Guerilla Opera offers compelling preview of “The Captivity of Hannah Duston”

May 31, 2019 at 12:33 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

A scene from Lansing McClosky's opera-in-progress "The Captivity of Hannah Duston" was presented by Guerilla Opera Thursday night.

A scene from Lansing McLoskey’s opera-in-progress “The Captivity of Hannah Duston” was presented by Guerilla Opera Thursday night.

On the east side of Haverhill’s public park there stands a statue of Hannah Duston, a woman who was kidnapped by Abenaki Indians during a raid on the town in 1697.

Erected in 1879, the statue shows Duston holding a hatchet in her right hand while she points with her left. The icy stare captures the rage of a woman who has taken action against her enemies.

Stories about Duston’s captivity are more legend than historical fact. Yet tales continue to circulate about how she murdered and scalped ten Abenaki natives—including women and children—to escape her captors. As Duston was illiterate, stories of her experience have only survived through second-hand accounts. The Abenaki side of the story, so far as historians know, has been lost to oral tradition. And some facts have yet to be verified–Duston’s husband allegedly received bounty on Hannah’s behalf from the Massachusetts assembly for the scalps.

Like confederate statues in the American South, Duston’s image in that Haverhill park continues to draw heated debate. Some residents hail her as a hero defending her honor, family, and life. Others see her as a racist, merciless killer. But the statue also invites viewers to consider the wider context of her actions set within the events of King William’s War. As a whole, she is both heroine and villain.

That’s the sense one takes away from Duston’s story as told in Lansing McLoskey’s new opera, The Captivity of Hannah Duston, part of which Guerilla Opera offered in a world premiere at HC Media in Haverhill Thursday night.

The in-progress opera tells Duston’s story through the lenses of American writers Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry David Thoreau, and Sarah Josepha Hale. Thursday’s concert performance only featured the opera’s first scene as relayed by Puritan minister Cotton Mather, who had interviewed Duston after she returned from captivity.

Glen Nelson’s libretto for the twenty-minute scene liberally quotes material from Mather’s three published sermons on Duston. In the eyes of the minister, she is a heroine who did what she needed to do to survive.

McLoskey’s music vividly captures the emotions of the narrative as well as setting an idyllic frontier scene. The Prologue unfolds through spacious, Coplandesque harmonies in the accompanying chamber ensemble. But as the delicate lines flow in an out of bristly dissonances, listeners get the sense that something is amiss. As Mather’s version of the story is told, the music grows more urgent. Driving rhythms convey the intensity of the raid as well as Duston’s anger and anguish over the natives murdering her newborn daughter by bashing her head against a tree.

The vocal writing is by turns lyrical and angular, effectively conveying Mather’s journalistic, if necessarily one-sided, take on the events. But the scene carries dramatic weight, and the singers in Thursday’s performance found the full range of this complex and thoroughly troubling story.

As Hannah’s husband, Thomas Duston, Brian Church was a stalwart vocal presence, his baritone bringing an element of authority to the role. Stephanie Lamprea’s bright, ringing soprano made Hannah Duston’s terror and anger felt as much as heard. Lamprea’s heartfelt singing in the sorrowful passages momentarily transformed Duston into a sympathetic figure.

Aliana de la Guardia brought a dark, rich tone to the brief role of Mary Neff, a woman who was captured along with Duston and who helped in the escape. The role of Cotton Mather was mostly a spoken one, and Matthew DiBattista delivered his lines with a preacher’s bold conviction.

Playing without a conductor, the chamber ensemble wove an accompaniment that was both sensitive and energetic. Though only a glimpse into McLoskey’s opera, Thursday’s performance made a strong case for a work that will be heard in full next season.

In the first half of the concert, the musicians of Guerilla Opera offered a scene from another opera that dealt with captivity.

The company premiered Marti Epstein’s Rumpelstiltskin in 2009, and earlier this month the musicians revived it in Boston and New York City.

Thursday’s performance featured the scene from this familiar fable where the miller’s daughter Gretchen is forced by the king to spin straw into gold while locked in a cell overnight. The magical imp Rumpelstiltskin comes to her aid and asks for her first-born child as payment.

In Epstein’s score, whiffs of melody interrupt uneasy silences. But her vocal lines flower beautifully. Together, the sparse scoring and flowing melody cast a scene that is both eerie and enticing.

Aliana de la Guardia, as Gretchen, and Stephanie Lamprea, as Rumpelstiltskin, combined their voices in long, trickling phrases, each singer complementing the other. Lamprea’s soaring lines brought out the searching humanity and loneliness of her character while de la Guardia’s darkly projected phrases expressed Gretchen’s profound melancholy. Brian Church sang with smooth tone is his brief role as the king.

Conductor Jeffrey Means led a delicate account of the scene, and the musicians navigated Epstein’s glassy sonorities, spare harmonies, and whistle tones with precision and commitment.

Guerilla Opera will give the world premiere of The Captivity of Hannah Duston in full on February 8, 2020 in Haverhill.

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