Of the Sea; libretto by Kanika Ambrose, music by Ian Cusson, premiered at the Bluma Appel Theatre on Saturday evening. It’s a co-production of Tapestry Opera and Obsidian Theatre and it has its origins in Tapestry’s 2018 LibLab which led to a co-commission from the two companies.
It’s really opera conceptually on a grand scale though it’s presented in more of a chamber format. The subject matter is epic. It concerns the legend of the kingdom on the bottom of the ocean made up of people dumped from slave ships in the Atlantic. Against this backdrop we have the quest of Maduka, a recent arrival on the seabed, to regain the surface so that his god, Chukwu—the Sun God, can reanimate his infant daughter. Though discouraged by Queen Dfiza, who understands the true nature of what he, she and the others have become, he leagues with Queen Serwa and her dissidents in an attempt to reach the surface. It fails, of course, and we close on the baby Binyelum, now grown, playing in the waves off some idyllic Caribbean resort. Slavery is no more but the sea is eternal.
The production, directed by Philip Akin, is visually gorgeous. Strands of seaweed hang down from the fly in a palette of greens and purples. Enhancing Rachel Forbes beautiful set is a clever lighting plot by Steve Lucas; especially effective during the futile efforts to break to the surface. It’s further enhanced by stunning video projections by Laura Warren, which really do evoke the power of the ocean. It’s also dramatically effective with excellent acting from all the principals and the small ensemble.
The libretto is a proper opera libretto. It’s not too wordy but it tells the story clearly and, frankly, heartrendingly, and it leaves space for some actual numbers. This opera has a couple of big arias, some choruses and some duets and trios, not just a relentless stream of accompanied recitative. The music works wonderfully well with it. It uses a nineteen piece orchestra which allows Cusson a full range of colours which he exploits to fine effect. The score is not only colourful, it’s dramatic and evocative. I wonder whether any composer has captured the essence of light and water better since Peter Grimes?
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It’s also eminently singable and the all Black cast makes the most of it. Jorell Williams, as Maduka, sings powerfully and with some beauty and is emotionally engaging. The Queens make an interesting contrast. Suzanne Taffot, as Dfiza is dignified and wise, singing with a full but restrained tone. Chantale Nurse is more dramatic and angrier as the rebellious Serwa. She gets one very fine aria that she sang in full dramatic style. There are fine cameos too from Justin Welsh as Izunna who guides Maduka to Serwa, and Paul Williamson, as Yaakar who announces Maduka’s arrival to Dfiza. Finally there’s a brief, but charming, appearance by Ruthie Knut as Binyelum. The small supporting ensemble is excellent too.
Jennifer Tung conducts and does an excellent job of coaxing a sound from the pit that belies the size of the band. She also supports her singers well. I don’t think there was a point where surtitles were absolutely necessary, welcome though they were.
Of the Sea is a very considerable achievement that deserves to be seen more widely. It has the grandeur to carry a full size orchestra and chorus, should some large company have the ambition to go that route, but it works extremely well in its existing chamber format which should make it a viable proposition for more productions on the scale we experienced on Saturday.
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TAPESTRY OPERA / OBSIDIAN THEATRE
MAR 25 to APR 1 2023
CUSSON / AMBROSE OF THE SEA
CAST AND CREATIVE TEAMS
Libretto Kanika Ambrose
Composer Ian Cusson
Director Philip Akin
Music Director Jennifer Tung
Set & Costume Designer Rachel Forbes
Projection Designer Laura Warren
Lighting Designer Steve Lucas
Head of Wardrobe & Soft Props Alex Gilbert
Movement Director Hollywood Jade
Make-up Designer Ty Wilson
Wig Maker Jacqueline Robertson Cull
Repetiteur Rachael Kerr
Young, Gifted & Black Assistant Director K.P Dennis
Maduka Jorell Williams
Serwa Chantale Nurse
Dfiza Suzanne Taffot
Izunna / Baritone Justin Welsh
Yaakaar / Tenor Paul Williamson
Binyelum / Soprano Ruthie Nkut