University of Hartford "H" Magazine - Winter 2019

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Sunday Afternoon at the Opera - Delius: Koanga

08/28/2022 1:00 pm
08/28/2022 4:30 pm


Sunday Afternoon at the Opera host Keith Brown writes:

Every year on the last Sunday in August I make sure to broadcast one of the seven operas of Frederick Delius (1862-1934), in part because I think the music of this "The English Debussy" so beautifully evokes the mood of the lazy, hazy end of Summertime. Since I began lyric theater broadcasting back in the Summer of 1982 I have gone through several complete cycles of the Delius operas. This Summer we come back to Koanga (1904), in which Delius fashioned a Creole tragedy for the lyric stage based on American writer George Cable's book The Grandissime. Delius introduced the element of the conflict between Christianity and the Voodoo religion into the libretto he himself prepared. Delius spent a crucial period in his artistic development in the American Southland. He was tremendously inspired by the hymn singing of the humble Black folk.

Koanga premiered in Germany with the libretto translated into German by Delius' wife Jelka. The English language libretto was never entirely satisfactory to begin with, and the opera has suffered for it. Koanga, for all its lush, humid atmospheric beauty, was quickly forgotten. The Washington Opera Society revived it in 1970 with a revised and improved wordbook. Two of the vocal principals in the staged revival sang for the world premiere studio recording made in Kingsway Hall, London and released through EMI on Angel LPs in the United States in 1974. Baritone Eugene Holmes held forth in the title role as Koanga, the African prince and Voodoo priest. Soprano Claudia Lindsey took the role of the mulatto slave woman, Palmyra. Bass Raimund Herincx portrayed Don Jose Martinez the plantation owner. Sir Charles Groves conducted the London Symphony Orchestra and John Alldis Choir. That was the recording of Koanga I first presented on the Delius Sunday, August 25, 1985, and again on Sunday, August 28, 1994.

In EMI's vaults there exists another previously unreleased live recording of Koanga made at the Camden Festival in England in 1972. Again Groves leads the London Symphony. Sonically, it is slightly inferior when compared to the studio taping. It has, however, the excitement and immediacy of the live performance in its favor, and it has the lead voices of Holmes and Lindsey. An Italian record label, Intaglio, obtained access to the Camden Festival tapes, and issued the 1972 English staged production of Koanga on two compact discs in 1993. That's the recording I drew upon for the Delius Sunday presentation of 1996 and repeated in broadcasts in 2003, 2009, and 2016. You'll hear it again this Sunday, followed by a recording of Delius' masterpiece, Sea Drift (1908), a setting of the poetry of Walt Whitman for chorus, orchestra, and baritone soloist.