Angel of the Amazon: A New Music Drama
Evan Mack's Angel of the Amazon is running in its world premiere at New York City's Jerome Robbins Theater at Baryshnikov Arts Center until May 22, 2011. The Dresser caught this energetic new music drama under the baton of Mara Waldman on May 15 in this 13-performance production by Encompass New Opera Theatre.
Remarkably for such a dark story concerning the assassination of the American missionary, Sister Dorothy Stang, the music soars into the body and uplifts the listener's spirit. Director Nancy Rhodes has out done herself with an exceptionally talented cast and a finely coordinated collaboration between her directing skills and her selected design artists--John Michael Deegan & Sarah Conly (scenery, projections, lighting) and Angela Huff (costumes). This collaboration has produced a mise en scene that tracks like one finely composed painting after another.
The story opens on the day Sister Dorothy (mezzo Caitlin Mathes) is murdered by two hired guns sent by Vito (tenor Adam Russell), a disgruntled owner of a logging company. The history of the sister's work with the poor who are now farming land that once belonged to Vito's father is then told in various out-of-sequence periods of time identified by text projections. This aspect of jumping around in time is the weakest part of the overall work.
Standout performers for this production are Caitlin Mathes who fills the small stage with powerful light when she sings (she makes a very credible religious leader) and José Rubio as Luiz, the leader of the poor farmers who are desperately trying to eek out a living on land that does not always get enough rain. Rubio's acting is also equal to his singing. Near the end of the opera, Rubio as Luiz reacts to Sister Dorothy's admonishment that his gun will get him killed. First he is enraged that the sister "questions his heart, his dream." To the Dresser, the character of Luiz is drawn quite realistically. In the past, Vito's men have set fire to Luiz's village as well as kidnapped and beaten various farmers, so there is no reason to think that turning the other cheek would ever work with Vito's thugs. However, this aria also shows Luiz mellowing to the good work by the Sister as Luiz celebrates how the idealistic but fearless and hardworking missionary believes in Luiz and his people.
The all-cast number entitled "The Brazilian Farmer's Song," which is sung in Portuguese (and is the only number not in English) is the most colorful piece of the show. It achieves this both in its musical syncopation, dancing, and its projections of the lush Amazon forest along with the strong colors of the players' costumes. This music also is reprised at the end of Luiz soliloquy about Sister Dorothy and there is an effective use of a screen lit from behind that shows Luiz's compadres filing by as they go to work in the fields.
Other notable special effects included the fire that burns down Luiz's village and torrential rain that seemed would not only flood the village but also the first few rows of audience seating. While the Dresser never felt wet, the projected rain seemed so real she kept thinking she should dig out her umbrella and use it.
In a confrontation with her bishop over loggers decimating the land her community is trying to redeem, Sister Dorothy tells the bishop, "Kill a tree, kill a person." Lyubomir Nikolov's poem "Fire" captures the intensity of the Sister's feeling for the Amazon forest and the people who lived on that land.
No matter how you lay it on the fire
wood is beautiful
when it burns.
Alone, it is still beautiful.
But I like the brotherhood of twigs, logs, leaves.
I like the fire to remind me of the tree
before the ax stripped it.
And as in some strange camera obscura
where nature is reversed,
I see the tree replenish itself in the flames.
Down below, in the ashes, shine leaves.
Up from them grow the branches,
then the trunk,
and roots glide out through the chimney
to stroll among the onrushing clouds.
by Lyubomir Nikolov
translated from the Bulgarian by Jane Cooper
published in Cabin Fever: Poets at Joaquin Miller's Cabin, 1984-2001
edited by Jacklyn Potter, Dwaine Rieves, Gary Stein
Copyright © 2003 Lyubomir Nikolov