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Cuba Libre
Skylight Theatre's El CimarrĂ²n.

Is Hans Werner Henze scary?

He was an iconoclastic, contemporary composer of art music, mostly dramatic and theatrical (he died in 2012). He was a self-proclaimed communist. His music scores include “notation” in which he draws the image of hands on a music staff, leaving it to the players to decide what that should sound like. Or he writes several short snippets of music, puts them on a single, newspaper size page, and tells the musicians “play them in any order you wish.”

As Skylight Theatre Artistic Director Viswa Subbaraman recounted before the first performance of El Cimarròn Friday night, Henze he was also short of stature and soft of voice—a true postmodern enigma.

But as the Skylight’s superb production of El Cimarròn showed, there is nothing to be afraid of—if you bring an open mind and ear to one of the most adventurous offerings in Skylight’s recent history.

El Cimarròn is a music-theatre piece that is only rarely performed in its fully staged form. As part of his “revolution”-themed inaugural season as Skylight Artistic Director Subbaraman, whose career has focused on staging contemporary and even experimental operas, brought an international team together to state Henze’s 1969 work.

And it is anything but “scary.”

Based on the life of Esteban Montejo—as recorded by Miguel Barnet in his book Autobiography of a Runaway SlaveCimarròn tells much of the life story of Montejo: his work as a slave in the sugar cane fields of Cuba, his escape and life of hiding in the Cuban countryside, his fighting in the 1895 revolution against Spain. It’s also an intimate portrait of the main, chronicling his suffering and isolation, his longing for freedom, and his love of women.

At close examination of Henze’s score would certainly uncover patterns or structures found in all thoughtfully created music. But in the theater, it’s best to hear the music as a sort of dramatic soundscape. As Montejo, Eric McKeever sometimes speaks, sometimes sings, but ever word is delivered with crystal clarity, from delicate falsetto whispers to booming bass declarations. Behind the words is Henze’s evocative music, a trio conducted by Subbarman—flutes, guitar and an impressive wall of percussion. As you might guess from the roster of instruments, the textures are often transparent, but can also evoke the density of a dramatic moment—the slave market, for example, or the chaos of a revolutionary battle scene. When industry comes to Cuban agriculture, there are jagged melodies and steady machine-like percussion. Rumba rhythms rise and fall as Montejo’s libido waxes and wanes. Wandering along through the countryside, Henze even evokes that famous pastoral vagabond, Papageno, with a “pahp-pahp-pahp” vocal line.

It’s a tour-de-force performance for McKeever, in a role that is musically and dramatically challenging. Henze’s vocal lines are demanding, but McKeever makes them an integral part of the storytelling and his character’s emotional journey. He has great help from the stage director Eugenia Arsenis and scenic designer Lisa Anne Schlenker, who set the stage with a tangle of ropes and bolts of fabric that evoke both the horrors of bondage and the bright freedom on the horizon. 

With its unhesitant celebration of revolution and grim images of brutal repression, El Cimarròn isn’t an easy story to hear. But its fearlessness is exactly what makes it indelible and essential. 

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