The wealthy suburban community of Greenwich, CT is a place where diamonds are in no short supply. Yet there are still some diamonds of artistic excellence hidden in this seaside town, including the shockingly well-done production of Hans Werner Henze’s The Runaway Slave (El Cimarrón) by the Greenwich Music Festival. This most likely will be the only time I will ever see this rarely performed gem live, but after experiencing the awesome power of the work last night, I am happy that I’ve seen this amazing piece realized to its greatest potential.
El Cimarrón is based on the incredible real life story of Esteban Montejo, born into slavery in Cuba in 1860 and living 113 years through some of the most tumultuous times in Cuban history. Mr. Montejo’s story was luckily captured in writing by reporter Miguel Barnet’s 1968 book, Biography of a Runaway Slave, and is one of those examples of truth being stranger, and indeed more interesting, than fiction. After escaping from the sugar plantation on which he was a slave, Mr. Montejo lived in the Cuban jungle for years, leaving only when he heard the cries of his fellow slaves echoing through the jungle announcing their freedom.
This ‘freedom’ was the first in a series of events that eventually led to the Cuban Revolution, where Mr. Montejo was a dedicated fighter and hero of the battle of Mal Tiempo. And yet once again, after fighting for his freedom from the socio-economic bondage of pre-revolutionary Cuba, Mr. Montejo again found the post-revolutionary life unfulfiling (aside from the abundance of beautiful women), and left Havana for the countryside where he lived out the rest of his life peacefully, but always ready with his trusty machete for whatever new battle may come his way.
The piece, which, oddly enough, was commissioned by Benjamin Britten, a close personal friend of Henze’s, premiered in 1970 at the Aldeburgh Festival in Suffolk. Titled “A Recital for Four Musicians” by Henze, the score includes only minimal stage directions and notation that is highly improvisational, in an odd way leaving a blank slate for other artists to make this work their own while still presenting Henze’s own unique musical and theatrical voice.
This production is a shining beacon of minimalism, using sparse staging and simple, elegant and realistic costumes by Austin Scarlett (yes, he of Project Runway fame) not because the production team didn’t have access to grander possibilities, but because this was the most genuine and affecting way to share their vision. This production of The Runaway Slave is essentially a Tanzoper, and the addition of dancers adds a level of depth to the story that makes this piece almost entirely new.
Ted Huffman, a gifted young director who will be a Merola Fellow this summer, in tandem with the choreography wunderkind Zack Winokur tell Mr. Montejo’s story through a lens of darkness, with much of the stage often covered in shadow and the fantastically gifted dancers moving in a way that suggested pain and oppression. Stage and lighting designer Marcus Doshi must use more lights per square foot of stage in this production than any work I’ve ever seen. The myriad visual landscapes that he creates play with shadow and light wryly, always bringing a vivid scene to the otherwise sparse stage.
But really, the stage is sparse only if you don’t count the innumerable percussion instruments on which this piece relies. International Contemporary Ensemble percussionist Nathan Davis handles the herculean feat of this work with grace and precise intensity, driving the piece along with everything from marimba, to gongs, to Caribbean steel drums. Guitarist Daniel Lippel uses his guitar in every way that could be dreamt up, both as a percussion instrument and as a stringed instrument, even at times using a cello bow to create a sound of strangely pleasing eeriness. It would be a shame to call Claire Chase simply a flutist as she is listed in the program, as she plays nearly a dozen instruments throughout the course of the evening. At times on flute, bass flute, piccolo, slide whistle, and even the rarely heard pianica, she uses traditional playing and advanced techniques to shape phrases and sounds that delicately weave into Henze’s soundscape of a score.
Baritone Eugene Perry sings as the narrator of the piece and the voice of Mr. Montejo, telling his story in the past tense while the dancers re-create in a dreamlike fashion the action of the story. The occasional interactions with the dancers suggest the still vivid physical and emotional impression Mr. Montejo’s memories have on him, while Mr. Perry’s muscular body and weathered but still resonant voice portray the aging slave turned revolutionary perfectly. His bright, engaging eyes have the ability to portray the torment of slavery as well they show the joy of lustful liaisons.
But the true essence of the work was wonderfully described in the little talk that conductor and musical director Robert Ainsley gave just before the performance. “This is a work about the search for liberation. For el Cimarrón it was for liberation from slavery, for Cuba it was for liberation from the influence of outsiders, and for Henze it was for the liberation from the techniques of all others so that he may create his own individual musical voice.” Mr. Ainsley bravely conducted what can best be described as a ‘visual’ score to make each scene resonate with sounds and themes that beautifully illustrated the text.
There are two more shows remaining on Saturday June 12th and Sunday June 13th, but judging from the full house on opening night, tickets will be hard to come across. But if you do find yourself in need of an escape to the suburbs and actually manage to procure a ticket, this is an experience that very well may be once in a lifetime.