Slaves in opera take a range of cardboard forms: captive princesses, European naïfs in the Orient, downtrodden patriots, Hebrews, and serfs. But Margaret Garner, the title character in an earnest, tragic trudge by Richard Danielpour and Toni Morrison, aspires to be more than a figure of stock oppression. On the stage, as in history, Garner demands to be seen as a full human being, nourished by nobility and violent love. Then, it was the society of laws that failed her; now it is the character’s creators.
The historical Garner was a black woman who in 1856 escaped with her family from a Kentucky plantation, then killed her daughter rather than let her be recaptured. The court case that followed hinged on whether Garner should be returned as property or tried as a person, and she immediately became an emblem of America’s original sin. Today, the composer explains in an expansive program note, her story can symbolize so much more: LBJ’s War on Poverty, Hurricane Katrina, the war in Iraq—even the Bush administration’s expansion of executive power. If only he had written a work that could bear the weight of so much relevance.
After several years in workshops and a 2005 premiere at the Michigan Opera Theater, Margaret Garner has found its way to New York City Opera in a spare new production by Tazewell Thompson. In operatic time, the work is still dewy fresh, yet there is something prematurely venerable about it—a stately sense of outrage, mail-order melodies, portentous chords you’ve heard before even if you haven’t.
Morrison drew on this story for her 1987 novel Beloved, and subsequently collected a Pulitzer and a Nobel Prize. In the book, Morrison wrote of Sethe, who escapes slavery but not the consequences of killing her child. How, the novel asks, has slavery deformed love if a mother can think it a tender act to cut her baby’s throat? When the living have never fully lived, how final is their death? The novel is constructed like a tone poem, out of overlapping flashbacks and fragmentary motifs that build slowly into a theme.
Structural intricacy doesn’t work well in opera, however, and here Morrison wisely produced a straightforward two-act story, fashioned from explosive, singable syllables. Her sense of musical cadence is as honed as her ear for spoken dialogue, and I can imagine Danielpour contentedly cracking his knuckles at the prospect of setting such lines as “Damn your marble eyes, damn your slithering soul!” That is an aria right there—or could have been, if the composer had felt more confident expressing seismic rage. But he relies too much on an urgently chugging orchestra, punctuated with rattles of percussion, and on a style of melody that might be called Plantation Puccini: spirituals mixed with prettily plaintive arias.
The opera opens with a slave auction in the 1850s. The chorus’s hammered syllables and clipped rhythms—“How much? / For picknies and mammies and breeders and bucks?”—proclaim the creators’ desire to face such horrors unflinchingly. Flinch they don’t. Act One unfolds in the leisurely description of socially sanctioned degradation. Margaret’s husband, Robert, is rented out to a distant plantation as she gets dragged into her owner’s bed. Can such things be rendered more vividly on the stage than they are in simple statement? Maybe, but not here. The attempt to make Margaret Garner trenchant, brave, and new falters because Danielpour’s frame of reference is neither black experience nor black music but other opera. He has a model for every mode: black tragedy (Porgy and Bess), hymns of the oppressed (Nabucco), salt-of-the-earth sincerity (Cavalleria Rusticana), even the premise of a lord claiming his servant’s wife (The Marriage of Figaro).
Margaret Garner does accomplish one thing, and that is enrich the repertoire of major parts for black singers. The title role, written for Denyce Graves and taken over at City Opera by Tracie Luck, demands a mezzo with a tragic stage presence, visceral lows with which to utter her fierce “No more!,” and the ability to transfigure fury into beautiful tone. Luck’s fortune at getting the role outpaced her ability to sing it. Her unprepossessing heroine was easily overshadowed by the very fine Gregg Baker as Robert and by soprano Lisa Daltirus, who endowed the all-suffering old slave Cilla with the opera’s truest emotions.