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In Review > Concerts and Recitals


Morningside Opera, Harlem Opera Theater & Harlem Chamber Players

African-American composer Harry Lawrence Freeman (1869-1954), who figured in the Harlem Renaissance, enjoyed a certain degree of recognition in his lifetime. His opera Voodoo, composed between 1908 and 1914, received its premiere in 1928, and in 1934 he was the composer and musical director of the pageant O Sing a New Song, which was presented at the Chicago World’s Fair. A later opera, The Martyr, received a 1947 staging at Carnegie Hall. 

When it was announced that the Morningside Opera, the Harlem Opera Theater and the Harlem Chamber Players would join forces to present two concert performances of Freeman’s Voodoo at Columbia University’s Miller Auditorium, expectations ran high. At the very least, it would be a chance to become acquainted with a rare opera by a little-known American composer. Voodoo had not been heardin New York since its 1928 premiere. And this presentation was a true labor of love, representing years of restoring and editing the score. (Michael Shaw, PhD, was credited with that task.) 

It would be wonderful to report that what the audience experienced on June 26 was a revelation. Sadly, that was not the case. Freeman composed the opera to his own very lumpy libretto, which was heavy on atmospheric establishing tableaux and choral scenes but light on character development and basic plausibility. The text alternates between clumsy nineteenth-century “librettoese” (“List the poor whipoorwill, ah, trilling its lay/O’er mystic wood and vale, ah, blithesome and gay!”) and embarrassing “Negro” dialect (“Da road am dark an’ dreary, mammy/Da sun hab eased to shine/Because l’il picaninny/No longer is mine.”)

Freeman interlards his score with plenty of local flavor — a banjo and saxophone figure prominently, and there are numerous interpolated spirituals and cakewalks — but, aside from a few jazzy pre-echoes of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and foreshadowings of Max Steiner’s score for King Kong, Freeman allows his music to become bogged down in uninspired repetition. The flimsy plot, set on a Louisiana plantation just after the Civil War, concerns a pair of young lovers thwarted by a jealous rival and a voodoo curse. Its action moves in fits and starts, allowing no proper introduction or buildup of characters, but plenty of time for drawn-out dances and voodoo ceremonies.

On June 26, the scrappy-sounding orchestra, led by the tentative hand of conductor Gregory Hopkins, could not make a firm case for the music. The small chorus did its best with the material, but chorus and orchestra together tended to cover the soloists much of the time. In the most sizable female role, Lolo, Janinah Burnett made a strong impression with her deeply committed performance. She has a fine stage presence, clear diction, and a shining spinto soprano backed by amazing control. With no apparent effort, she floated melismas and pianissimos over bars and bars in a single extended breath. Unfortunately, in her lower register, the sound tended to evaporate. 

As Cleota, JoAnna Marie Ford looked lovely and poised, and sang sweetly in a rather small-scaled lyric-soprano. As Lolo’s mother, Chloe, Crystal Charles deployed an earnest mezzo in a role that required a solid contralto. With the exception of Darian Worrell, whose Ephraham revealed a pleasantly reedy, firmly-placed tenor, the male members of the cast were disappointing. As the voodoo priest Fojo, Barry L. Robinson showed terrific presence and wielded an exciting bass-baritone, but every sustained note seemed beset by a wobble. Tenors Steve Wallace as Mando and James R. Hopkins, III as Zeke both sang in strained, nasal tones. —Eric Myers 

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