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Review: 'El Cimarrón' weaves politics and music in a runaway slave's tale

(Critic's Pick): NEW YORK — In his diaries from a journey to Cuba during the late 1960s, German composer Hans Werner Henze observed that it was the first time he noticed invisible threads between people. If was as if a threat from the outside compelled the islanders to make unspoken connections.

Review: 'El Cimarrón' weaves politics and music in a runaway slave's tale

With leftist political leanings, Henze found his own connections with the Cuban people and their revolutionary socialist government. And, as a composer, Henze’s career was like a journey to find connections between musical styles: atonality, post-World War II modernism, echoes of expressive German romanticism, even jazz and Latin American music.

Henze’s political ideals and musical aesthetic came together powerfully in a piece completed in 1970, “El Cimarrón,” which was presented on Friday and Saturday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as the concluding event of soprano Julia Bullock’s seasonlong residency there.

This 75-minute dramatic work tells the story of Esteban Montejo, a Cuban born into slavery in 1860, who as a young man escaped and lived on his own for years in the jungle. After slavery was abolished in Cuba, in 1886, Montejo fought in Cuba’s war for independence from Spain, and, when he was over 100 years old, told his story to an ethnographer who adapted the interviews into an autobiography published in 1966.

Henze, who met Montejo in Cuba, described “El Cimarrón” as a “recital for four musicians,” here bass-baritone Davóne Tines, flutist Emi Ferguson, percussionist Jonny Allen and guitarist Jordan Dodson. They brought to life the political, emotional and musical threads that run through this riveting work, in a simple yet effective production, developed by the American Modern Opera Company and directed by Zack Winokur. And they conveyed the quality suggested in Henze’s intriguing description of “El Cimarrón” as more like a collective recitation than a dramatic piece for an accompanied singer.

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The vocal writing shifts from spoken passages to quasi-sung phrases, then fleeting episodes of plaintive song and furious eruptions during moments of peril and anger. Tines charismatically handled the shifts of style so naturally you almost didn’t notice when, say, muttered words of despair slipped into dreamy lyrical musings. (The libretto, by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, was performed in an English translation by W. Nick Hill.)

As written, the three instruments often appear to be speaking or mingling with the solo voice. On Friday, extended episodes were daringly hushed and subdued. During frenzied scenes, the music was driven by a din of percussion and screeching flute. Yet passages evoking forest murmurs and insects were suggested by flecks of percussion, plucked guitar and gently reedy flute sounds. When Montejo recalls the brutality of slavery, the horrific tales are sometimes backed by mellow Latin American dance rhythms, as if to suggest that such degradations were just the daily drudgery of a slave’s life.

Bullock, who introduced the performance by reading from the memoir, said that the way she described her Met residency at its start — as an exploration of “silent voices” — no longer seemed right. They were not silent, she said; they were just “not listened to,” not “given a platform, the way I was.”

It’s admirable that, when Bullock was given a platform, she used it to amplify those voices.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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