Koanga review: An opera that promises but never delivers

The cast struggle to make an impression in an opera that never gets off the ground


Wexford Festival Opera


Wexford Festival Opera seems to be on something of a Delius crusade. The successful 2012 production of the English composer's best-known opera, A Village Romeo and Juliet, has been followed up just three years later with a production of his Koanga.


Delius was born in Bradford in 1862. When he was in his 20s, he ran an orange plantation in Florida. It was there that he began his musical education, which he continued in Leipzig. He came under the sway of Grieg and would spend most of his life in France.

The seeds for Koanga, a slave-trade story adapted from George Washington Cable's 1880 novel The Grandissimes: A Story of Creole Life, were sown in Florida, and the opera was actually composed in Norway and France between 1895 and 1897, although it includes material borrowed from earlier pieces and added later for the 1904 premiere in Elberfeld.

Delius is a one-of-a-kind composer whose music incites responses as divisive as the prospect of eating tripe, snails or frogs' leg soup. This is surprising, because his musical language is not at first sight particularly challenging. His handling of the orchestra is first rate, and he was a dab hand in the skills of musical impressionism. The problem is that he generates a kind of suggestiveness that can fail to deliver on what it's suggesting, and his writing exhibits a rhythmic flabbiness that can seem about as well-sprung as putty. It's no accident that the most famous moment in Koanga is a dance, La Calinda, in which the rhythm was already a given.

The plot embraces voodoo, inter-racial marriage, and an African prince coming to terms with slavery. There are ethnic references in some choruses, and two banjos appear – all like boxes simplistically ticked for local colour.

Sad to say, Michael Gielata's Wexford production of Koanga never really gets off the ground. The two lead singers, Nozuko Teto as Palmyra and Norman Garrett as Koanga struggle to make an impression, although when Teto finds her groove in her upper register she communicates with a strength that Garrett never manages. Kate Allen, as Clotilda, the spanner- in-the-works wife of the estate owner Martinez, has a fervent vocal presence and consistency.

Conductor Stephen Barlow secures a promising thrust from the Wexford Festival Orchestra, and some powerful singing from the chorus, but the thrust never leads anywhere. The fault lies as much with the composer as with anyone involved in this new production.

  • Koanga runs October 24th, 27th and 30th. Wexford Festival Opera continues until November 1st. wexfordopera.com
Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan is a music critic and Irish Times contributor