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New Opera “Blue” Presents Searing Take on Police Violence

If opera can be the barometer of the present, Blue is the opera for our times. Complicated family dynamics, racial tensions, and authoritarian law enforcement are all at the backbone of the new opera by Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson, premiered at New York’s Glimmerglass Festival in 2019 and then mostly silenced by the pandemic. But Blue is back in strong shape this year — not only with Seattle Opera’s run that ended on March 12, but also with a crisp debut studio recording by Washington National Opera, conducted by Roderick Cox, out March 25 via the Pentatone label.

Like her first two operas, Tesori’s Blue was commissioned by Francesca Zambello, the director of Glimmerglass and Washington National Opera. Though the latter’s summer 2021 production was canceled, the premiere recording allows the music to take center stage, and benefits from the high points of the original collaboration. The Tony Award-winning theater composer has a flair for painting tonal flourishes and tasteful orchestral washes that approximate the emotional resonance of Thompson’s tightly crafted libretto. Tesori’s harmony and natural lyricism afford tension and release — a natural fit for Thompson’s tragic storytelling that is occasionally tempered by lighthearted relief.

Tazewell Thompson

Tazewell Thompson

The narrative of the two-act, two-hour opera consists of conversations that allude to key plot elements. The Son is born into a nameless Black family in Harlem, with a police officer for a father and a housewife for a mother, whose purpose and identity precariously depend on her husband, and now on her newborn. Tesori imitates the hubbub of a sports bar when the Father announces the birth of his child to his cop buddies. They celebrate. The Mother’s three girlfriends, on the other hand, express alarm at the prospect of raising a Black boy.

A 16-year jump cut introduces the Son as a disaffected teenager, aspiring artist, and social justice activist. In a second-act flashback, after the Son is killed by a cop offstage, the Father remembers that unavoidable, bittering talk they once had: “Don’t wear a hoodie. Don’t wear cornrows.” Don’t call attention to the police. Don’t get shot. When the Father, devastated, seeks solace from a soul-healing and moralizing Reverend, he echoes the rebellious tone of his dead Son. The conversation turns philosophical, making for stirring stage drama, which the opera-makers handle with cool dexterity.

Recorded, engineered, and produced by the company Soundmirror at the Kennedy Center Opera House, the album presents a persuasive version of the theater piece minus its staging. It also avoids deficiencies in balancing that are often a necessary compromise in live opera. The recording puts you neither in the orchestra pit nor onstage; instead, it makes you feel as though you’re hovering above the action, taking in the colorful orchestrations, the well-timed swells from the string section, the pitched percussion that is used sparingly for emphasis, the solo instruments — flute, trumpet, clarinet, violin — that peek above Tesori’s swathes of sound, and the triumphant tutti climaxes that round out sections with voices belting full tilt.

Jeanine Tesori--Photo by Rodolfo Martinez

Jeanine Tesori–Photo by Rodolfo Martinez

Oh, and those voices! The quartet of principals from the Glimmerglass premiere returns: Kenneth Kellogg as the Father, Briana Hunter as the Mother, Aaron Crouch as the Son, and Gordon Hawkins as the Reverend. Tesori’s score, which never devolves to fodder for a sung play, serves as a vehicle of sweeping lyrical expression for the singers, each channeling the pain, anger, and uncertainty the libretto puts them through.

The opera’s most memorable moments, which Tesori deftly keeps from falling into melodrama, come from the development of the “Lay my burden down” theme. After an a capella choral passage for the Reverend and the congregants, the theme erupts into a full-blown reprise, with clash from cymbals, full strings, and brass. It is the opera’s stunning, stirring climax.

With Blue, composer and librettist present a searing take on life in America 10 years after the shooting of Trayvon Martin. It is at once urgent and relatable, but also sensitive to the tradition it seeks to add a contemporary spin on. Like most art, opera needs to remain pertinent to the concerns of the day if it is to gain a foothold among the younger generations, for they’re the ones who might sustain it in the future. Blue, with this new recording as a self-standing document, points that way. Experience it live at Pittsburgh Opera this April, or at Toledo Opera (Ohio) in August.

 

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