"Ankles circled with a chain. Skin broken by a cane. Bloody pillows under my head. Wishing, praying, I was dead." are the opening words of the protagonist in the opera Margaret Garner by Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison and acclaimed composer Richard Danielpour. This emotionally charged work about a woman who chooses death for her beloved children and herself over slavery made its East Coast premiere February 10, 2006, at the Academy of Music by the Opera Company of Philadelphia.
Commissioned by three American opera companies: Michigan Opera Theatre, Cincinnati Opera, and Opera Company of Philadelphia, the production, directed by Kenny Leon and headlining mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves in the title role, made its world premiere May 7, 2005 in Detroit, Michigan, to a sold-out house filled with many first time operagoers. The excitement in bringing in new audience, particularly in the African-American community, continues for the Philadelphia production. Librettist Morrison speaking to Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer Annette John-Hall on opening night said, "Black people never had a reason to go the opera before. Now they do."
What works well for this opera, which is a first not only for Toni Morrison and Richard Danielpour but also for Kenny Leon who is known as a theater director, are the outstanding cast, the metaphorically engaging set, and the provocative costume choices. What disappoints are the character development and the music.
The two-act, six-scene opera running three hours with one intermission tells the story of Margaret Garner and her family, which includes her husband Robert (baritone Gregg Baker) and her mother-in-law (dramatic soprano Angela Brown). Pitted against Margaret's story is a thinner depiction of slave master Edward Gaines (baritone Rod Gilfry), his daughter Caroline (soprano Kelly Kaduce) and son-in-law George Hancock (tenor Chad Shelton).
When the story begins, Edward Gaines shows up shouting "Hold on! Hold on!" to claim his deceased brother's plantation before the property and all the slaves can be auctioned away. As Margaret sings the opening lines quoted above, the Slave Chorus sings a contrapuntal round, "No more, no more" indicating their despair as slaves who can be separated from their family members and treated as property. By contrast, Edward Gaines' timely appearance to claim the plantation provides the slaves relief. Their gospel-inflected song "a little more time" with an odd pop music accompaniment quickly gives way to a profile of the long errant Edward who the townspeople wanted to forget because of his defilement of a girl from a respected family in the community. Edward's aria admitting he left home "under a cloud of suspicion" could easily play in a sentimental Broadway musical. The upshot is that the audience knows Edward is a sexual predator for whom there will be no sympathy even though he is a widower raising a well-mannered daughter.
Marjorie Bradley Kellogg's set of interleaved walls rising into a roof suggests this production of Margaret Garner is about home — coming home, being at home, raising a family in the comfort and protection of home. Metaphorically the set resonates in the viewer's subconscious and does a tremendous job of putting the violence enacted on stage (Edward's rape of Margaret, Robert shooting and killing of Edward's sadistic foreman, the townsmen beating and chaining Robert) into perspective. The message is that enslaved women and men have the same desire for home and family as the people who would enslave them. Robert Garner quotes Abraham Lincoln to his wife as they are on the run from the plantation, "A house divided cannot stand."
As compelling as Toni Morrison's novel Beloved is and except for main character, the libretto of Margaret Garner, which is an adaptation of the same historic story that inspired Beloved, fails to provide three-dimensional characters. Most perplexing is the last scene of the opera where Edward runs to the gallows shouting again, "Hold on! Hold on!" Margaret is about to be hanged for destroying his property – Margaret's children. Spurred on by pleas for Margaret's life from his daughter Caroline, Edward proclaims that the judges have granted clemency and remanded Margaret to his custody if she will repent her "monstrous crime." Margaret's mother-in-law Cilla steps forward and sings "Thank you, sweet Jesus… You will live, my angel." Margaret then kicks away the platform she stands on and hangs herself, choosing the freedom of death.
While it's true that Morrison does an outstanding job showing us who Margaret is, none of the other characters achieve Margaret's complexity. Edward continues to say he is justified by law to punish Margaret. Although his daughter's compassion for Margaret moves him to intercede and halt the hanging, he will never be a Savior. One expects him to continue raping women, especially those who are slaves on his plantation. One would expect him to put Margaret back in that red dress and play his scarlet woman. In keeping with all the townspeople who are dressed in black and white costumes that almost, except for the women's hoopskirts, make them look like New England Puritans, Edward in his ironic white clothes is just another take on Simon Legree, the vicious plantation owner from Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin.
More vexing, however, is the character Cilla. Not once does she cry out mournfully for her dead grandchildren. Rather she thanks Jesus that her daughter-in-law, whom she calls an angel, is saved from hanging. In this way, Cilla is also a replica of the stereotype all loving and accepting Mammy depicted in Uncle Tom's Cabin.
The character of Robert Garner blooms when he protects his family by killing Edward's foreman and attempts to lead Margaret and the children out of slavery into the free state of Ohio. Morrison makes him the voice of reason in the dark night as he tells Margaret about the new President who doesn't "hiss like a snake" and how he sees her being safe from the touch of another man, their children going to school and him having a job with pay. Robert meets his end when Edward and his men capture him. But worse, Robert's name is not spoken by his wife or his mother following his death and these omissions deny the completion of Robert as a man and as a character of substance in this opera.
In the Cincinnati Opera production, Margaret Garner was cut much to Danielpour and Morrison's dismay. Speaking to the Main Line Times in January 2006, the composer complained that the Cincinnati Opera cut muscle and bone from the work. In the production by Opera Company of Philadelphia, all the cuts were restored. Unfortunately, there are many places where the opera stalls. The most labored section occurs after Margaret murders her children. A lackluster musical interlude plays as the lights gradually increase showing Margaret trying to come to terms with her situation.
In stepping back from the dramatic action, what one notices the most is that music does not illuminate the characters and their raw emotions. There are lovely ballads such as Margaret's song about her baby that begins "Sad things, far away" which was rendered poignantly by Ms. Graves but the music which includes gospel, folk, jazz, pop, and classical does not provide the glue needed to make Margaret Garner a success.