Choosing shows to see at the NYC Fringe Festival is a real crapshoot. A title, a brief description, a list of the categories (e.g., musical, mystery, etc.), and not much else is all you have to consider. A dedicated Fringe attendee has to get used to disappointment. While there are always hidden gems to be discovered, there’s also a lot of junk among the nearly 200 offerings each year. So it was a delightful surprise to discover that my choice for my first experience at this year’s Fest was the sort of work that makes the Fringe so exciting and stimulating. And considering that this first show was a serious chamber opera about the abolitionist-feminist crusader Sojourner Truth, my surprise turned to astonishment as I experienced a truly remarkable musical drama that deserves further development and a full-scale production in a major venue.
“Truth,” conceived by Linda McInerney with music by Paula Kimper and libretto by Talaya Delaney, was commissioned by Old Deerfield Productions for the Academy of Music in Northampton, Massachusetts. After freeing herself from slavery in upstate New York, Sojourner Truth spent a number of years at a commune in Northampton.
In its current form, “Truth” is an hour- and twenty-minutes, broken into three short acts. Brevity is the major fault in an otherwise beautiful work. It’s daunting to try to present the life of a complex and powerful leader in operatic form, and this opera’s succinctness leaves the audience wanting to know more – how did she become an activist; how did she find her voice and influence so many? In this production we have all of the high points any opera needs, but very little in-between. This opera needs more recitative to answer those questions.
But “Truth’s” current 80 minutes are filled with engaging and frequently powerful music and a libretto that has been carefully crafted to fit the words to the music in such a way that always supports the vocal line while communicating clearly to the listener. Unlike so much contemporary opera, Kimper’s score has great variety with rhythms and styles that fit the moment – sometimes reflecting gospel, other times with jazz-like overtones, but always engaging, moving, and satisfying.
Five skillful singers in multiple roles and a seven-piece orchestra carry the production. While the seven instrumentalists do their best to capture Ms. Kimper’s frequently sweeping sound under her baton, I kept wanting to hear this score with a full orchestra and chorus. At the center of the production is the extraordinary voice of Mari-Yan Pringle as Sojourner. Ms. Pringle’s soprano is full of color, strong and flexible enough to fully embody Ms. Kimper’s assortment of musical settings. She is also a convincing actress, although the frequently static direction did little to help her enliven her character. The directing is credited to Ms. McInerney and Lori Holmes Clark. This split has resulted in some scenes being staged fairly creatively and others appearing to be little more than a concert presentation.
Supporting Ms. Pringle in a variety of roles ranging from her father to Fredrick Douglas is Jorell Williams, an impressive and powerful baritone with a rich timbre and a smooth style. A few of his roles are written for a full bass, below Mr. Williams’ range; but when the role fits his voice, he is quite wonderful. Joshua Price and Heather Michele Meyer also shine in various supporting roles and ensemble pieces. Jaylen Fontaine, a late substitute in the role of Sojourner’s son, does an admirable job although he does not have the lyrical charm expected of a boy soprano.
“Truth” is 80 minutes of compelling opera longing to be fully realized, but those 80 minutes are too good to miss.