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Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014

Autobiography of a Runaway Slave

Skylight’s rare performance of ‘El Cimarrón’

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Skylight Music Theatre started the New Year with a production of Hans Werner Henze’s chamber opera El Cimarrón, composed in 1970. Set in 19th-century Cuba, the libretto (originally in German, sung at the Skylight in an English translation by Christopher Kenee) was based on Esteban Montejo’s book The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave. It tells the true story of ideal childhood to slavery to escape into years of seclusion in the woods to brutal service in the army in the war against the Spanish.

The piece is a political commentary about slavery and the continued hardships of former slaves after its abolition, among other things. Henze’s style mixes various vocal techniques for the single cast member, from spoken word to Sprechstimme (speech-song) to brief fully sung spots. The four musicians on stage are integrally part of the drama, making constant commentary.

The performances were commendable. Baritone Eric McKeever seemed self-conscious early on, understandable in the unconventional style of writing he is asked to deliver. He warmed into the role during the performance, however, and made the most he could of it. Musicians Michael Lorenz, Scott Metlicka, Nathan Wysock and Viswa Subbaraman (who also conducted) deserve enormous credit for the lively commitment of their playing.

Avant-garde music from mid-20th century is rarely programmed, at least in the U.S., since the change away from those aesthetics that occurred in the 1980s. The spiky 1970s expressionistic sound of El Cimarrón is undoubtedly difficult listening for many in a present day American audience. Though I was fascinated with the musical landscape of the piece, I admit that I found it more interesting than moving. This story of a Cuban slave, so ripe in emotional potential, ultimately lacks dramatic punch. I think this flaw is in the piece itself, with a cool emotional distance from its subject, rather than in this production.

It is encouraging to see that Skylight is willing to take such a risk with this small production in the Studio Theatre. I just wonder if this particular adventure was worth it.  

El Cimarrón runs through Jan. 12 at Skylight, 158 N. Broadway. For more information, visit skylightmusictheatre.org.