Sunday, February 14, 2016

Kurt Weill's Lost in the Stars at WNO

Kurt Weill's last work Lost in the Stars is set in South Africa, but in the new Washington National Opera's production it could be set in the United States or India any other country beset with racial and class divisions. Weill's opera - I would call it a musical - based on Alan Paton's 1948 novel Cry, the Beloved Country explores common humanity among divided people that emerges in the face of tragedy.

I read Paton's book as a teenager and I'd never seen or heard Lost in the Stars before Friday night, so I could watch the WNO performance with an open mind - almost. I lived in South Africa for four years in the early 1980s when apartheid was still firmly in place and that experience could not be entirely ignored.

Sean Panikkar as The Leader in WNO's Lost in the Stars

The first thing I noticed in the WNO performance was the scarcity of the distinctive South African accent except for the valiant efforts by Wynn Harmon, Paul Scanlan and Thomas Adrain Simpson to emulate it. All three were portraying white South Africans: farmer James Jarvis, his son Arthur and the judge. The black singers spoke in accents that could have been from anywhere on the continent or in the United States, but I would not immediately place it in South Africa.

The lack of insistence on the authentic accent works in favor of this production. The more I watched, the more I was reminded of Ferguson and Black-Lives-Matter movements in America, and less of the segregated South Africa I knew. The opera's distinctly American music idiom added to the sense that the story unfolding on the stage is taking place in the United States.

In the Maxwell Anderson's adaptation of Paton's novel black pastor Stephen Kumalo travels from his small village of Ndotsheni to Johannesburg to check on his sister Gertrude and his son Absalom. The former has become a prostitute and the latter a robber.  But when Absalom accidentally kills the son of white neighbor James Jarvis during a botched robbery, the reverend is faced with a dilemma: would he prefer his son alive and a sinner, or dead and righteous. 

Eric Owens owned the role of the rural minister whose family, or "tribe," fell apart after most of it moved to Johannesburg in search of a better life. Owens has distinguished himself in Wagner roles, but it is hard to imagine anyone else doing a better Kumalo than he did.  He shined in the title song Lost in the Stars.

Soprano Lauren Michelle was a charming Irina, the pregnant lover of Kumalo's son Absalom, whose inner strength overcomes her shyness and helps her deal with the ultimate loss. Michelle was a little stiff in her first major aria, but warmed up considerably by her next big number, Stay Well, in the second act.

Eric Owens and Caleb McLaughlin in WNO's Lost in Stars

Other outstanding performers were Caleb McLaughlin as Kumalo's grandson Alex and Cheryl Freeman as fun-loving city girl Linda. They lit up the stage with energy and charisma. One couldn't but wonder how high McLaughlin (sparkling in the Big Mole song) will reach when he grows up. He is already more confident on the stage than many adults. His talent was especially obvious in a joint scene with a peer portraying Jarvis's grandson Edward. Tenor Sean Panikkar was an attractive and striking Leader, although I could not quite understand what his role in the play was  (narrator?). But that's just me. There were also a lot of characters listed in the playbill that I could not identify on the stage. Aleksey Bogdanov as Burton (prosecutor?) was a commanding presence in the courtroom scene. Manu Kumasi's Absalom was earnest, but not quite convincing.

The challenge of Lost in the Stars is in its structure, which is part spoken play and part musical so it requires competent actors as well as singers. The singing in this production was magnificent, with moments of real brilliance and an excellent chorus throughout. But the acting abilities were uneven. Owens's included. Poignant as he was in the moments of tragedy, the acclaimed bass-baritone failed to produce the variety of expressions and nuances required to keep the spectator breathless throughout the performance. The scene in which he comes to plead with James Jarvis to intercede for his son was simply awkward.

Eric Owens and Wynn Harmon, grieving fathers in WNO''s Lost in Stars
In the end, the action of Lost in the Stars actually seems like it is taking place in South Africa. The shared tragedy brings the two grieving fathers together. Their connection, as well as the black and white children playing together in the final scenes, hint at a wider national reconciliation, which for me is more believable in the South African context than any other one.

When they dismantled the apartheid in the 1990s, South Africans established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that invited victims of egregious human rights violations to give statements. Perpetrators of violence also could testify and request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution. Many culprits expressed sincere remorse and many were publicly forgiven by their victims. The process is widely regarded as a key step to a successful transition to democracy in South Africa. Lost in the Stars is a good reminder that we could benefit from it too. 

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