English National Opera – Jeanine Tesori’s Blue [UK premiere] – with Kenneth Kellogg, Nadine Benjamin & Zwakele Tshabalala; directed by Tinuke Craig; conducted by Matthew Kofi Waldren

Jeanine Tesori

Blue – Opera in two Acts to a libretto by Tazewell Thompson [sung in English with English surtitles]

The Mother – Nadine Benjamin
The Father – Kenneth Kellogg
The Son – Zwakele Tshabalala
The Reverend – Ronald Samm
Girlfriend 1 / Nurse – Chanáe Curtis
Girlfriend 2 – Sarah-Jane Lewis
Girlfriend 3 – Idunnu Münch
Police Officer 1 – John-Colyn Gyeantey
Police Officer 2 – Rheinaldt Tshepo Moagi
Police Officer 3 – Joshua Conyers
Young Son – Cale Cole / Kyron Allen

English National Opera Orchestra
Matthew Kofi Waldren

Tinuke Craig – Director
Alex Lowde – Set & Costumes
James Farncombe – Lighting
Yvonne Gilbert – Sound
Ravi Deepres – Video
Ingrid Mackinnon – Movement

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 26 April, 2023
Venue: The Coliseum, London

Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson’s opera Blue was commissioned in 2015 by the Glimmerglass Festival and premiered there in 2019. Although the Black Lives Matter movement had already been in existence for several years by 2019, the opera’s theme of discrimination and police brutality against the African-American community has become all the more urgent – at least to the world beyond – since the killing of George Floyd in 2020. That brought to vastly wider international attention the scale of injustice to that community over a long period of time, and the concerns and aims of that movement.

Blue proved prescient in that, whereas Thompson’s original scenario – drawing upon personal experience in Harlem, New York, where the work is set, and works of Black literature – had the Father (of the Son who is shot by a (white) policeman at a protest) as a poor jazz musician, in the finished opera he is a policeman himself. By doing that, the opera raises an important set of political and social issues, as well as a potent source of dramatic relationships and tensions within the narrative – such as how and why a black man comes to work within an institution perceived by so many fellow black citizens as the ‘enemy’ (in the Son’s words); the Father’s job being the cause of the Son’s antagonism towards him, having the more activist priorities of the younger generation in the present day; whether, after his Son’s killing, the Father can manage to continue serving as an ‘Officer of the law’ (his defensively proud description of himself beforehand); and why there is still such distrust and violence between black and white communities at all.

These matters are generally only alluded to in the opera’s scenes – they aren’t explored or examined explicitly as an integral part of the drama itself. (Although the recent uncovering of police brutality and corruption in the UK shows that it isn’t only the black community who have been incidental or targets victims, even if they are disproportionately affected by it, and so the opera’s implied preoccupations will be recognised by people of other identities.) Rather, the opera is more about the private anxieties which black people have to confront as minorities in a still discriminatory society and how they navigate the prejudices and injustices which result.

Presumably just about all black people who don’t live in black-majority societies will recognise the points at issue. But it will probably be a revelation to most of those outside this community to learn that, in America at least, it is common or universal for black families to have ‘the talk’ with their children to explain the harshness of the world about them and how to negotiate that with the line of least resistance. That rite of passage is alluded to in the altercation between Father and Son in Act One. Though another angle on it is made more explicit in the very first scene when the Mother tells her three ‘Girlfriends’ that she is pregnant, and they express their fear for the unborn – given that his apparently greater public visibility as a boy, rather than a girl, will expose him to more danger and oppression (an interesting reversal of the perceived misogyny in other societies where male offspring is otherwise preferred). In suggesting to the Mother that she take herself away to give birth and rear him in greater safety, an implicit parallel is drawn with the biblical precedents of the birth of Moses (eventually the liberator of his people and the source for one famous spiritual) and the infant Jesus being taken away to Egypt to avoid Herod’s murderous spree against any prophesied, upstart king.

It seems a pity then that such a web of charged and potentially dynamic ideas and relationships are not really played out as an integrated drama, except through a fairly trite and sentimental sequence of dialogue throughout the scenes, culminating in the Son’s funeral. Too much of Act One is taken up with the Mother’s pregnancy and the Son’s birth, adding very little to our understanding of the situation at large or the work’s narrative purpose. And the final scene is also dramatically redundant – a flashback to the family’s supper (we don’t need a list of all the things they’re eating) between the argument which the Father and Son had had in Act One, and the protest to which the Son says he is going to attend, presumably where he meets his tragic end, although no other details about this are given there or earlier.

