Review: A clutch of little-known operas

Where: Prop Thtr, 3502 N. Elston Ave.
When: through Nov. 8

Classical Music Critic

Third Eye Theatre Ensemble, a company formed a year ago, is now presenting the Midwest and Chicago premiere of Mohammed Fairouz’s opera “Sumeida’s Song” at the Prop Thtr (3502 N. Elston Ave.). It is the haunting story of how a thirst for vengeance can corrupt and eventually destroy one of humanity’s most sacrosanct loves: that of a mother for her child.

The story is set in a poor Egyptian village, where Asakir has mourned her husband’s murder for 17 years. Her son Alwan was two years old at the time of his father’s death and immediately sent to be raised by family in Cairo with villagers being told he had died. Asakir‘s son writes to his mother to say that he will visit her in the village and the mother waits anxiously for him with her sister Mabrouka. When the arrival time draws near, Mabrouka’s son Sumeida is sent to the train station to bring Alwan home.
Alwan’s life in Cairo has filled him values different from his mother’s. When she tells him it is time for him to avenge the death of his father by killing a member of a rival family, he is shocked not only by the request but the fact that his mother lacks proof that the man marked for death is actually the murderer. He refuses her mission and leaves her to return to Cairo.

Asakir, in a lather of rage and despair, insists that her nephew Sumeida must now kill Alwan to protect the family’s honor. Sumeida complies, bringing yet more misery to the family: Sumeida is a murderer, his mother is despondent over his destroyed life, and Asakir’s vengeance has deprived her of her future and her humanity.

Third Eye offers a powerful production of this disturbing story with committed performances by all four singers. Amanda Runge’s Asakir slowly draws out this woman’s obsession with revenge, reaching heights of mad passion. Anne Slovin’s Mabrouka is imbued with dignity and her support for her sister is demonstrated by singing with a loving touch. Jesus Alfredo Jimenez offers a Sumeida with just the right amount of masculine authority. Matthan Ring Black creates an Alwan who is believably shocked by what he finds in his village yet never pompous or unkind in his disagreement with his mother.

Nearly all the action takes place in Asakir’s modest hut and director Rose Freeman establishes this as both a rustic home but also a claustrophobic environment, one where Asakir’s grievances have festered for years. Freeman’s open-minded approach never creates cartoon villains; instead she offers us a chance to see how decent people can destroy their own lives by harboring and nourishing unthinking hatred.

Costume designer Brian Stanziale clothes the women in simple and attractive flowing robes. There are touches of macramé, which powerfully reinforces the notion of how long-held traditions of vengeance and tight-knit family relationships over generations are intertwined.

Fairouz’s music is dramatic and evocative, at times searingly intense. The singers are supported by Jason Carlson on piano and Maya Shiraishi on violin, in a special arrangement created by Carlson which blends the piano version of the opera with some of the full orchestral score reduced into the violin. Both musicians are valuable collaborators, adding to the success of the production.

“Sumeida’s Song” is a one-act opera of about an hour. Some performances, such as opening night on Friday, which I attended, have a short concert of music by Fairouz before the opera. This provided a valuable introduction to the composer’s work and made not just for a full evening, but a thoroughly enjoyable one.

The South Shore Opera Company of Chicago has made a splendid contribution to the understanding of the wide variety of music Black composers have brought to opera. On Sunday night they presented a concert which offered arias and duets written by three different Black composers, extracted from four separate operas.

Sopranos Jonita Lattimore, Elizabeth Norman and Anisha McFarland, all fine soloists who sometimes perform together under the name TreDiva, were the singers tasked with bringing this music to life. Most of the audience were hearing this music for the very first time and it was clear that they were well pleased with the introduction.

The first set was devoted to music of Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799), who, before he was knighted, was known as Joseph Boulogne. The excerpts from “Ernestine” (1777) and “The Anonymous Lover” (1780) displayed Saint-Georges’ Mozartian sound, and the one duet in the group had delicious harmonies.

The middle set featured extracts from “Voodoo” (1917) by Harry Lawrence Freeman (1869-1954), an early work from the Harlem Renaissance. Here we heard music that clearly demonstrated the composer’s command of the classical music of his day but it was heightened by his incorporation of some elements of more popular genres.

The final section of the concert highlighted the new opera by Nkeiru Okoye, a young New York-based composer. Her “Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom” premiered in New York last year under the baton of Leslie B. Dunner, the music director of the South Shore Opera Company and the night’s master of ceremonies. This work has immediate appeal. While from the excerpts one might conclude that this is a gospel opera strongly influenced by contemporary classical music (instead of the other way around) it is no weakness. The vocal writing is engaging, forceful and quite beautiful.

All three soloists embraced the music, offering skilled and passionate performances. Dana Brown ably accompanied them at the piano.