Seattle Opera 2021-22 Review: Blue
Seattle Opera has produced a captivating production of the new opera ‘Blue’, composed by Jeanine Tesori to the libretto by Tazewell Thompson, who also conducted the show. All the elements came together for the West Coast premiere and created an engaging, illuminating and moving experience.
Originally commissioned by the Glimmerglass Festival directed by Francesca Zambello (who influenced the creation of the work), “Blue” premiered in the summer of 2019 and won several awards. A few productions were planned regionally, although some were postponed due to the pandemic; However, Seattle was blessed with this major new opera in which music and words merge to shine a light on current issues such as racism, violence and the resulting loss. And how lucky were the audience to hear the singers behind the two main roles: Briana Hunter as Mother and Kenneth Kellogg as Father.
A universal journey from joy to tragedy
A powerful attribute of great art is that it can be timely and timeless. “Blue” that’s it; it tells the story of a specific family in Harlem at the turn of the 20th century while remaining eye-opening for everyone everywhere. The family’s generic names, “The Father”, “The Mother” and “The Son”, emphasize their status as persons.
Tesori and Tazewell have structured the opera into two acts framed by a prologue and an epilogue that condense selected scenes into a powerful narrative around the joyful birth, short life and tragic death of a young black man. The opera opens with a short instrumental prelude as three policemen confront a black man in jeans and a hoodie. They silently lead him to the police station, where the identities blur as he changes into a police uniform and becomes the Father, an “officer of the law”, as he later calls himself. It is here that Tesori’s music is at its most abstract and atonal, using percussive effects and drone sounds to elicit a general sense of unease.
A sorority of goodwill
We quickly meet La Mère, a restaurateur, and her three Friends, who send her congratulations and warnings when they learn the news of her pregnancy. They warn her of the risks “every black girl knows” of bringing a black son into the world. From this moment, the music leaves behind its first atonal gestures. It effectively shifts from natural, humorous musical dialogue between close friends to utterly delightful bars when The Mother expresses her love for her husband, saying, “Big shoulders that can carry the weight of the world. Great deep voice – I could pitch a tent and live in the body of that voice forever. Big thick lips that when he kisses me he takes me to the river!
Briana Hunter’s vibrant and beautiful mezzo pulsed with emotion and shone with hope through an array of nuances, colors and vocal dynamics.
The scene ends as the girlfriends offer beautifully worded well-wishes for the little boy. “Scrape the wax off your wings. Fly to the sun. Stand tall in front of all others, like a beacon. Know that you are wanted and loved. Let the goodness within you shine a light on the dark road. Throughout the opera, Tazewell brilliantly balanced natural colloquialism with rich poetry that was grounded in this way.
New parents find their way
After the birth of The Son, the score and libretto continue to move deftly between light, humorous scenes and breathtakingly lyrical sections. An overly perky and off-the-record maternity nurse — cleverly played by high-flying soprano Ariana Wehr — offers new parents comedic advice. In brilliant symmetry, the dad’s three cop pals offer their amusing toasts and cautionary advice to parents, welcoming him as a new member of the “dads club” while watching a football game on television in a sports bar. Camron Gray, Korland Simmons, and Joshua Conyers were cast perfectly as friends, easily showcasing the stage humor and camaraderie of the band.
Tesori gave Father some soaring music as he tried to express how he felt about his impending fatherhood to his friends, “Like a jockey riding a carousel horse, galloping through a field of stars. A jockey who just grabbed a brass ring. I feel like the first man on the moon. Kenneth Kellogg presented a strong stage and vocal presence. Yet he played a lot of those early scenes in a rather stoic way, which I think limited his ability to bring nuances of tone and dynamics to euphoric music.
Anxiety and conflict in adolescent girls
Contrary to the upbeat elements of the story so far, the plot takes a sudden leap 16 years into the future, where we meet The Son, now a rebellious and righteous teenager fighting for independence at home and economic and racial justice in society. Tesori and Tazewell immerse us in a high-stakes argument The Son has with his father, which covers territory familiar to most parents and teenagers, as well as issues unique to this family around the tensions of being the black son. of a black cop. “Look at you! Dressed in a blue clown costume. The white man’s dog. His lackey. Don’t you know they despise you? Don’t you know that no matter what you do for them, it’s never enough.
