“Hatuey: Memory of Fire” — an opera that is currently making its United States debut at Montclair State University, as part of the Peak Performances series — is more impressive on a musical level than a dramatic one. Frank London, who wrote the music (with Elise Thoron handling the libretto), is best known as a member of the klezmer group The Klezmatics, but he has deep roots in salsa music, too. For this work, which is mostly set in a 1930s Havana nightclub, he writes the kind of vibrant, elegant, effortlessly propulsive Latin-jazz big band music you might have heard in such a place, at such a time. The music is performed by eight musicians, under the direction of Constantine Kitsopoulos; Jennifer Jade Ledesna — who plays Tinima, the nightclub’s fiery chanteuse (and a muse for its main character, Oscar) — is the standout vocalist, singing her numbers with show-stopping passion.
I felt that the characters, though, never really became three-dimensional; they were simply symbols in the multicultural, time-traveling story Thoron wanted to tell about the universal yearning to be free, and the sacrifices that need to be made to fight oppression.
The work — developed in conjunction with the New York-based Music-Theatre Group, and previously presented only in Cuba — is based on the 1931 Yiddish poem “Hatuey,” by Oscar Pinis (also known as Asher Penn), which is about the Taino (native Cuban) hero who fought against the Spanish conquistadors. The opera’s Oscar character is based on Pinis; he has come to Havana from the Ukraine to escape a culture where Jews, such as himself, were oppressed. Tinima — who is doing her part to fight the Cuban dictator of that era, Gerardo Machado — encourages Oscar to write about Hatuey.
And so the action shifts, at times, from Havana in the 1930s to Cuba in the 1500s, as well as to the Ukraine in the 1910s, the idea being that the same story, about abuse of power, is being replayed, over and over, throughout history. The arias and dialogue are in Yiddish, English and Spanish, with English supertitles.
“Hatuey” is relatively brief, at 110 minutes (no admission). Even so, without a compelling story to get caught up in, I felt my mind wandering, and ultimately decided just to let London’s glorious music wash over me, as if this were a purely musical experience. And then I was fine.
Remaining performances of “Hatuey: Memory of Fire,” are at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 21, 8 p.m. Sept. 22 and 3 p.m. Sept. 23. Visit peakperfs.org.