Washington Classical Review » Blog Archive » Conflicting views on the police find harmony in Washington National Opera’s “Blue”.
The Washington National Opera had planned to stage Jeanine Tesori’s opera Blue in spring 2020, when it became one of the first cultural victims of the Corona cancellations. This feature-length work, based on director and playwright Tazewell Thompson’s first opera libretto, premiered at the Glimmerglass Festival in 2019. The opera opened with its belated WNO debut at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater on Saturday night.
The opera tells the story of a Harlem family who must face the unthinkable when their son is murdered by a police officer. Tazewell puts this story in nuanced context as the father of this black family is himself a police officer dressed in the title color. The opera does not present the murdered son as lurid news, as the killing takes place between the two acts. We see the young man instead as an aspiring baby, an energetic boy who bounces around, and a terrified teenager, rather than just a statistic in an ongoing American tragedy.
Kenneth Kellogg, a DC native and a longtime presence on local stages, played his silky, resonant bass to round out the father’s complex character. Loudly berating his activist son, who has committed a string of petty crimes, he defended his brothers to the police, going deep in his confrontation with a priest after the boy’s death. Kellogg also purred in a polite legato tone as he held the precious baby on the day he was born.
Mezzo-soprano Briana Hunter, who excelled in a small local production a few years ago, also exuded motherly warmth as a mother. Her aria of explosive grief (“God, give me back some part of my baby”) as she prepares for her son’s funeral at the beginning of Act Two hit the deepest emotions of the evening. After a punishing funeral scene in which she regained reserves of strength, Hunter gave a joyful homage to the black boil in the opera’s epilogue, in which we see the son’s final moments at the dinner table, after the fight with his father, which is rendered in Act I and before he goes to his final protest where he is shot.
Tenor Aaron Crouch produced a tightly wound but often underpowered sound as Son, infusing the character’s anger with youthful bitterness but also finding moments of tenderness. As the Reverend, baritone Joshua Conyers, thundered in outrage, his resonant tone softened as he sought a way to comfort the grieving father in their lengthy scene. (Veteran singer Gordon Hawkins, who was scheduled for the 2020 WNO performance before it was cancelled, sang the role on the recording of the opera WNO released on PentaTone last year.)
Two supportive trios supported the family, beginning with the three girlfriends who gather with the mother in the opening scene to celebrate her pregnancy. Middle soprano Katerina Burton and mezzo-soprano Rehanna Thelwell dominated the ensemble with their cheeky vigor (“Damn, girls!”) and occasionally made top soprano Ariana Wehr shrill. Wehr, whose high notes have been impressive since her apprenticeship at WNO, had her best moments as a fugitive nurse delivering the baby.
More balanced was the male trio, where first tenor Camron Gray soared easily on his clear high notes in a commendable company debut, collegially supported by second tenor Jonathan Pierce Rhodes and bass-baritone Christian Simmons. While the female trio preached something in their scene about the baby (“You got what?”), the male trio’s joking reaction to the happy event playing out at a sports bar while they were watching a soccer game provided some much-needed comedy Relief on an evening of unrelenting sadness and anger.
Thompson’s fluid, mostly concise libretto went well with the rather plain style of Tesori’s music. The lyrics combined broad humor with excruciating anger, both from the son who hates his father for being a police officer and from the father who berates his son over a history of petty crime. The scene between the reverend and the father in particular is full of anti-clerical feelings (“Only a white God would sit in his cloudy white heaven”).
Tesori, best known for film scores and Broadway musicals, has staged a work by WNO, the disappointing Christmas opera The lion, the unicorn and me. The harmonic palette of this newer score is similarly neo-Romantic, sometimes bordering on the cloying, but memorable melodies are few. The orchestration is often quite austere, sometimes little more than blatant unison or soaring chords, with some splashes of drums and jazzy syncopation.
On the other hand, the ensemble writing is quite striking, particularly in the mourning scene where the two trios are combined as a sextet of parishioners. Conductor Joseph Young led with confidence in a laudable company debut, effortlessly shifting between stylistic genres. Some unusual instrumental effects in the introduction to Act I signaled the tension underlying the story when the father, as a young man in a hoodie like his son later wears, is confronted by police officers with rubber truncheons, only to change characters and to put on a police uniform.
Thompson, assisted by associate director Cindy C. Oxberry, built a simple but effective staging. Simple set pieces, designed by Donald Eastman, are rolled in front of a projected backdrop depicting a block of townhouses. The changing colors of the lighting by Robert Wierzel changed the mood of this stationary backdrop according to the scene. Tazewell’s astute directing deepened the opera’s emotions: its joy, its vehement hatred, and its uplifting hope for healing.
Blue runs until March 25th. kennedy-center.org