Given the grim background to this year’s season at ENO it is more than little ironic that the programme has proved to be one of the best in years, with creatively original revivals of old favourites, unearthing of rarities, and showcasing of new works that collectively fulfils in abundance the company’s mission to promote creativity and outreach.
‘Blue’ is not a new opera as such – it was first performed at Glimmerglass just before the pandemic. But this is the first time it has been staged in this country. Composer Jeanine Tesori is perhaps best known for her work in musical theatre; but she has written operas too, and librettist Tazewell Thompson has deep experience as a theatre director. Their wealth of collective experience shines through in what is a technically deft work where words and music are expertly fused to produce a sequence of scenes of great cumulative energy and power. The musical palette covers a wide range of genres from jazz and blues through to church hymns and traditional operatic arias. There is considerable melodic richness and variety in orchestration and a selective use of key themes that re-surface significantly in both acts. The central characters are flanked by a male and female chorus of friends and there are significant solos, duets and concerted sections which have great dramatic appeal and resonance – especially those which explore family relationships. The house orchestra, conducted with fluency and precision by Matthew Kofi Waldren, performs with a supple sensitivity to the different genres of music in play.
The plotline is relatively simple to describe – a black couple living in present-day Harlem welcome the birth of their son, though there are early hints of problems ahead as a group of the mother’s friends express anxiety that his father is a policeman and that the baby is a boy, likely to encounter racial hostility. The action moves forward quickly to the son’s teenage years where intergenerational conflict between father and son emerges in detail. The second half begins with the reveal that the son has died at the hands of police gunfire: in a sequence of scenes of great nobility of language and music the parents enact different responses to grief, from the mother’s despair through to the father’s rejection of his profession and – in dialogue with the local priest – contemplation of revenge. The opera concludes with the community mourning for the loss of the son, before we end with a flashback to the family meal just before the shooting, a moment of particular poignancy because its intimate domestic harmony.
The production values are outstanding. The expressive range and delicacy of all the voices is as compelling as I have heard on any opera stage in recent years, and the same goes for the dramatic enactment and precision of diction, quite sufficient to make the surtitles redundant. Kenneth Kellogg’s dignified portrayal of the father’s emotional journey has great tragic impact – he has to travel from enacting the joy of a new father to the far boundaries of anger and grief. Nadine Benjamin, as the mother, sings with exceptional dignity and beauty of tone even in the most extreme dramatic moments, and Zwakele Tshabalala lends the son’s role great passion, humour and freshness of voice – his is certainly a young talent to watch out for. Ronald Samm completes the central quartet of singers with a graceful, resilient and patient portrayal of the clergyman trying to find grounds for consolation amid the collective pain.
While the sentiments and issues in play are on the grand scale, the cast is not large, and a question immediately arises of how best to locate this work on the huge stage of the Coliseum. Alex Lowde’s set finds a solution brilliantly in the form of a rotating rectangular box placed within a lit circular disc, onto which videos of Harlem scenes are projected. This creates both concentrated intimacy and local specificity all in one simple concept.
The opera was written before ‘Black Lives Matter’ and it is a tribute to its creators that it could not be more relevant in its themes to present concerns. It is all the more compelling because it avoids the depiction of the key events of violence, leaving us to meditate for ourselves on the consequences for the community and for those who are left to mourn victims. As so often, less is more. Moreover, by making the father a policeman, the depiction of the conflict between the personal and the political is sharpened and concepts of authority, duty and identity are called into question. Throughout its history opera has been at its best when big social issues can be objectified into the impossible dilemmas of vividly imagined people and this work deserves to join that noble tradition.
- Director: Tinuke Craig
- Libretto: Tazewell Thompson
- Composer: Jeanine Tesori
- Photo Credit: Zoe Martin
- Cast includes: Nadine Benjamin, Kenneth Kellogg, Ronald Samm, Zwakele Tshabalala
- English National Opera
- Until May 4 2023
- 2 hrs 25 mins with interval
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