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'The Doctor of Alcantara': History Makes a House Call

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 18, 2008

Sometimes, if you want to hear a certain kind of music, you have to put it on yourself. This was true in 1873, when the Colored American Opera Company, Washington's first resident opera company, mounted an operetta called "The Doctor of Alcantara," by Julius Eichberg. And it is still true in 2008: On Saturday night, the Music Center at Strathmore, known as a concert hall and a presenting organization, tried its hand at producing, putting on a show called "Free to Sing" to commemorate that earlier achievement.

There is no questioning the historical and social interest of the result. The event was sold out months in advance; the audience included current members of St. Augustine's Church, the first African American Catholic church in Washington, founded in 1858 and from whose choir the members of the Colored American Opera Company were culled. A main point of the exercise, after all, was documenting an important and forgotten chapter of local history.

And the show did resemble an old photograph album, not only because of the archival images on a screen above the performers' heads. It was a compendium of musical images: spirituals; music the choir actually sang (including part of a Mass written by the choir director, John Esputa); and Eichberg's operetta. And like an album, it was a wonderful historical document -- though not all of its components were equally interesting.

One sympathized with the challenge that faced the show's creators, Shelley Brown (Strathmore's artistic director) and Michael Rosenberg. Simply mounting "The Doctor of Alcantara," a frothy, derivative piece that melted on the ear like a meringue on the tongue, would not have conveyed the full story, nor allowed for the inclusion of relevant pieces by Esputa or one of his students, John Philip Sousa. Instead, they created a first-act introduction comprising musical pieces performed by the fine Morgan State University Choir, pasted together with a bare minimum of spoken narrative from the actor David Emerson Toney.

Another challenge lay in presenting music that nobody, with the best will in the world, would claim is first-rate, such as Esputa's slender, simple Mass in C or the affable bombast of Sousa's virtually unknown "Te Deum." In its day, the St. Augustine chorus was highly praised for its performance of Haydn's "Saint Cecilia Mass," but on Saturday this was the most lackluster element on the program. (Assign no blame to the choir -- schooled to hair-trigger responsiveness by Eric Conway -- which generally did a terrific job with a large amount of music.) Balancing out these pieces were a disproportionate number of spirituals, which showed off the choir and pleased the audience but were not integral to the story.

The operetta, too, was of more historical than musical interest, representative of countless once-popular scores languishing in archives all over America. Eichberg clearly thought Rossini was the ne plus ultra of comic opera, harking back to a bygone style the way a composer today might seek to emulate Rodgers and Hammerstein. His slender plot revolves around Carlos and Isabella, who love each other although their parents have arranged other marriages for them; in the end, it turns out that the proposed arrangement is a marriage to each other. Along the way, the eponymous doctor thinks he has accidentally killed Carlos a couple of times; once, he thinks he hears Carlos's ghost, and Eichberg shows he knows his Mozart with a brief excursion into "Don Giovanni's" D minor.

But weak though the piece was, it was also utterly charming, so lovingly cast and accompanied with such ardor by Angel Gil-Ord¿¿ez and the Post-Classical Ensemble that it would have taken a curmudgeon to resist its appeal. Awet Andemicael as Isabella and Kenneth Gayle as Carlos had voices whose strengths and limitations were perfectly suited to the period: slender, light, tight little instruments capable of great sweetness, if not great volume, and attached to eminently likable performers.

The standouts were Millicent Scarlett, a mezzo-soprano who has a low register and isn't afraid to use it (an automatic plus in my book), as Isabella's confidante Inez, and Carmen Balthrop, who in the role of Isabella's mother demonstrated the meaning of the term "stage animal" with impressive technique (if sometimes slightly flat upper notes) and consummate, scene-stealing showmanship. Gylchris Sprauve was appropriately funny in the brief title role, and Toney, almost hoarse from his narrative duties, took on a couple of comprimario bass roles.

In 1873, the performances resulted in unanimously strong reviews from papers in Washington and Philadelphia, with particular praise for the fine chorus, and the company was able to raise enough money to build a new church. This performance, even if it remains a happy one-off, was at the least a fitting echo, and tribute, of its predecessor.

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