tue 21/05/2024

Blue, English National Opera review - the company’s boldest vindication yet? | reviews, news & interviews

Blue, English National Opera review - the company’s boldest vindication yet?

Blue, English National Opera review - the company’s boldest vindication yet?

Jeanine Tesori’s score and Tazewell Thompson’s libretto hit hard where it matters

A vibrant, poignant Last Supper: Kenneth Kellogg as The Father, Nadine Benjamin as The Mother and Zwakela Tshbalala as The Son in Act Two of 'Blue'All images by Bill Knight for theartsdesk

Two recent operas by women have opened in London’s two main houses within a week. Both have superbly crafted librettos dealing with gun violence without a shot being fired, giddyingly fine production values and true ensembles guided by perfect conducting. The main difference is that while Kaija Saariaho’s Innocence feels to me ice-cold musically, and not always coherent with dramatic or vocal possibilities, Jeanine Tesori’s Blue hits us in the guts when it matters most.

The game-changer at the London Coliseum is that Blue (a reference to the colour of American police uniforms) features a cast of exclusively Black singers, all of remarkable vocal and dramatic quality and strongly directed by Tinuke Craig, performing to an audience which, on the Sunday afternoon performance I attended, genuinely reflected the diversity on the streets outside at the joyous time of the London Marathon; ENO have proved wrong Justin Vickers' limiting programme-note assertion that "Tesori and [Tazewell] Thompson [the librettist, drawing on lived experience] introduce at one the hopes and dreams, fears and realities of the Black community to a white audience". More than that; though white spectators like myself appreciate the ambition and the execution of a crucial and painful American theme, the murder of Black youth by white policemen, this opera is really reaching out. Scene from BlueNone of this would have real value if Tesori, known foremost as a composer for film and Broadway, didn't use an armoury of musical expression to send the audience away reeling. It's a big score – too big, perhaps, at first in setting up the groups of women (Chanáe Curtis, Idunnu Münch, Nadine Benjamin and Sarah-Jane Lewis pictured above) and men so admirably and humanely characterised by Thompson as a Black policeman and his wife anticipate the birth of their son with their respective male and female friends.

The girlfriends' dreadful plea to the mother-to-be not to bring a boy into the world, with its almost apocalyptic resonances in the score, made me wonder if this was some futuristic Harlem where something dreadful is destined to happen to young Black males. In a sense, that's partly the reality now. But maybe the large orchestra needs scaling down a bit; the voices are artistically amplified in a way that keeps the distinctive timbres intact, but it would be good if that weren't necessary. Scene from BlueThe scene in the maternity wing verges on a very American sentimentality, too; but the confrontation between law-enforcer father and now-teenage activist son which ends the first act is variegated and moving. ENO Harewood Artist Zwakele Tshabalaia is instantly likeable and believable, and Kenneth Kellogg's protagonist, very fine from the start, is richly defined (the two pictured above). But then everyone is superlatively good, with the excellent (and underused) Nadine Benjamin flanked by a gutsy trio (Curtis, Lewis and Münch, another Harewood singer), Kellogg by John-Colyn Gyeanteay, Rheinaldt Tshepo Moagi and Joshua Konyers as fellow police officers. Matthew Kofi Waldren conducts with total authority, as always; it seems like only yesterday that I was privileged to be on a jury which chose him as joint ENO Sir Charles Mackerras Conducting Fellow along with Toby Purser. It helps that Tesori's vocal lines – unlike Saariaho's, no so incidentally – are grateful and memorable, a rare enough asset in contemporary opera.

Act 2 packs a virtually non-stop punch in the guts. It's immediately enriched by heroic tenor (and excellent Otello) Ronald Samm as "The Reverend", whose attempts at comfort The Father bitterly and powerfully rejects (pictured below). The horror has happened; as the programme synopsis sparely puts it, "the family and their community grieve a great loss". The trio of women against spare orchestral keening, as the Mother writhes inconsolably within the rectangular box inside the circle (simple but brilliant designs by Alex Lowde, with once again superlative video work by Ravi Deepres), is simply one of the great vocal stretches in any recent opera, and the funeral, the first point at which Tesori allows herself the phrases and cadences of the spiritual, offers a powerful ensemble.  Scene from BlueThe epilogue, a flashback, brings us a vibrant elegy to what might have continued to be. I doubt if anyone left the Coli unmoved: this is a powerful artistic honouring of, among others, Breanna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd and, so very recently, 16-year-old Ralph Yarl, who mercifully survived after being shot for going to the wrong house. Everything one wanted to be able to say about Jake Heggie's bathetic It's a Wonderful Life at the end of last year applies here. See it.

'Blue' features a cast of remarkable Black singers performing to an audience which genuinely reflected the diversity on the streets outside


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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