ENO’s Blue is a miss as an opera, but has top-flight singers and a conductor at the top of his game

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tesori, Blue: Soloists, Orchestra of English National Opera / Matthew Kofi Waldren (conductor). London Coliseum, 30.4.2023. (CC)

The cast of ENO’s Blue © Zoe Martin

Director – Tinuke Craig
Set and Costume designer – Alex Lowde
Wig, Hair and Make-up designer – Kevin Fortune
Lighting designer – James Farncombe
Sound designer – Yvonne Gilbert
Video designer – Ravi Despres
Movement director – Ingrid Mackinnon

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

It is a bit of a blow for Jeanine Tesori’s opera Blue to run alongside Saariaho’s astonishingly powerful, work-of-genius Innocence across the road at Covent Garden. Both handle contemporary issues involving shootings: Saariaho, a school massacre; Tesori, the shooting of a young male black activist. The difference is realisation is staggering, however. Saariaho has produced an opera for the ages, a monument in sound to how the power of contemporary music can speak to all; Tesori’s score tends towards musical doggerel, a mishmash of awkwardly juxtaposed styles.

There is another parallel, although here more positive: both productions make use of unused stage space, For Saariaho, the housing of action within boxes gives the remaining, black space the effect of an emotional vacuum, itself emotionally powerful. In the Tesori, the use of boxes for the action (with fine video projections by Ravi Despres) instead zooms in on the action, like a magnifying glass. The externals are no longer empty, but the emotions within the space seem especially powerful, and the tilting of perspectives in the second act in the midst of the Mother’s bereavement process is most telling.

The plot centres on the shooting of a young activist, ‘The Son’. There are no names here, more archetypes, as if to suggest this could happen repeatedly, a depersonalisation pointing towards universality. The setting is Harlem, New York City, 2007, then 2013. The Father is a police officer. The first act finds The Mother telling her three Girlfriends she is expecting; but when she reveals the child is to be a boy, there is dismay. The boy will not be welcomed in the USA; the reaction of the Father’s three friends, at an (American) football match is the polar opposite, that of pure, ribald celebration. A symmetry is set up, major protagonist plus three on either side. Some 16 years later, the Son appears as a student artist and activist often in trouble with the very law his Father upholds as a policeman. An ideological clash between Father and Son is shown, through which the Father reminds the Son that he will always love him.

The Son’s growing up process is effectively demonstrated by a succession of walkings across the stage, from baby to boy to teenager.

The second act is summed up in the programme booklet pithily: ‘The family and their community grieve a great loss’. The act is, mainly, a prolongation of pain, with a final flashback in time to an alternative future that seems to function as an epilogue.

Tesori’s opera was commissioned in 2015 and received its first performance at Glimmerglass Opera in 2019; in Europe, it was performed last year in Amsterdam. The present run at English National Opera is its UK premiere. The cast is headed by the astonishing Nadine Benjamin, a singer I have applauded several times (including for Seen and Heard International in the role of Ermyntrude in Mascagni’s Isabeau at Opera Holland Park in 2018). Her reading of Mimì in ENO’s La bohème in 2022 was another high point. And indeed, Benjamin gives the role of The Mother her all. There are some long, distinctly operatic lines in Act I that find Benjamin’s voice free and open, soaring over the orchestra. It is Benjamin who really provided the lifeblood of the performance, living each line assigned to her, the heartbreak so poignant in the second act, her staunch belief in her baby’s maleness in the first one was shot through with determination. Benjamin’s voice has it all: range (lovely lower register, really strong, power up top), expressivity and nuance. Complementing her is the strong bass of Kenneth Kellogg as The Father. Kellogg created this role at Glimmerglass and has performed it in no less than six international opera houses. He is an ideal mix of superb singer and character actor immersed in his role; this was his ENO debut. As at home in the football scene with his mates as in the powerful extended second act scene with The Reverend, Kellogg is clearly an operatic force to be reckoned with. Ronald Samm took the role of The Reverend, equally powerful – the Trinidad and Tobago-born British tenor’s second role this season, after Uncle Billy in It’s a Wonderful Life. He is accorded a traditional aria (‘May restoring waters …’), beautifully sung, but as music, it starts promisingly but then loses its way somewhat.

Zwakele Tshabalala (The Son) and Kenneth Kellogg (The Father) © Zoe Martin

Arguably strongest of all the singers was The Son, Zwakeke Tschabalala, an ENO Harewood Artist and his second engagement at the London Coliseum (having previously sung the Tenor Angel in It’s a Wonderful Life); prior to this he sang Hot Biscuit Slim/Young Tree in Britten’s Paul Bunyan at Alexandra Palace in 2019 (my review). As the teenage rebel he excelled, completely believable in his role, his voice brilliantly placed, yet ferocious and fervent in his youthful belief system. The supporting ’teams’ (girlfriends and police officers) were well chosen, with Chanáe Curtis excelling in her double role as Girlfriend 1 and Nurse.

The ‘Greek Chorus’ of three women is well managed (or Tesori’s equivalent of Norns, perhaps, given that at one point they act as narrators), as is the trio of the Father’s men friends, The two groups combine into a congregation in the second act.

I have enjoyed Matthew Kofi Waldren’s conducting on a number of occasions: in Puccini’s La rondine at Opera Holland Park in 2017, and again at that venue in 2019 for Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera.  He was just as impressive here, attentive not only to his singers but wringing everything he could from Tesori’s score; the ENO Orchestra responded in kind.

Amplification is used for the voices. Why, I have no idea, but it is very hit and miss, at one point very obvious and, as a result, crass. But the major issue is Tesori’s score; her librettist Tazewell Thompson, provides a powerful canvas from which to work. But the music is neither Arthur nor Martha, neither opera nor music theatre nor Hollywood soundtrack (as to the latter, most gratingly at the filmic chords at the Reverend’s arrival and the word ‘God’). It is a collage of all of these, at times well-orchestrated but lacking in deep inspiration. Melodically, little if anything is memorable, and the same goes for the harmonies. The opera itself is a miss; but it is served by top-flight singers and a conductor at the top of his game. They are not enough to rescue the piece, for sure – and there was the nagging feeling at the end that the whole thing could have taken half as long and had exactly the same effect.

Director Tinuke Craig marshals the forces well; space, both within and without the confines of the circle, is well used. All credit to James Farncombe for the effective lighting, and especially to video designer Ravi Despres.

Two performances remain of the run, May 2 and May 4.

Colin Clarke

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