Audiences in Philadelphia had the opportunity to rediscover the works of two Black composers from the mid-20th century last week. A day after the Philadelphia Orchestra returned William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony to its repertory, Opera Philadelphia introduced Credo by Margaret Bonds, a cantata setting of a text by W E B Du Bois that celebrates the beauty and resilience of Black American life. Remembered primarily as an arranger of spirituals, Credo showed Bonds as an adept orchestrator and choral writer, and the 25-minute piece imparted a powerful message that still resonates today.

Brandie Inez Sutton and the Opera Philadelphia Chorus and Orchestra
© Dominic M Mercier

Credo draws on the notion of faith as a guiding force in the fight for justice, equality and freedom. Bonds’ music takes a mellow, slightly dreamy approach, with hazy strings, gossamer woodwinds and a heavenly harp that seems to suggest a celestial message. Occasionally, the composition turns wild and witty, as when a muted trumpet represents the temptations offered by the Devil. Yet the style remains largely refined and contemplative. In her Opera Philadelphia debut, conductor Lina González-Granados brought out a sweeping grandeur in the orchestra when necessary, but her approach was most notable for threading a seamless narrative needle across the cantata’s seven movements.

The Opera Philadelphia Chorus has long been the company’s secret weapon, and under Elizabeth Braden’s direction, they transformed their sound here to mirror a church choir. Brandie Inez Sutton deployed a sweet-toned soprano in the melismatic solo section Especially Do I Believe in the Negro Race, although some of the highest notes in the section were hard won. The cantata’s other solo, I Believe in Liberty, sat uncomfortably low for baritone Ethan Vincent, who had to croon to compensate.

In a cheeky piece of programming, the company paired this sacred-minded and sincere discovery with Carmina Burana, the choral equivalent of a bodice-ripper. The Chorus brought impassioned voices to the familiar O Fortuna, but they were more notable for the fine detail they employed throughout the many movements. The male choir found a foreboding energy in In taberna quando sumus, while the women reflected the first blush of springtime desire in Chramer, gip die varwe mir. The Philadelphia Girls & Boys Choirs demonstrated the right aura of innocence in their assignments.  

González-Granados offered an oddly granular reading of the score that produced some intriguing orchestral details – an eerily high flute here, a sinister timpani stroke there – but didn’t result in a propulsive sense of dramatic structure. Among the soloists, only Vincent attempted to shade his arias with a sense of character development, although this sometimes resulted in hoary and distracting physical business – like constantly fiddling with his tie to suggest the feeling of being choked by sin. Sutton sang In trutina prettily but without much connection to the text; she proved more animated in Tempus est iocundum.

Felled by illness, tenor Alasdair Kent withdrew from the final performance just two hours before the curtain rose, leaving the company scrambling for a replacement in the fiendishly difficult Olim lacus colueram. Joseph Tancredi, a student at the Curtis Institute, jumped in with no rehearsal, having never performed the aria in public before. He acquitted himself honorably, although the uncannily high recesses of the music weren’t always a comfortable fit. Still, the last-minute switch provided a pinch of drama that was otherwise missing.