporary American operas.
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