Do you want to hear a classic American opera performed by some of the original artists of the premiere, and barely a year later? Rush to catch one of the last two Opera Carolina performances of Richard Danielpour’s opera Margaret Garner. At the end of the April 20 performance in Belk Theater, a full house roared its approval. Toni Morrison, a winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature, has crafted a spare skeleton of text that the composer has fleshed out idiomatically with music that sears the soul. Sandwiched between two moving choral prayers are arias, duets, a lullaby, and African and Gospel call-and-response ensembles. The rich, varied, and eclectic orchestral palette encompasses string writing worthy of Strauss or Puccini along with the rhythmic verve of a composer at ease with elements of blues and jazz.

Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved was loosely based on the 1856 trial of the fugitive slave Margaret Garner. Known as the American Medea, Garner, horrified at the thought of her children being returned to slavery, seized a butcher knife and nearly decapitated her daughter. Her case threw the contradictions of slavery into sharp relief; slaveholders wanted her tried for destruction of property, while abolitionists wanted her tried for murder. For her libretto for Danielpour’s opera, Morrison drew upon the newly recovered history of the case. Some characters have been combined and events, telescoped. The most serious departures from history are in the third act, but the results make for clearer and more dramatic situations. All the real historical background, along with much about the opera, can be found at [inactive 1/09].

The opera was commissioned by Michigan Opera Theatre, Cincinnati Opera, and the Opera Company of Philadelphia. Margaret Garner premiered May, 7, 2005, in Detroit, followed by productions in Cincinnati, in July, 2005, and in Philadelphia, in February 2006. Opera Carolina’s production in Charlotte is only the fourth. All performances have been under the baton of Stefan Lano. Director Cynthia Stokes also directed the Cincinnati and Philadelphia productions. The gorgeous unit set, modified as needed by architectural details or bare trees, was designed by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg; it has been used for all four productions. Michael Baumgarten designed the brilliantly effective lighting. The cast on stage seemed to have stepped out of Ken Burns’ Civil War film, thanks to Paul Tazewell’s costume designs – although people of that era were rarely so well fitted.

Mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves created Margaret Garner and has sung the role in all four productions. She was in terrific voice for the Charlotte performance, easily filling the hall at any and all dynamics; she carefully modulated her voice to convey tender emotions, anxiety, or the emotional ravages of slavery. Her stage presence embodied incredible strength of character. Aptly cast as her husband Robert Garner was the towering dramatic baritone Eric Greene, playing the tender lover and the justly raging avenger. As Robert’s mother Cilla, the deep dramatic soprano of Angela Renée Simpson was a long-suffering rock of strength.

A mixture of boos along with hearty applause gave testimony to the all-too-convincing acting of the two most villainous characters. It almost seemed a shame to have such roles so beautifully sung. As the rapist and slave-owner Edward Gaines, lyric baritone Michael Mayes clothed some pretty nasty stuff with a warm tone. Robust tenor Mark T. Panuccio brought a welcome edge to spice the unrelenting evil of the slave foreman Casey. Inna Dukach’s pure soprano was welcome in the role of Gaines’ daughter Caroline. As her husband George Hancock, Jonathan Boyd’s mellow tenor highlighted an elevated and Romantic outlook. Minor roles were strongly cast, with Dale Bryant doubling as the auctioneer and one of the three judges, joined by Dan Boye and Jeff Monette. Even W.C. Fields could not have faulted supernumeraries Courtney Everett and Breana Friday as Margaret’s children.

The opera’s two choruses – one all white, one all black – play major roles. The choral preparation was outstanding; Mark Tysinger was responsible for the Opera Carolina Chorus, and Jacqueline Robinson groomed the Charlotte Contemporary Ensemble. Members of both ensembles provided fodder for the racially separate choruses. Choral directors will want to raid Danielpour’s score for their recitals, as will individual mezzo-sopranos and baritones, at the very least.

In the pit, members of the Charlotte Symphony played with tight ensemble and considerable virtuosity under Lano’s crystal-clear arcs. There were three prominent solos, two episodes for Concertmaster Calvin Ovidiu Lupano, several for oboist Hollis Ulkay, and a delightful off-stage one for trumpeter Michael Miller. Danielpour’s score has some of the finest writing for four French horns outside of Richard Strauss, so kudos to the section, led by Frank Portone.

Instead of wasting gas in the line to get out of the parking deck, attend one of Opera Carolina’s Postludes with Director James Meena. On April 20, composer Danielpour answered informal audience questions and recounted some of the work necessary during the nearly four-year gestation period of the opera. He said the most critical quality of a composer is “to listen… to really listen.” He said that while he could not possibly describe how he composes, he can hear when it is right!

Note: Margaret Garner continues through 4/23. See our calendar for details.