An Island’s Natives Resist, In English, Spanish, Yiddish

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Set in a Havana nightclub, ‘Hatuey: Memory of Fire’ is based on a Yiddish poem and has a score by Frank London of the Klezmatics. The libretto by Elise Thoron combines Yiddish, English, and Spanish. (Photos: Maria Baranova)
By Anne E. Johnson

MONTCLAIR, N.J. – In 1931, Asher Penn wrote the epic Yiddish poem Hatuey, about a Taíno chieftain who tried to defend Cuba from Spanish invasion, only to be burned at the stake in 1512. Penn, a Jew from the Ukraine who fled to Cuba following a pogrom, empathized with the persecution of native Taínos. Frank London‘s new opera, Hatuey: Memory of Fire, seen opening night Sept. 14 at Montclair State University’s Alexander Kasser Theater, gives a fictional account of how that epic came to be written.

Jennifer Jade Ledesna plays a Cuban Taíno cabaret singer.

London, best known as trumpeter for the Jewish world-music band The Klezmatics, renames the poet character Oscar and has him fall in love with a Cuban Taíno cabaret singer called Tinima, who inspires him with tales of her people’s hero. Elise Thoron‘s libretto combines Yiddish, English, and Spanish. Hatuey (pronounced, approximately, “ah-too-WAY”), produced by the Music-Theatre Group and presented by Peak Performances, had its 2017 premiere in a significantly shorter version at the Opera de la Calle in Havana.

This is a show about parallels, about history repeating itself. Not only does the Hatuey story echo through Oscar’s life experience, but the Cubans Oscar meets are again fomenting rebellion, inspired by their ancestor. A floor-to-ceiling silver tinsel backdrop served as both festive nightclub atmosphere for the 1931 scenes and other-worldly shimmers as Hatuey’s story was played out (design by Camellia Koo, lighting by Devorah Kengmana). The 20th and 16th centuries swirled together (stage direction by Mary Birnbaum); as Tinima relates Hatuey’s legacy in Spanish, Oscar visualizes the tale in Yiddish verse.

Nicolette Mavroleon as Kasike, costume design by Oana Botez.

The result is a Latino company singing in Yiddish, and at no time does it come across as a gag or a conceit. In fact, those sections drawn from the Penn epic poem are by far the most stirring. The company of a dozen or so singing dancers, costumed by Oana Botez in muted blue body suits, red loin cloths, and chartreuse headdresses, portrayed Taíno ancestors with earnest respect while singing in a language the characters could not have known existed. London’s music for those Yiddish scenes was subdued yet powerful.

If the entire opera had been a staging of Penn’s 126-page Hatuey, this review would have been an unqualified celebration. However, with the exception of the sexy, energetic choreography by Maija García, the 1931 aspects of the opera were not as compelling. In this production at least, the main problem stems from the fact that it’s not really an opera. There’s a great deal of spoken text in the modern sections, making it an operetta if not a musical. That’s just fine, so long as the cast can deal with spoken as well as sung text.

Tinima (Ledesna) and Spanish explorer Velasquez (Tomas Cruz).

When Jennifer Jade Ledesna sang as Tinima, she delivered scintillating Cuban-style numbers with a heart-wrenching and soulful voice and an impressive range. But when she spoke, she oversold every line, mugging and gesticulating. And much of the storytelling depended on her speaking. The result was a loss of dramatic authenticity, undercutting the emotional arc of the modern story, not to mention throwing water on the romantic embers between her and Oscar. It might have helped if Thoron’s libretto had devoted more time to building the relationship or London’s score had allowed them to sing at least one extended duet without distractions.

Clearly more comfortable as an actor, Nathaniel Stampley used his riveting baritone to raise the role of Hatuey to an almost godlike stature (he also played the modern gun-runner Lazaro, who works in the nightclub with Tinima). Soprano Nicolette Mavroleon was another well-rounded performer. Her glorious singing of the role of Kasike, leader of the Siboney (a Taíno tribe), made us feel that people’s raw pain.

If only the Spanish explorer Velasquez – slaughterer of the Siboney for the sake of their gold – had been as believable, this drama would have truly smoldered. Instead, Tomas Cruz sang with an unsure voice and spoke as if he were new to acting. At first, I tried to believe this was a purposeful deconstruction, that the show’s creators were trying to strip the European imperialist of his power by showing him as weak. But the writing didn’t reflect that choice, and a villain with no strength is not a villain worth fighting.

One particularly intriguing character, sadly left undeveloped by the libretto, was the club owner Ernesto, played with gusto and charm by Gerardo Contino, whose usual gig is lead singer for the New York-based Cuban dance band Los Habaneros. Ernesto represents 20th-century Cubans who were surviving within the system and who feared that rebellion against the government would destroy all the success and security they’d worked so hard to achieve.

Poet Oscar (Matthew Patrick Morris) and Ledesna’s Tinima.

In the role of the poet Oscar, Matthew Patrick Morris let his light Lieder tenor – naturally resonant, it didn’t need the loud mic – float touchingly over London’s plaintive melodies, which seemed inspired by Schubert, Schumann, Mahler, and the Yiddish folk tradition. The score, conducted by Constantine Kitsopoulos and played by an eight-member on-stage band, ranged from raucous Afro-Cuban rhythms to Jewish-inspired alternating seven- and eight-beat bars and augmented seconds, to dissonant hard-bop jazz (used to represent the chaos brought by the Spaniards to the peaceful Taíno society). Standouts in the band were Guido Gonzalez on trumpet and the thrilling polyrhythmic percussion of Richie Barshay, Carlos Maldonado, and Peter Saleh.

Hatuey: Memory of Fire is a fascinating project with the potential to be an important work. Performances continue at the Kasser Theater through Sept. 23. For details and tickets, go here.

Anne E. Johnson is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her arts journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Classical Voice North America, Chicago On the Aisle, and Copper: The Journal of Music and Audio. For many years she taught music history and theory in the Extension Division of Mannes School of Music.