I watched only my second opera yesterday afternoon. Margaret Garner is based on the real story of a runaway slave who killed her daughter to rescue her from slavery. The same story inspired Beloved, by Toni Morrison who wrote the libretto for the opera.
Unlike the novel, the opera focuses less on the moral complexity of that act of infanticide than on the far more black-and-white struggle of Edward Gaines, the plantation owner, whether to ask for Margaret's reprieve from execution for the crime of stealing and destroying his property, her children. As such, the opera has a feel-good atmosphere to it, despite the horrific acts of oppression, rape and murder. Edward Gaines asks for the reprieve, but Margaret pulls the platform lever to kill herself anyway, and is transformed into a spot-lit spirit wandering among both blacks and whites standing around the hanging. Anthony Tommasini of the NYT described the ending as "a major miscalculation," and I agree. It tries too hard to iconize, and thus simplify, an ambiguous figure into a tragic heroine.
The exposition at the beginning is too slow, and the presentation of the slave auction gives little that is new. But the drama and the libretto quicken to life after that slow start. I find the parting scene between Margaret and her husband, Robert, moving. The wedding scene, at which Margaret speaks of the language of love, despite her master's put-downs, is staged effectively. Her aria on love's liberation, during which Edward Gaines lurks behind the pillar, about to rape her, is a ravishing lyric.
The principal singers were powerful and convincing. I especially liked the soprano Lisa Daltirus who played Cilla, Robert's mother. Her singing was intense when required, humorous when appropriate, and, when Margaret killed herself, so painfully tragic that it seemed to come up from somewhere beneath the earth.