Composer: Hilda Paredes
Text: Lex Bohtmeijer/Mayra Santos-Febres
Conductor: Manoj Kamps
Director: Jean Lacornerie
Video design: Miwa Matreyek
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
As with many performances at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Harriet is truly an international event, with a Mexican composer, a Sri Lankan conductor, a French director, the fearless American soprano Claron McFadden in the title role and co-production and commissioning from several countries. However, it is essentially a Belgian creation, with the music group, HERMESensemble, and the theatre company Musiektheater Transparant who staged the premiere earlier in November.
Harriet tells the story of Harriet Tubman in four short acts and an epilogue, only some 80 minutes in all. The longest act, the second, deals with the most celebrated period of her life, the time before the American Civil War when, herself a runaway slave, she became an inspiring and effective conductor on the Underground Railroad, spiriting slaves out of the South, the Moses of her people. Shorter acts deal with her troubled childhood as a slave (Act 1), her relationship with a young girl, Margaret (her daughter?) whom she kidnapped in Maryland, and with her second husband (Act 3), and her part in the Civil War, notably in the Raid on the Combahee River (Act 4), segueing into an affirmation of the African American’s quest for liberty in the succeeding years.
The opening of Harriet hardly suggests how compelling the performance will prove. The action takes place behind a curtain of strips of material, Manoj Kamps and his trio of musicians (violin, guitar and percussion) half visible together with the singers Claron McFadden and Naomi Beeldens, formal and unmoving as in a recital. With the aid of Monica Gil Giraldo’s electronic music, the atmosphere is vividly created, but Hilda Paredes’ vocal lines, with sudden and abrupt leaps, are unforgiving to sing and to hear.
It’s difficult to say what first begins to make Harriet such an intensely involving work. The projections on the curtain are dramatic and often terrifying: the violence of Harriet’s beating brutally synchronised with the music, the monstrous horses and bloodhounds on the scent. Later, in the Civil War, maps and images switch and blur and overlap to beautiful effect.
The sounds filtering through the theatre – speech, music and just sounds – are insidiously involving, the three on-stage instrumentalists point the drama incisively – the always-on-the-move virtuoso percussionist in particular – and Beeldens, taking on the role of Alice, Margaret’s daughter and Harriet’s protégée, is committed, versatile and increasingly active.
The music gains renewed power and relevance from the slave hymns that Harriet used to give coded messages to her passengers on the Underground Railroad. Snatches of Steal Away, haloed with circles of marimba, accompany the escaping slaves; Harriet herself is gloriously celebrated in Go Down Moses; at the very end images of the sufferings and triumphs of black America are projected over fragments of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, as they gradually reassemble into the full theme.
Ultimately Harriet does ample justice to a great American hero, not least because of a central performance from McFadden that combines dignity and authority with poignant sensitivity and supremely assured command of a demanding vocal range.
Reviewed on 20 November 2018 | Image: Contributed