nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 11, 2007
Margaret Garner, a new American opera by Richard Danielpour and Toni Morrison, tells the story of a slave in Kentucky, just before the Civil War, who eventually is driven to slay her own children rather than allow them to grow up as slaves themselves. It's based on an actual woman, also named Margaret Garner, whose history inspired Morrison's novel Beloved and also a painting (in 1867) called The Modern Medea. And indeed, the structure of the piece in many ways echoes Medea's, showing us an inexorable journey from (relative) happiness and security to the depths of despair that could lead a mother to murder her own offspring.
The key departure from the classic myth is that it's not the actions of Margaret's husband that lead to the tragedy, but rather the actions of an entire society, and in particular those of a calculating, opportunistic, crass white man—Edward Gaines, Margaret's master/owner. Morrison's libretto reminds us frequently that the African Americans in her story—humans to themselves, each other, and us—are nothing more than property to Gaines and those in control in the ante-bellum South. The ugliness of that mindset is hard to assimilate nowadays, but Morrison and her collaborator, composer Danielpour, give it such emphasis here that we begin to comprehend how it might have felt to live your life knowing that someone else regarded you as so much chattel to be used up or sold at will. This is the significance of Margaret Garner as drama.
Yet, notwithstanding this, the opera's scenario is surprisingly apolitical. It begins after the death of Margaret's original owner, with an assemblage of slaves worrying about what will happen when they are auctioned off. At the last minute, though, Edward Gaines arrives. He's the estranged brother of the late owner, and he's asserting his claim to his inheritance. The slaves are relieved, for now, because Gaines's presence means the plantation is remaining intact; they won't be parceled out to new and diverse owners.
Margaret is a field slave married to Robert, whose mother Cilla has been on the Gaines place for a very long time. But Edward takes a fancy to Margaret and re-assigns her as a house slave. Gaines's daughter, Caroline, takes a liking to Margaret, and in the most powerful scene of the opera, which takes place following Caroline's wedding, we see the young white woman ask her slave for an opinion about the nature of love. Margaret, knowing her "place," refuses to answer; but when she thinks she's alone she gives voice to what love means to someone who knows no other form of freedom in her life. It's a very affecting aria, and Tracie Luck makes it the evening's emotional high point.
But Margaret's fortunes are about to change. Act I ends with Gaines leading Margaret off to what we're certain will be a rape. In Act II, with Gaines's oppressive rule more strongly felt, Robert announces that he's made plans for Margaret, their children, and himself to escape. They're pursued by Gaines, of course, and a tragic conclusion follows.
Margaret Garner surprised me by being more concerned with the emotional state of slavery than the political/economic state; it feels singular among the (few) American dramas about African American life before the Civil War in this regard. Yet paradoxically it feels cold and remote most of the time; Danielpour's music, which has rich Copland-esque cadences in places, and Morrison's lyrics are often heightened to the point of inaccessibility, while Tazewell Thompson's direction seems flat and lacking in energy. Anthony Salatino is credited as choreographer, but it was hard to tell what he specifically did—I kept longing for the characters to really move, but they almost never do. I think both Thompson and Salatino were hampered by Donald Eastman's lumbering set, which consists of an enormous frame with very little within it.
I enjoyed Luck as Margaret, Gregg Baker as Robert Garner, and Joel Sorenson as Casey, their nasty overseer. Baker in particular has huge stage presence and a big booming baritone that he doesn't really get to put to enough use in this score. Similarly, I thought Luck was denied an important moment at the show's climax: Margaret never explains to us why she has to sacrifice her children, and I thought she needed to, musically.
My companion especially admired the singing of Lisa Daltirus as Cilla, a role that feels somewhat underwritten.
Margaret Garner didn't ultimately succeed in touching me the way I hoped it would, but it provoked a lot of valuable insight and thought. The program includes a great deal of stimulating background material that I recommend reading after you see the opera. And dipping into Morrison's oeuvre seems appropriate as a response to the work; and I'd love to see more drama exploring this chapter of America's past as honestly in the future.
The icing on the cake was the opportunity to see Morrison herself on stage at the curtain call. Talk about Beloved.