Koanga is an opera with music by Frederick Delius, his third opera, written between 1896 and 1897, and a libretto by Charles F. Keary, inspired partly by The Grandissimes: A Story of Creole Life of George Washington Cable. Inspiration also came from Delius's own experiences as a young man when his family sent him to work in Florida. Delius himself thought well of the opera compared to its predecessors, Irmelin and The Magic Fountain, because of the incorporation of dance scenes and his treatment of the choruses. Koanga is reputed to be the first opera in the European tradition to base much of its melodic material on African-American music.
Koanga was the first of Delius's operas to be performed. It was also the most labor-intensive with regard to the libretto, which was continually being revised. The opera was posthumously published in 1935.
It was performed privately in March 1899 in Paris, at the residence of Adela Maddison. Gabriel Fauré was among the performers, and the audience included Prince Edmond de Polignac and the Princesse de Polignac. Selections from the opera were performed in London on 30 May 1899 at St James's Hall, in a concert of his own music organised by Delius.
Sir Thomas Beecham directed the British premiere for the full opera on 23 September 1935 at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. John Brownlee sang the title role, with Oda Slobodskaya as Palmyra.
A later revival was in 1972 for the Camden Festival at the Sadler's Wells Theatre, London, conducted by Sir Charles Groves. Douglas Craig and Andrew Page had worked extensively on revisions to a performing edition, which was used for the first complete commercial recording conducted by Groves. Robert Threlfall has examined revisions to the text of Koanga in its various editions. More recent revisions to the libretto have been by Olwen Wymark.
The single most famous musical passage from the opera contains the melody known as La Calinda, which is the only part of the score that has remained famous in the concert hall. Eric Fenby, Delius's amanuensis, has spoken of the opera as follows:
"Koanga is one of those singular works that attract attention in Delius's development but which stand apart from the rest of his music. Usually, once a work was written, Delius's interest in it would wane. It would then be renewed and be relived temporarily every time he heard it again. For Koanga, however, he showed concern as though it held some secret bond that bound him to his youth in Florida. It was the one work he deplored in old age he was never likely to hear again. And so it proved. A dark grandeur pervades the score which, whilst yielding to hankerings after Wagner, recalls the tragic gusto of Verdi. The elements of time, place and plot allowed him a range of textures and moods wider than in his other operas."
William Randel has studied the relationship of the opera and its libretto to the original story of Cable.
- Koanga, an African Prince and Voodoo Priest
- Palmyra, a mulatto, maid and half-sister to Clotilda
- Don José Martinez, a planter
- Simon Perez, Don José's overseer
- Clotilda, Don José's wife
- Rangwan, a Voodoo Priest
- Uncle Joe, an old slave
- Renée, Hélène, Jeanne, Marie, Aurore, Hortense, Olive, Paulette; the Planter's daughters
- Negro I
- Negro II
- Chorus of Negro Slaves
- Place: Mississippi River plantation in Louisiana
- Time: Second half of the 18th century.
Uncle Joe is about to tell the tale of Koanga and Palmyra, at the request of the planters’ daughters.
Palmyra, the maid to Clotilda (the wife of the plantation owner Don José Martinez), watches Simon Perez, the plantation overseer, rouse up the slaves for their labours. Perez declares his love for Palmyra, but she brushes aside such sentiments. Martinez arrives, and Perez tells him of the arrival of a new slave. The new slave is Koanga, a captured African prince. Koanga invokes his gods to avenge his betrayal. Perez states that Koanga would rather die than be a slave, but Martinez suggests that Palmyra can be used to change his sentiments. Koanga and Palmyra are introduced, and become attracted to each other. Perez becomes angry at this turn of events. Clotilda is appalled at this herself, as Palmyra is her half-sister.
Preparations for the wedding of Koanga and Palmyra are taking place. Clotilda consults with Perez as to how to stop this wedding. Perez tells Palmyra the truth about her birth, but she remains determined to marry Koanga. Just as the wedding ceremony is about to occur, Perez kidnaps Palmyra. Koanga then fights with Martinez and prevails in the man-to-man struggle. Koanga escapes to the swamp and invokes magic to bring disease contagion to the plantation. However, he has a vision of Palmyra’s suffering, which causes him to return to the plantation. When he arrives, Perez is trying to embrace Palmyra. Koanga kills Perez, but is in turn captured and executed. Palmyra mourns for Koanga, and then takes her own life.
The planter's daughters respond to Uncle Joe’s story, as the sun rises.
- EMI Classics 585 142 2 (2003 reissue): Eugene Holmes, Claudia Lindsey, Raimund Herincx, Keith Erwin, Jean Allister, Simon Estes; John Alldis Choir; London Symphony Orchestra; Sir Charles Groves, conductor
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