El Cimarrón (The Runaway Slave), Hans Werner Henze

Greenwich Music Festival

June 10th, 2010

Henze via Havana

Opera is a theater of fantasy, and thus has traditionally shrugged off any demands for authenticity in its representation of the world’s cultures. (see: Turandot. Although, the spectacle of the Beijing Olympics perhaps demonstrated that Puccini wasn’t so far off.) With this in mind, one resists the natural urge to cringe at the thought of a German composer writing a piece from the perspective of a Cuban slave, or of a mixed-race cast presenting the tale to a decidedly unmixed Greenwich audience.

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That being said, the Greenwich Music Festival unapologetically offered up a sincere and vigorous interpretation of Henze’s 1970 chamber work, brought to life through the consistently excellent International Contemporary Ensemble (under Robert Ainsley) and the compelling choreography of Zack Winokur. Producer Ted Huffman’s choice to choreograph the piece elevated it by adding physicality and heart to Henze’s music, which can tend more toward affect than substance, in my opinion. Unfortunately, the dancers and instrumentalists had much more to say than El Cimarrón himself, who struggled to meet both the technical and dramatic challenges of the title role.

Winokur (and co-director Huffman) grounded Henze’s skip-stop narrative, which takes place over more than a century, by casting the four dancers as consistent archetypes who crop up again and again in different manifestations throughout the Narrator’s life. The fascistic white man, the animalistic slave, the seductive señora, and the innocent youth told the tale through both literal action and as subconscious or societal forces. Through them we are given the Runaway Slave’s perspective of the world, forged through a lifetime of hardship and memory.

As mentioned above, the single but significant weakness of the production lay in the limitations of the one vocalist (and the protagonist) onstage, Eugene Perry as the Narrator. His instrument, (as well as his charisma) was simply not up to the level of his colleagues, and so he lacked both the power and vocal colors necessary to overcome the stilted libretto and the choppy structuring of the piece. For all of the entertainment and distraction the choreography provided, the burden of communication ultimately lies primarily with the singer, whose skill, imagination, and dynamism must at least equal, if not surpass, those he finds himself onstage with.

Henze’s music and the assembled dancers fascinated, but the Runaway Slave himself did not.

Bottom line: Admirable but inconsistent


Georges Briscot


response to this review: response@operaticus.com

Production Credits

Conductor: Robert Ainsley
Direction: Ted Huffman and Zack Winokur
Choreography: Zack Winokur
Stage & Lighting Design: Marcus Doshi
Costumes: Austin Scarlett
Orchestra: International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE)


Narrator: Eugene Perry
Dancers: Manelich Minniefee, Andrew Murdock, Jose Tena, Yara Travieso

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THIS PRODUCTION:http://www.greenwichmusicfestival.org