Operas have dealt with difficult, painful subjects for a long time, but perhaps not quite as difficult or painful as the topic of Frances Pollock's "Stinney."
Premiered over the weekend at 2640 Space, this work examines a stain on the American justice system -- the railroaded verdict and electric-chair execution of diminutive 14-year-old George Stinney Jr. in South Carolina 71 years ago. A posthumous exoneration, issued by a judge last December, hardly wipes away the dreadful record.
The case began when two white girls were found murdered (one of them raped) in the town of Alcolu one April day in 1944. Volunteering to the police that he had spoken briefly to the girls -- they asked him where they could find wildflowers -- was enough to get Stinney quickly charged with their deaths.
Pollock, who just earned her master's degree at the Peabody Institute, delves into the racist heart of this case and tries hard to make sense of it, as much through music as theater -- she wrote the libretto and the score.
The result is a bold, bracing opera that pulls no punches and never flinches; the language is often raw, the depiction of events just as uncomfortable.
There may be room for adjustment or revision to the work (more on that in a moment), but this is a remarkable achievement by any measure. If "Stinney" represents what Pollock can do at 24, her future ought to be exceptionally productive.
One of the composer's most inspired ideas succeeds at tempering the gruesome nature of the story. After the murder scene early in the opera, the two girls, Betty June Binnicker and Mary Emma Thames, reappear as observers and occasional commentators on the events that ensue.
The theatrical device of angelic spirits hovering around the action, and sometimes interacting with it, could easily turn cloying. But Pollock, who directed the premiere staging, made it work in endearing fashion, aided by the thoroughly persuasive, vocally vibrant portrayals by Audrey Kline and Abigail Chapman.
When the girls tried to comfort the imprisoned George, the sight proved very touching. And when, in the closing moments, they were joined by his liberated soul, the cathartic impact was considerable -- amazing how the simple sight of kids making paper hats can trigger tear ducts.
The speaking role of George was ably filled by A.J. Garrett, who was physically ideal for the assignment and used his expressive eyes to keen effect.
There are crucial, sensitively written scenes that underline how three families were devastated by sudden, violent loss. Those scenes were delivered with considerable poignancy and dynamic vocalism by Tia Price and Tariq Al-Sabir as George's folks; Rebecca Wood and Claire Galloway as the mothers of the slain girls.
The remainder of the high-caliber cast offered vivid singing and acting throughout. (The venue worked against everyone -- performed on the floor in front of a stage filled by the orchestra, sight lines were awfully tricky for anyone past the first few rows.)
Michael Repper conducted the fine chamber orchestra with confidence and expressive nuance. The players handled the most unusual requirement of the score -- children's hand-clapping games -- with aplomb.
The clapping is used as a leitmotif of sorts, involving everyone in the opera at one point or another, providing a link to the two girls and the carefree world of youth that should never have been shattered. (Finger-snapping also turns up along the way to add an unusual percussive element.)
The performance generated a decidedly enthusiastic response. Several cousins of George Stinney from Baltimore and other parts of Maryland attended opening night and joined in the hearty ovation.
"Wow," said Maria Williams of Silver Spring; her mother was a second cousin to the executed boy. "It's really hard to express how I feel. It was so good I would come again."
I hope there will be other opportunities for "Stinney" to be performed, locally and beyond, preferably in a better theater (or even just a better reconfiguration of 2640 Space). In the meantime, some adjustments to the score might be worth considering.
Portions of the text could be shortened or excised to tighten the drama. On the other hand, a little more text might be helpful in the trial scene. A better sense of what went on in the courtroom before the sentencing would be welcome; it's all very condensed here.
A scene of George's father reading aloud an account of his son's execution is rather anticlimactic (only the racist tone of the reporting adds a new element); an earlier incident involving whites assaulting George's mother is protracted and heavy-handed.
As for the music in "Stinney," it may be a little too eclectic, embracing so many styles that the opera doesn't always seem to have a clear, fully formed voice.
The orchestral writing in high-drama scenes tends to settle into dutiful dissonance, and some angular turns in melodic lines sound arbitrary, rather than inevitable. Giving the judge lots of low, bad-guy notes is a cliche that could be reconsidered.
That said, the score shows considerable skill, especially in terms of generating atmosphere. Both a Copland-esque tenderness and a Weill-worthy grittiness serve the piece well (Samuel Hunter's orchestration has a telling role in this), and there is idiomatic use of hymn tunes and jazz.
Pollock has clearly given great thought to the most sensationalistic scenes -- the deadly assault on the girls and the execution of Stinney.
The former gets a powerful twist by the composer, who conjures up every horrid notion about predatory males. In a stylized ritual, the men of the chorus repeat creepy mantras and turn heavy breathing into a perverse kind of music. Significantly, this gang is multiracial, a terrific way to underline that no one knows who killed those girls, that anyone could have done it.
But the whole passage might gain in impact if it were shorter and, perhaps, not so in-your-face. Same for the execution scene, realistically staged and given a striking, reiterative orchestral accompaniment. For me, the initial shock and tension wasn't sustained throughout.
In the end, however, such reservations are easily swept aside. As it stands, there is more than enough quality and sensitivity in libretto and score alike to make "Stinney" a worthy contribution to the operatic field. It puts a human face on a distant, but horribly relevant, slice of our history. And it doesn't leave you alone, even long after the last notes have sounded.