Sun. Mar 12th, 2023


Normally I’m pretty good with deadlines, but this review is coming in three years late.

“Blue,” an opera by composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist Tazewell Thompson, was supposed to be the first opera I reviewed upon my arrival at The Washington Post in March 2020, just a few days shy of the you-know-what.

Three years ago this week, the Washington National Opera was immersed in final dress rehearsals of “Blue” at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater (where the restored run continues until March 25) when word came down that the Kennedy Center would cancel all of its performances.

It’s both good and bad news that the three-year postponement did nothing to dull the resonance or rob the relevance of this searing and precisely sculpted operatic portrait of a family destroyed by police violence.

Originally commissioned in 2015, “Blue” premiered four years later at the Glimmerglass Festival, where WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello served as artistic and general director until 2022. The opera was composed in the wake of a spike in public awareness (and smartphone documentation) of police killings of unarmed Black people — a list of names long since engraved into the public consciousness: Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Eric Harris and others.

Had the coronavirus pandemic not dashed the D.C. premiere, the curtains would have raised two days after police officers shot Breonna Taylor in her Louisville, home. Or two months before the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Or three years before the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols by five police officers in Memphis.

The seeming imperishability of racial injustice in America serves as the smoldering core of this opera’s formidable power.

Thompson, for instance, renders the opera’s family nameless, timeless: the Mother (powerfully sung by mezzo-soprano Briana Hunter), the Father (a cauldron-voiced cop sung by bass Kenneth Kellogg) and the Son (sung by dazzling tenor Aaron Crouch, making his WNO debut) together form a new archetypal trinity of American tragedy.

The effect is twofold and wryly ironic: In Tazewell’s deceptively light and welcomely poetic libretto (he truly is a singer’s librettist), the family exists as placeholders for the unfolding of an inevitable tragedy one watches helplessly, like a burning house in a silent movie. But this apparent reduction of the family to roles occupied by every member of the audience also uncannily honors that unspoken casualty of police violence, so often flattened by headlines and overwhelmed by sensationalist discourse: Black humanity.

It’s already common practice in parlance to shorthand “Blue” as an opera “about” police violence against unarmed Black Americans. But the cutting edge of “Blue” is its sharp employment of contrast — the intentional development and full-throated celebration of Black joy, love, pride, angst, fury, pain, confusion, hope and (quite literal) grace.

In fact, the act of violence at the opera’s center takes place while the rest of us are out blithely sipping bubbles, through an intermission that comprises a 16-year lapse.

The killing of the Son by the bullets of one of the Father’s fellow officers remains unseen, uncaptured, unfilmed, unbroadcast. It stays outside the bounds of the opera — an irreconcilable fact that breaks like a headline. Viewers only learn the news through the mouth of the Reverend (in a show-stealing turn by baritone Joshua Conyers) as he counsels a Kellogg’s tormented Father in one of the opera’s most powerful duos.

But the violence “Blue” elides still haunts the music, emerging as a tinge of submerged dread in Act I — as the Mother’s friends receive a one-two punch of bad news: Not only is she marrying a cop, but she’s also expecting a boy. “It’s stitched into the stars and stripes,” Girlfriend 2 (the charismatic soprano Katerina Burton) sings. “Thou shalt bring forth no Black boys into this world!”

Hunter sings a breathtaking turn from a hopeful mother-to-be (“I know who I am now / I’m somebody’s mother”) to a broken woman, lost in a trance of grief. Kellogg, too, quakes first with mounting rage and paternal concern, then crumbles into a wreck of misery and memory. “How many sons do we have to give,” he sings to the sky, “before you can’t hold one more?”

Thrilling singing abounds in this show. The mezzo-soprano Rehanna Thelwell was especially strong, delivering an anguished passage (new to the libretto) in reference to Breonna Taylor’s death. And her cohort of Girlfriends, rounded out by Burton and soprano Ariana Wehr, were responsible for some of the most impressive ensemble pieces.

I did find myself wishing more than once for more physicality in the performances; the rapport of the Girlfriends was evident in their movement, faces and eyes. The companion trio of Officers made up of bass-baritone Christian Simmons and tenors Camron Gray and Jonathan Pierce Rhodes, meanwhile, felt a little too off-duty.

A key thread of this opera is its keen exploration of the Father’s and Son’s generationally distinct interpretations of masculinity — but this message didn’t quite make it through the bodies of the men in the cast, despite outstanding singing across the board. (Also: That coffin needs new casters, stat. Its bumpy wheel-out inspired some audible discomfort in the rows.)

Tesori’s music throughout is full of delicious surprises, able to bear weighty emotional content across melodic scaffolds of impressive delicacy. She likes crafting passages of gathering tension that build and blur into deeply satisfying neo-fugues. She likes interlocking modular melodies and sweeping orchestral gestures. But she’s also unafraid of brazenly earwormy themes and head-cocking musical tricks (such as the creepy siren-esque strings and strummed piano guts that shadow the opening dream sequence).

And like grief itself, Tesori’s music doesn’t grow so much as deepen. Through the funeral stretch of the second act, timpanis shudder, mourning horns low and the opera’s heart rate slows to a woe-stricken plod.

(Let this production serve as an opportunity to experience some of Tesori’s operatic work before the WNO stages the world premiere of “Grounded” in October — and before that show goes on to disrupt the Metropolitan Opera’s proverbial all-male revue of composers, expected sometime in 2025.)

Conductors Joseph Young and Jonathan Taylor Rush will split duties for the run, and on Saturday, the former drew a lively, engaged and largely well-balanced performance from the Washington National Opera Orchestra — with bassoonist Joseph Grimmer and oboist Igor Leschishin frequently catching my ears from the pit. (The WNO’s own studio recording of “Blue,” released in 2022 and led by conductor Roderick Cox, is well worth a listen.)

Donald Eastman’s set design was spare and impactful and served the story well; his backdrop of washed-out Harlem rowhouses evoked a skewed stand of Grecian columns, looming over the proceedings and lending a blend of dramatic precarity and mythic inevitability.

These touches also boosted the classical glow of Thompson’s libretto — with its frequent invocations of mythology threaded into the weave of the words. When the Girlfriends discover the Mother is engaged to a police officer, for instance, “the sound you hear is serpents growing out of my head!” When they acquiesce and offer their blessings to the Mother, they also beseech her to “scrape the wax off your wings.” As the Mother mourns her son’s loss, a woe-stricken Girlfriend imagines “a bird may swoop down and tear out her innards.”

In 2020, when nobody could see it, “Blue” earned best new opera honors from the Music Critics Association of North America. In 2023, opera fans in a twist over the future (or fate) of the form would be well served to see why. Even three years late, “Blue” feels painfully and beautifully of the moment — and not a moment too soon.

“Blue” runs at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater through March 25.

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