Music and politics combine to form a potent mix. Art in its exclusive pursuit, can arguably avoid making a political statement; but it can also shine a bitingly harsh light on political themes, thus bringing them close to home through personal acts of dramatisation. Manifest Destiny 2011 proudly does the latter.
Over the course of its three acts, Librettist Dic Edwards and Composer and Musical Director Keith Burstein package the Israel-Palestine conflict and ongoing ‘War on Terror’ into the actions of five people. We are told that this is a re-working of the Romeo and Juliet tale, but if it is, it’s a uniquely contemporary and political one. The protagonists are Jewish composer Daniel and his muse Leila, who is both an Arabian suicide-bomber and his librettist. Leila and her lover Mohammed become radicalised but choose to seek peaceful resolution at the last moment. However, they find themselves fatally separated by a bitter and crass vengeance campaign by the American CIA and the US President, who use Middle-Eastern activists to justify an interventionist policy which masks a ‘resources’ protection agenda. Mostly, it’s a very one-way political statement; but the discovery of Leila’s poems for Daniel when she finally takes her own life acts as a symbolic union between peoples that seems far removed from politics.
This is only the third staging of Manifest Destiny, written in 2003 in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks on September 11th 2001. It is telling that, as we approach the tenth anniversary of those historic events, Leila’s incarceration in Camp X ray is no longer shocking; so normal have uncomfortable reports or rumours about the manner of military operations in the name of the War on Terror become. The opera is now unlikely to provoke the same level of controversy it did in its early life, despite being located on the extreme political left wing. The CIA and USA are continually portrayed as stupid, greedy and treacherous whilst the Middle Eastern characters are romanticised as spiritual and ideological warriors. The subject matter is still poignant and sometimes ubiquitous. People abuse less powerful people, the motives behind Western intervention in Arab countries are questioned, races and even lovers struggle to triumph over deep-seated ideological differences.
Director Valentina Ceschi immediately hooks the audience’s emotions with a black set dotted with single ‘floating’ flowers. The audience see themselves and then Leila’s face projected onto a white screen stretched across the musicians’ corner, particularly. Camcorders are used for this, showing how involved in events the audience are, as we are in war through the media.
But the libretto is raw and clunky, even cartoonish in its literal narrations of actions. ‘I will go to Afghanistan’, proclaims a bitter and confused Leila; Mohammed soon replies ‘I will follow you to Afghanistan’. If there were a few shuffles of embarrassment at this, the CIA Director’s rant (he comes complete with Dick Cheney sneer) about ‘rescuing resources’ aroused yet more cringes. Why did he victimise Arab nations? His response, ‘9/11 – what does it matter?’; an unwieldly way of expressing the notion that oil could have motivated the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The trouble with this piece is that its inversion of the post-9/11 story is now so different to most people’s interpretation that it is hard to know how to react. Any real conspiracy theory content is not strong enough, and weakened by the humorous portrayal of America. It’s most natural just to settle for enjoying the dramatic value of the hyperbolic characterisations. David Menzes, fresh from OperaUpClose’s Turn of the Screw is well-suited to his role as Daniel. Convincingly angst-ridden and blindly hysterical, he is poles apart from the absurd CIA Director, (Tom Kennedy), but the two were the most stable musical elements.
Otherwise, the ravishing harmonies and tense orchestration of the score were met with mixed singing performances. Katrina Walters as the US President sung as if she was in a Wagner opera and acted like a pared-down Anna Nicole. Her voluptuous voice out-powered Dario Dugandzic and Emma Pettermerides, both of whom sung with occasional beauty but were nervous in their higher registers. All credit to Pettermerides however, for tackling an especially challenging, occasionally stratospherically high Soprano part as Leila.
The ensemble – Violin, Viola, Clarinet and Cello – had their better and worse moments of intonation, sounding scratchy in the close acoustic, but they brought out the powerful depths of Keith Burstein’s score with the dignity and sensitivitiy it deserves.
There are some very touching moments, and indeed performances, in Manifest Destiny 2011. It improves as it progresses too, leaving the most spellbinding atmosphere of desperation until the final Act. Its clumsy libretto and the unhappy bedfellows of farce and human conflict drama however, ultimately leave the audience wondering whether to indulge in satirical laughter at the villains of the piece or feel ashamed in sympathy with their young, feisty victims. And I doubt many who see this production will see the relevance of the Romeo and Juliet story to 9/11 without prior explanation.