Making History: The Time of our Singing at La Monnaie – De Munt

Defoort – The Time of our Singing

Delia Daley – Claron McFadden
William Daley – Mark S Doss
David Strom – Simon Bailey
Jonah – Levy Sekgapane
Joey – Peter Brathwaite
Ruth – Abigail Abraham
Lisette Soer – Lilly Jørstad
Students – Chloé Bryan, Issaïah Fiszman, Eva Rose Thys
Pianist – David Zobel

Chœurs d’enfants et de jeunes de la Monnaie, Jazzensemble, Kamerorkest van de Munt / Kwamé Ryan.
Stage director – Ted Huffman

La Monnaie – De Munt, Brussels, Belgium.  Friday, September 17th, 2021.

The delayed premiere of Kris Defoort’s latest opera The Time of our Singing, took place earlier this week.  I was able to attend the third performance of the run.  Based on the 2003 novel by Richard Powers this, Defoort’s latest opera, illustrates the journey of the family of an African-American woman and German-Jewish physicist, who had lost his family in the Shoah, from Marian Anderson’s 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial, through to the riots following the police assault of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1992. 

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

Defoort, and his librettist Peter van Kraij, have created a compelling narrative, one that crosses decades chronologically, taking in major events in US history.  The score also constantly crosses genres musically.  The Strom family is one where music is a constant presence – both sons, Jonah and Joey, are talented musicians.  In time, Jonah becomes a professional tenor, specialized in early music, while Joey uses his talent to teach children how to sing.  The daughter, Ruth, becomes implicated in social action, becoming a member of the Black Panthers and loses her husband to police brutality.  Defoort illustrates the passing of the time musically, with references to Bach, Puccini, Purcell, and others woven into his score, written for chamber orchestra and jazz ensemble.  I left the theatre, not entirely convinced by Defoort’s score.  Thematic ideas seem underdeveloped, picked up and quickly discarded, the diversity of cultural influences in the score makes for an interesting sound world.  Yet the way that the musical material seems so fragmented, as if afraid to take an idea to a logical conclusion, makes the score feel episodic and lacking in direction.  Where Defoort does take ideas and develop them, the evening takes wing and becomes utterly compelling.  For instance, when Jonah visits Joey and Ruth’s school, where Joey is teaching his students a version of Purcell’s Music for a While, which then develops into a full-on jam session, the music takes on a personality of its own, the rhythmic impetus irresistible and the melodic material taking life.  Indeed, twelve hours later I still have it on the brain.  Word setting is not always perhaps the most inventive – characters frequently switch between speech and song, but usually the song follows the same melodic patterns.  When the orchestration was particularly thick, there were times where the principals were inaudible from my seat at the front of the Parterre.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

Ted Huffman’s staging deals with the complexities of changing eras, as well as the presence of characters who had already passed away, by setting the action in an empty space, with tables ranged around the stage.  These were used as occasional props or thrown around when it came to the Los Angeles riots.  Direction of the principals was naturalistic, characters engaging with each other in life, or walking around in a trance-like state when dead.  It had clearly been fluently rehearsed.  Video (Pierre Martin) was used to add historical context or images of Jonah and Joey as children.  The staging worked well enough, but did feel like something of a workshop perhaps, rather than a finished project – but again, this was an intelligent way to be able to portray the passing of time in an efficient way. 

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

Musically, the cast and the orchestra had clearly been exceptionally prepared by Kwamé Ryan.  Ryan led a reading that pulled out not only the full range of instrumental colour in Defoort’s score, but also its constantly evolving rhythmic textures.  The quality of the playing was exceptional, every section on superlative form.  The noted accompanist, David Zobel, was a constant presence on stage as the Pianist.  He occasionally sat down to play a few notes at the piano, but other than that, it was difficult to judge the impact of his role and his playing – although Zobel did all that he had to do with great professionalism. 

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

It was a delight to see Claron McFadden back on stage as Delia.  In her sixtieth year, her soprano sounds as luminous as ever, the beauty of tone utterly ravishing.  Her musicality is also unwavering, dispatching long, melismatic lines with instinctive awareness of flow and the registers absolutely even – the top still glorious.  The way McFadden soared over the textures in the ensembles was something really special.  Simon Bailey sang David in a resonant baritone with careful attention to text.  The role sits right in the middle of the voice, neither especially low nor high, and Bailey sang throughout with care and attention.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

As his children, Levy Sekgapane sang Jonah with a bright, focused tenor, bringing bel canto sensibility and ease to his music.  Peter Brathwaite sang Joey in a handsome, firm baritone, again with full attention to the text, rendering the spoken text with as much musicality as the sung.   In the role of Ruth, Belgian actress Abigail Abraham made quite the entry, rapping about her involvement in social action and she also sang her lines where necessary in a smoky mezzo.  Mark S Doss brought an appropriately world-weary, yet still resonant, bass to the role of Delia’s father William.  Lilly Jørstad sang Lisette Soer with a warm, velvety mezzo.  There was also a superb trio of students, singing with wonderfully uninhibited joy in their scene. 

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

The evening was rewarded with a generous ovation from the audience.  There is much to enjoy in this work, not least the inventiveness of Defoort’s score at its best.  Yet far too often, the score feels meandering, ideas left barely developed.  When they are, the score takes wing and pulls the audience in.  This is an important story, one that needs to be told – a reflection on race, on the connection between the African-American and Jewish peoples, and that however much progress a society makes the violent manifestation of prejudice will always be present.  Despite my reservations, it would be hard to imagine a better performance of this work musically – the orchestra on phenomenal form, the singing throughout of the highest quality, and led by a conductor who clearly believed in it.

One comment

  1. Hey, really enjoyed this one. I realize you tend to foucs on the singing, which is great and one of the things that makes your reviews unique, but I do appreciate when you focus on the actual composition as well. cheers! Stephen

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