Richard Thompson The Mask in the Mirror
Cameo Humes, Angela Owens; Sanaa Opera Project/Stephen Tucker; Richard Thompson (piano)
Navona NV6209 128:34 mins (2 discs)
The first black poet to achieve national recognition pre-Harlem Renaissance, Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906) is hugely significant in African-American history – as is his wife, the novelist and activist, Alice Ruth Moore (1875–1935). Richard Thompson, a black British composer-pianist based in the US, relates the tragic story of their relationship and of Dunbar’s death from tuberculosis aged just 33 in this chamber opera premiered in 2012. Infidelity, rape, violence, alcoholism is the stuff of opera. Far less explored has been how these arise within the context of post-slavery racism, and the crisis of identity so often thrust from the outside upon black artists working in overwhelmingly white cultures. The opera hits home on multiple levels thanks to sensitive portrayals of the conflicted yet determined couple by Cameo Humes (Paul) and Angela Owens (Alice) in their shared and separate struggles from courtship to estrangement, and Paul’s dreadful demise.
Through a series of scenes in three acts, with an able supporting cast and Sanaa Opera Project ensemble under Stephen Tucker, Thompson draws upon Dunbar’s poems and letters to tell the tale through a sometimes dissonant tonal idiom utilising seamlessly-integrated ragtime and an arioso vocal style. It’s a laudable achievement despite being overly long, and needing greater variation in dramatic pacing: Thompson powerfully confronts complex, difficult issues through flawed yet sympathetic characters while avoiding sentimentality.