English National Opera should be lauded for presenting the UK premiere of Blue, given how endemic police brutality is in the US. Whether this opera does justice to the subject matter is debatable.
Following acclaimed performances across the pond, Jeanine Tesori’s opera, which puts race and injustice in the States under the spotlight, received its UK premiere at ENO this month. Whilst there was plenty to admire in this brilliantly executed performance – notably the superb singing and orchestral playing under Matthew Kofi Waldren’s disciplined baton – the undertaking raised more questions than it answered.
This subject matter is definitely worth exploring operatically, but it didn’t help Blue’s case that it came hot on the heels of Kaija Saariaho’s blistering new opera, Innocence, down the road. Both deal with violence and the ramifications it has on family, and society at large. Yet artistically they’re miles apart. Saariaho’s music is enhanced by Sofì Oksanen’s taut, dramatically alert libretto, whereas here Tesori is saddled with a libretto by Tazewell Thompson that’s more akin to a lecture. Acres of exposition replace any actual drama – basically nothing happens for long stretches of the work, and I left the Coliseum feeling I’d been there a lot longer than two and a half hours.
It’s a shame, as this is a tale that needs telling, but opera is there to bring stories to life, through character interaction and development, with music that drives that drama forward. From a dramaturgical point of view Blue simply fails to engage on this level. Only once, in the interaction between the recently bereaved Father and The Reverend, a character brought vividly to life by Ronald Samm, do dramatic sparks fly and you get a glimpse of what might have been if Tesori had had a better libretto to work with. Otherwise there are acres of ‘chat’ about not much, really.
Tesori’s score however bristles with life, drawing on a wide range of musical influences from Gershwin to Bernstein, via Broadway – she’s never afraid of introducing a ‘big tune’ – and it’s richly orchestrated. The singers are subtly miked in order to help them penetrate the density of some of the writing, and as indicated above, the ENO orchestra produce playing that is alert to every twist and turn – quite faultless.
“Whilst there was plenty to admire… the undertaking raised more questions than it answered”
Nadine Benjamin as The Mother delivered the kind of performance one has come to expect from this exceptional young singer – poised, emotional and thrillingly voiced. As her husband and veteran of this opera, Kenneth Kellogg revealed a sepulchral bass voice as The Father, and brought rich tone and emotional gravitas to the role. ENO Harewood Artist Zwakele Tshabalala gave notice of a huge talent as The Son – his ample, technically assured tenor easily filling the Coliseum with bright, ringing tone. He is clearly destined for a stellar career.
The Mother’s three girlfriends were perfectly etched by Chanáe Curtis, Sarah-Jane Lewis and Idunnu Münch, while John-Colyn Gyeantey, Rheinaldt Tshepo Moagi and Joshua Conyers made their mark as The Father’s friends.
Rather than import a staging, ENO entrusted Blue to young British director Tinuke Craig – here making her operatic directorial debut. Given the intimacy of the piece, she and designer Alex Lowde devised an ingenious solution that brought the action to the very front of the stage by way of a rotating box that contained the action. It avoids the problem of having to people the vast expenses of the Coliseum stage, and whether intentionally or not, is redolent of a hamster wheel – the characters ultimately caught in a never-ending cycle of violence with no escape.
ENO have certainly done the work proud, and I’ve never seen such an ethnically diverse audience at an opera in my 40 years of opera going, so kudos to the company for presenting Blue. It’s just a shame that as an opera it’s more static than dramatic.
• Details of future performances can be found here.