Multicultural opera company Pegasus marks the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery with Delius’ criminally neglected opera Koanga, set in the plantations and swamps of Louisiana.
Its absence from this, or any other British stage, for 35 years make this a timely as well as topical revival and nothing short of a must-see event.
Sadly, the four performance run at Sadlers Wells is all too short.
Delius was the most cosmopolitan of Englishmen, hailing from Yorkshire and living variously in Florida, Germany, Norway and France. Along the way, he picked up many influences, including the song of black plantation workers in the southern states of America, the harmonies of Edvard Grieg and the verismo style of contemporaries such as Mascagni and Puccini. The most obvious early influence was the God of Bayreuth and Koanga has some very Wagnerian-sounding chords, almost breaking into The Ride of the Valkyries towards the end of Act Two.
Koanga‘s dramatic structure lurches and jerks. It is a romanticised tale of plantation owners and rebellious slaves, of the human spirit transcending inhuman conditions. To many, the only familiar part is the exuberant dance sequence La Calinda, the culmination of the wedding between the eponymous Prince/Voodoo Priest and the lovely Palmyra, which stands alone as a concert piece although itself too seldom programmed.
Martin Andr‘s small orchestra can’t produce as full a sound as Delius’ rich lush score deserves although it grows stronger as the evening progresses, with some lovely brass playing in the final act. The Act One quintet gels, with some fine work from the principals and strong choral backing, but overall the singing is variable, with a mature vibrato-laden Palmyra from Alison Buchanan and stiff Koanga from Leonard Rowe.
If the singing leaves something to be desired, the acting is worse. There’s some amateurish chorus work, a less than menacing overseer (Adrian Dwyer) and two slaveowner’s henchmen straight out of the pirate scenes in Peter Pan. Director Helena Kaut-Howson makes the mistake of not trusting the composer’s musical interludes. They may be slightly long (certainly for the simple staging here) but they are not helped by the over-active quartet of dancers preventing any sense of reflection, and the sound of the dry ice machine pumping out clouds of unnecessary stage mist mars the final orchestral sweep.
The transposition of the brief Prologue and Epilogue, from a plantation verandah to a museum with a group of present-day schoolgirls eager to learn about their heritage, is a nice touch but a piece of inspiration that is all too rare in Kaut-Howson’s staging.
Whatever the weaknesses of the production, we have a great deal to be grateful to Pegasus for, in allowing us to hear Delius’ glorious score in its proper context. It would be nice to think that this production will bring about a renaissance for this son of Bradford and the major companies will take up the lead. Last year, English National Opera produced Vaughan Williams’ Sir John in Love and it’s time they did the same for this more deserving work.