RECORDINGS > OPERA AND ORATORIO JUNE 2020 — VOL. 84, NO. 11 MORAVEC: Sanctuary Road Mitchell, Bryce-Davis; Burton, Blue, Merriweather; Oratorio Society of New York Orchestra, Tritle. Naxos 8.559884 THIS ORATORIO about the Underground Railroad, based on the documentary writings of African–American civil-rights activist William Still (1821–1902), has epic sweep and its fair share of horrors. It’s especially theatrical, despite being composed for the concert hall. Still helped hundreds of fugitive slaves escape to Canada, often hiding them in his Philadelphia home. He was a writer, an important historian of the period, and his meticulously kept records helped family members reunite after the Civil War.
In Mark Campbell’s libretto, Still is both narrator and conductor of the interviews that formed the nucleus of his 1872 book, The Underground Railroad Records. The chorus comments sporadically on the action and the issues, while five soloists tell some of the remarkable stories preserved as first-hand accounts. Among Still’s records, which he kept hidden during the war, were letters from former slaves who had reached Canada, excerpts from which form a powerful finale.
Moravec’s music is lyrical and accessible, his word-setting effective if straightforward. Naxos captured the Oratorio Society of New York’s 2018 premiere performance at Carnegie Hall, but thanks to some impressively detailed engineering you wouldn’t know it was a live recording. The orchestral picture has depth, and the soloists are well forward in the mix. Conductor Kent Tritle keeps things moving, and every word of the inspiring historical texts comes across clearly.
Bass-baritone Dashon Burton is an authoritative Still. His dark, mellow voice conveys age, suggesting a man intent on remembering and recording the facts. The other four soloists are also impressive. With her rich, velvety mezzo, Raehann Bryce-Davis captures the terror of Ellen Craft, a disguised slave in a train carriage forced to sit opposite her former master’s brother. Soprano Laquita Mitchell joins her in the tale of two black women concealed behind veils pretending to be in extravagant mourning for a fictitious Aunt Abigail. Mitchell is convincing as a woman dancing in the rain for the sheer joy of liberty even as she prays she won’t be spotted.
Joshua Blue’s bright tenor adds an effective edge of hysteria to a series of frantic interjections of a man literally running for his life. Baritone Malcolm J. Merriweather proves a natural storyteller as Henry “Box” Brown, a slave from Virginia who had himself nailed up in a crate and mailed to Philadelphia. His frustration that no one seems able to read “this way up” is one of the oratorio’s rare moments of humor.
The work was the idea of Oratorio Society member Jody Spellun, who grew up in segregated Kentucky and wanted to make a musical statement about racial disparity. If the words resonate long after the music is over, that’s a tribute to Still, a great American hero. —Clive Paget
Opera News May 7, 2018, Carnegie Hall Kent Tritle, Oratorio Society “Sanctuary Road” and the gleaming soprano LaquitaMitchell gave a captivating, heartfelt plea for "Rain," in what was the mostpurely gorgeous piece of the evening.- Joshua Rosenblum
Memphis Flyer October 14, 2017 https://www.memphisflyer.com/TheaterBlog/archives/2017/10/14/fallen-woman-opera-memphis-la-traviata-is-simply-splended