Visually the production is striking, however, featuring a rectangular aperture within a larger circle, and the scenes mainly occur within that opening, as it revolves between its different sides for each, suggesting a sense of huddled fear and suspicion of the dark world outside; perhaps also the notion of a ‘square peg in a round hole’.

The funeral scene is said to be ‘cathartic’, but that is only mawkishly so on account of the Mother’s quoting the words of the Nurse from the scene of the Son’s birth, handing him over to God, as the Nurse had earlier handed him to her. If the scene makes any dramatic point at all, it seems to be that the Mother and Father don’t otherwise express themselves in it, around the emotive address of ‘the’ Reverend (the cast list perpetuates the usual modern mistake in not realising that title is an adjective not a noun), and the resounding, spiritual-inspired ensemble of the Girlfriends and the three fellow black Police Officers in attendance. The Father simply steps out of that to rail against the situation, rather than engage directly with the funeral rite. It appears that the benumbed parents take no comfort in the pat formulas of the church’s rituals and come to terms with their grief in their own way. But the opera offers no positive insight into how they might do that. In short, the work is an unsatisfactory, uneasy amalgam of two halves that don’t really come together. The important issues concerning politics and race are largely dealt with by the characters’ telling or preaching the issues to the audience (diegesis as Aristotle would put it – the programme itself would also have it that this is ‘structured like a Greek tragedy’). But insofar as there is a narrative (mimesis) here concerning the emotions and psychologies of individual people caught up in a tragic bereavement, that is a universal story (albeit handled here with some cliché) which applies to families everywhere, irrespective of race, nation, or class. Black people will decide whether it is an authentic expression of their lived experience (and that is perhaps somewhat different in countries other than America); the rest of us will decide whether this is an enlightening analysis or depiction of that. (I use with utmost caution and humility the language of ‘them’ and ‘us’ in relation to all these identities – as a white Englishman experiencing such a work which is expressed sincerely from the black American perspective, and seemingly meant to be addressed as much to people outside of the American-African community as to those within it, I think such distinctions are inevitably drawn.)

If the opera works at all as a theatrical unity, that is largely due to Tesori’s persuasive score. Even though there is a tendency for the music to comment on the text in the gaps between its often-fragmentary phrases and sentences, nevertheless it still sustains a more consistent strand to the work overall. She is perhaps more widely known for her several musicals than her three operas, and the music here sometimes bears a heart-one-sleeve expressivity that sounds more like a musical than an opera. But the generally tonal harmonies, and well-delineated themes are more like a film score (a genre for which she is also acclaimed) especially with their vivid, colourful orchestrations, ably executed by the ENO Orchestra under Matthew Kofi Waldren. Her writing for voices is also idiomatic, setting the words (in what I take to be a black Harlem dialect of English) fluently with close attention to their natural intonations so that they are often like an arioso. And the tightly-wrought lines of her ensembles – the trios of Girlfriends and Police Officers, and the tense duet between the Reverend and the Father after the latter’s bereavement bring an almost Puccinian urgency to the music, especially when so well blended by the singers here.

Kenneth Kellogg, who created the role of the Father at the premiere in 2019, has made the role entirely his own, masterfully creating a powerful, but highly sympathetic and nuanced account of the heroically forbearing Father, as he comes to terms with the contradictions and ordeals of his situation. Nadine Benjamin gives a decent interpretation of the Mother, if perhaps somewhat under-characterised, in contrast with a very lively, enthusiastic portrayal of the Boy by Zwakele Tshabalala, given to gestures and at least one musical sequence that are like rap. Ronald Samm’s Reverend is rhetorically forthright and authoritative, if seemingly distant, though that seems to be the point about the stock biblical commonplaces he issues as supposed comfort to the grieving Father.

A curate’s egg, then, in which one feels that there is another drama submerged somewhere in the material, that could explore more dynamically and critically the politics and vital issues which are only implied or assumed in what is presented. But the musical setting is compelling.

Further performances to May 4

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