The scene is long and tense, but it ends with a poignant musical epiphany as the Father holds his son and promises, “I will never let you go. Not tonight, not tomorrow, never.
Kellogg commanded in this duet, his responsive, resonant voice and clear, powerful diction and phrasing as he described the Father’s anger and frustration. Tenor Joshua Stewart was surprisingly believable as a passionate teenager, with his clarion voice and youthful physique conveying the sardonic worldview of the teenager. To the credit of Tesori, Tazewell and Stewart, an operatic tenor expressing the overwhelming angst of a contemporary black teenager sounded perfectly believable.
Tragedy strikes, religion falls short
The second act begins with an anguished meeting between the father and the reverend, during which we learn that a policeman killed the son during a demonstration. The stakes couldn’t be higher as the father rages over the loss of his son and the grave injustice while the Reverend tries to lead him beyond his fury and pain to heal through faith religious. Many of Tazewell’s lyrics raise deep and provocative questions about the role of religion. Yet in the performance, the scene was too long and bordering on being didactic as neither character changed the other’s thinking. When two characters start a scene with different points of view, then talk (or sing) for about 15 minutes to end the scene where they started, you’re at a theatrical dead end. Gordon Hawkins’ grounded baritone brought grandeur and conviction to the Reverend’s long vocal line, and Kellogg was in his element to express the father’s newfound cynicism and resentment, often with understated intensity.
The grief of mothers
The mother’s grief-filled funeral preparations with her three girlfriends took us over an emotional cliff. The contrast of these women from act one to act two was impressive. Their girlfriend’s gossip about the first act turns to bitter, angry grief at The Son’s death, along with all the other instances where “the big white hunter in uniform and packing” ran over young people, men and women. black women “like flies”. What a testament to the versatility of the three women representing girlfriends: Ariana Wehr, Elliana Lewis and Cheryse McLeod Lewis. Each sang individually with breathtaking conviction of tone and purpose, which blended into a unified chorus of despair. The mother’s desperate depression was searing in Briana Hunter’s hands. “Bring my baby back!” Whichever way you choose, I’ll take it. Take his hands and feet away, but bring him back to me. Bring him back blind. But bring it back to me.
The funeral scene was serene and spiritual as the reverend and the congregation sang a mixture of solos and fragments, with one track, “Somebody, oh somebody”, based on the musical fabric of the Black spiritual, built into a large ensemble complex. . Tazewell created beautiful images to send The Son to heaven: “Find him a room near a galaxy of stars. He will like the light when he sleeps.
A glimmer of lost possibilities
The opera seems to end before unexpectedly launching into the epilogue – a flashback to an upbeat family dinner the same night the police kill The Son. Here, Tesori and Tazewell rekindle all the hope we felt in the first act, giving The Mother an endless sequence of playful words and deft rhymes about the incredible dinner she cooked. But the memory fades as the congregation sings their hymn.
A brilliant and unified score and libretto
Overall, Tesori’s score has a broad musical appeal that is primarily tonal in feel. The music is majestic and sweeping, yet intimate and personal, with robust classical elements and no trace of its “Broadway sound”. (Tesori composed the Tony Award-winning score for “Fun Home.”) His palette has nuanced reflections of black American musical idioms, but it’s no pastiche – the score creates and inhabits its own world and is totally unified. Most impressive is how the music brings Tazewell’s stunning libretto to life in a seamless collaboration.
Tesori writes well for classical voices, individually and for small ensembles. And the orchestration was ideal, rarely drawing attention to itself. Conductor Viswa Subbaraman deserves huge credit for the orchestra’s vibrant and unified sound.
Ideal production design
The sets, lighting and costumes were indeed sober and simple. The towering backdrop of pristine white Harlem brownstones, placed in a skewed perspective, was both beautiful and offered opportunities for subtle and magical shifts in lighting. Yet it also elevated the story to a timeless and universal status, asserting that this tragedy could happen anywhere.