History is filled with surprises, and an intriguing one underlies Chicago Opera Theater’s world premiere of “Quamino’s Map,” which opened Saturday evening at the Studebaker Theater in the Fine Arts Building.
It turns out that thousands of enslaved Americans fought on the side of the British in the Revolutionary War with the promise of freedom and a pension across the Atlantic Ocean when the hostilities ceased.
Belizean-born British composer Errollyn Wallen and American librettist Deborah Brevoort took this virtually unknown historical episode and ran with it, creating a 90-minute opera loosely based on S.I. Martin’s “Incomparable World: A Novel.” Despite its compact running time, it is a large-scale work with 29 singers in the cast and chorus and a 40-piece pit orchestra.
‘Quamino’s Map,’ Chicago Opera Theater
At its heart, “Quamino’s Map” is a story of ultimately impossible love between Juba Freeman (tenor Curtis Bannister), a formerly enslaved man who has just arrived in England, and Amelia Alumond (soprano Flora Hawk), a bighearted member of London’s Black gentry.
But more broadly, the opera examines the notion of freedom, not just from physical enslavement but also from societal and economic encumbrances, issues that all the main characters face in one way or another.
Nowhere is this truer than for Freeman, who journeys to London thinking that he has escaped slavery only to discover a new set of shackles: the British reneging on their promise of a pension and a law banning new Black arrivals from work.
It is a fresh, engrossing story told in an intelligent and often captivating way. But at the same time, this narrative comes off as a little too easy. That Freeman arrives in London, becomes engaged with a rich woman and is nearly hanged for thievery seemingly all within a matter of a couple of weeks stretches the bounds of believability.
And it is hard to accept the opera’s upbeat conclusion. Quamino Dolly (bass-baritone Damien Geter), an ex-slave and now mapmaker (a metaphorical flourish) who becomes Freeman’s protector, encourages the new arrival to chart a new future by pursuing his love of fiddling. He scraps together enough money to buy the young man an instrument, but how does this help if employment is impossible?
Stage director Kimille Howard makes the most of this fast-paced story, maintaining a sense of continuity and nicely energizing the ensemble scenes, especially those in London’s red-light district.
Designer Steven Kemp’s scenery is simple but effective enough. The opera opens at the London docks, which is suggested via brick building walls on each side with an angled ramp running between them and an enlarged historical map of London as a backdrop. With just a few added set pieces and changes in lighting, this arrangement adequately accommodates the changes in settings.
Wallen has written 22 operas, and it’s clear here that she knows what she is doing in this appealing score, with its compelling melodic lines and lush, ever-variegated orchestrations, all nicely realized by conductor Jeri Lynne Johnson.
What is most impressive is Wallen’s ability to shift styles one scene to the next, from harpsichord and baroque effects for the Alumonds’ high-society gatherings to Broadway-tinged numbers for the red-light scenes, with jazzy riffs, blues hints and hard dissonances along the way. The only thing lacking is just a bit more emotional depth, which might have been provided by more traditional, full-bodied arias instead of what often comes off as extended recitatives.
Chicago Opera Theater put together a strong cast, starting with Bannister, a focused, technically secure singer who possesses the stage presence to anchor this production and the acting chops to convey both Freeman’s joy and pathos.
More than holding her own with him is Hawk, who lights up the role of Amelia with her strong, radiant soprano voice. One of the opera’s high points is when she shows up late for an engagement party, and Wallen humorously conveys a quarrel between Amelia and her mother, Grace, and sister, Elizabeth (ably portrayed by soprano Kimberly E. Jones and soprano Joelle Lamarre respectively), with zingy exchanges of exaggerated, baroque-style vocal ornamentations that require some impressive vocal dexterity to pull off.
Geter’s resonant, sure voice serves the role of Quamino well, but it is odd that the character is described as an “old man” at one point, but no effort is made in terms of his bearing or his look to suggest his age.
Other standouts include mezzo-soprano Leah Dexter, who makes the most of her showy role as the whimsical dominatrix Mistress Paddington, and tenor Tyrone Chambers II. He animates the role of Dele Piebald, a mysterious beggar who is also a kind of seer who intervenes in this story.