The brilliant bass-baritone Davóne Tines carried the show in the first of a two-night run of Henze's El Cimarrón. As the only singer in the 75-minute semi-staged production, Tines delivered a powerful performance as an escaped slave in 19th-century Cuba. The 1970 musical setting of that real-life slave’s story was presented as the last in a series of concerts curated by soprano Julia Bullock, who introduced the night saying she had initially looked to program works about people whose stories have been silenced, but had rethought that take.

Davóne Tines © Steven Pisano for Bachtrack
Davóne Tines
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

“I genuinely do not know if stories are ever made silent,” she said, addressing the full house in the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium. “They just may not have been given a platform like I have been given.”

El Cimarrón proved worthy of both stage and museum, presenting the story of Esteban Montejo, born into slavery in Cuba in 1869 and later escaping to live in the forest. Upon hearing that slavery has been abolished, he went to look for a job and found education and good jobs to be reserved for the Spaniards and returning to the plantation. The libretto was written by Hans Magnus Enzenberger (who was living in Cuba at the time of its inception) based on the book Biografia de un Cimarrón, by Miguel Barnet, who conducted extensive interviews with Montejo. The work – somewhere between a 15-part song cycle and a single-voice oratorio – received its premiere in Berlin in 1970 with a score for flute, acoustic guitar and percussion by Hans Werner Henze.

The success of the Met production – and it was a genuinely moving dramatic work – was due in no small part to Tines’ credit. The story is told in retrospect, the narrator addressing the audience directly much of the time with dramatically played scenes interspersed. His initial escape from the plantation was portrayed under flashing lights, for example, with Tines and the three musicians playing the percussion instruments (including steel drum and vibraphone) that filled the stage as they wove frantically through them.

Emi Ferguson and Davóne Tines © Steven Pisano for Bachtrack
Emi Ferguson and Davóne Tines
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

The weaker parts of the production were in the score’s dated affectations of modernity. Tines was repeatedly called upon to sing in anxious yelps, something of which he’s more than capable but with an avant-gardism that didn’t suit his character. Likewise, what was for the most part an effective soundtrack (played by flutist Emi Ferguson, guitarist Jordan Dodson and percussionist Johnny Allen and reminiscent of the emotional impact that is to be found within the dissonance of Schoenberg’s Serenade) was weighed down by the occasional and beleaguered forcing of the contemporary. Dodson, for example, in a Panama hat, was often cast as the plantation owner seen in the distance. The extreme pitch-bending of his pulled and bent guitar strings, however, suited neither the story nor the score. Compounding the difficulties in suspending disbelief was sporadic backlighting so bright as to visually drown out the supertitles above the stage.

Jordan Dodson © Steven Pisano for Bachtrack
Jordan Dodson
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

Such distractions quickly passed, however, and were readily compensated for by the strength of the performers. Tines was articulate and convincing, showing a talent as an actor and orator. The narrator to whom Tines gave voice was three times his age at the time the interviews were conducted. (Despite a hard life, Montejo lived to a remarkable 113 years of age.) The singer, just over 30, delivered the nuanced emotions of long ago hardships largely in singspiel with a pain still close to the surface. Tines effectively portrayed a man who accepts enslavement as a part of God’s plan for him, resigned to the fact that there are things in the world he doesn’t understand, but at the same time angry about it all.

The story ended with the Montejo character seeming to accept that he might not see a better life but resolved – with his machete in hand – to find self-sufficiency. Tines, wielding the large blade as he exited the stage, played it with no sign of threat, only of strength.