- The Washington Times - Monday, February 18, 2008

The fact that “The Doctor of Alcantara” has fallen into obscurity is not, perhaps, one of the great musical mysteries of our time. This frothy little operetta was a smash hit in the 1870s, but to modern ears its melodies are hopelessly banal (there’s even an aria called “Oh, Woe is Me!”) and its drama thin; fun to listen to, but about as deep and enduring as a Britney Spears marriage.

But context is everything, as they say, and “Alcantara” was revived (in concert form) for the first time in a century on Saturday night at Strathmore, as part of one of the most thoughtful and unusual musical premieres this season. Titled “Free to Sing: The Story of the First African-American Opera Company,” the production wove music, photography and narration together to tell the true but long-forgotten story of a heroic group of blacks in Washington in the years around the Civil War. With few resources but their own voices, they formed first a choir, and then the Colored American Opera Company, the first opera group in Washington, and raised $75,000 putting on “Alcantara” to build a church and school.

It’s an inspiring piece of local history, and Strathmore brought together some exceptional talent to tell it. Written by Shelley Brown and Michael Rosenberg and narrated by the rich-voiced David Emerson Toney, “Free to Sing” evokes the period more as dramatic sketch than history lecture, illustrated with the kind of spirituals and classical religious music that the original choir would have sung.

Opening with a dramatic processional of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” the Morgan State University Choir turned in solid if rather low-key accounts of five other spirituals, two movements from a simple but lovely Mass written by John Esputa (the original choir’s music director), a bit of Haydn and a surprisingly moving “Te Deum” from that master of the march, John Philip Sousa. Through it all you could hear the deep hopes and even deeper fears of the time.

The real excitement came in the second half, which was devoted to the Opera Company’s music. The group had an all-too-short life — it only put on seven performances of “The Doctor of Alcantara,” written by the emigre Julius Eichberg in 1862 — but was nonetheless able to build St. Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church with the proceeds. And it’s easy to understand its success; “Alcantara” is a light souffle of a work, whipped up from the usual batch of thwarted young lovers, meddlesome parents and lots of free-floating hormones, but it was brought off on Saturday with such ease and relaxed humor that it was impossible to resist.

There was fine comic interplay and often superb singing from Awet Andemicael as Isabella, Kenneth Gayle as Carlos, Carmen Balthrop as Lucrezia and Millicent Scarlett as Inez, as well as an engagingly over-the-top vocal turn by narrator Toney. But much of the evening’s pleasure came from the Post-Classical Ensemble and its expressively kinetic conductor, Angel Gil-Ordonez, who turned in lively, detailed and almost mischievous playing, making this work seem as fresh as it must have more than a century ago — back in the first heady years of freedom.

***1/2

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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