Gregg Baker and company in Amistad
(©  William Struhs)
Gregg Baker and company in Amistad
(© William Struhs)
With the remounting of the epic opera, Amistad, Spoleto Festival USA has given the composer Anthony Davis and his librettist cousin, Thulani Davis, the chance to re-launch a vessel that by all accounts was carrying too much cargo when it originally premiered at Chicago Lyric Opera in 1997. Visionary yet objective, alternately strident and melodic, and filled with passionate anger and tender empathy, the result is an extraordinary piece of theater.

The story, which is familiar to some from Steven Spielberg's film of the same name, concerns an 1839 rebellion by African slaves on the ship Amistad, which resulted in mutiny and mass killings. In a shocking twist, the perpetrators were freed by the U.S. Supreme Court. Compared with Spielberg's cinematic narrative, the opera is shorter on detail, historical context, and gushing blood. The Davises, however, do not hesitate to heap all sorts of offensive epithets upon the Africans from the whites (portrayed here by the fine Westminster Choir) nor do they go as far in demonizing the slaveholding Spaniards.

Set designer Caleb Hale Wertenbaker has made imaginative use of the new Memminger Theatre's large black-box space. If you sit at the north end of the hall, you will find yourself walking over the painted silhouettes of dead slaves and through an adjoining space that serves as a wood-paneled smoking room for elite citizens and politicos. Opposite the paneling, a large space is set aside for conductor Emmanuel Villaume and the Spoleto Festival Orchestra, who can be seen clearly by the audience.

In fact, the opera's action starts up when The Trickster God (played by the competent if somewhat charmless Michael Forest) cues Villaume to begin. One of the libretto's main weaknesses, however, is that the Trickster God doesn't have any substantial impact on the fate of the kidnapped Africans, nor does he have a definable musical personality.

The Davises are more successful in their rich portraits of the other characters, beautifully sung without exception. Gregg Baker gives this production its sinew with his melodious portrayal of Cinque, the brave leader of the mutiny, while Fikile Mvinjelwa supplies a welcome pinch of comedy as Antonio, the craven cabin boy eager to serve whoever holds the upper hand. Other standouts in the cast are Stephen Morschek as John Quincy Adams, Raúl Melo as the Spanish navigator, Edward Parks as the Chief Justice, and Janinah Burnett as Margru.

Davis lavishes lovely music on all of them, mostly straddling the jazz and classical idioms. A true highlight is "They Come to Me as if from the Heavens," a heartbreaking lament for the victims of the slave trade magnificently sung by Mary Elizabeth Williams as the Water Goddess. Other haunting moments come at the beginning of the trial in "They Wanted a Girl," when Margru takes us back to the beginning of her harrowing ordeal, and when Cinque takes us aboard the ship singing the bluesy "The Past Is a Fading Daylight" while a chorus chants "Ankle and Wrist" in counterpoint.

While far from perfect, Amistad deserves to be seen again, and not just at Spoleto.