As ENO faced its own upheaval the past few months, I'm all for this new look with getting new audiences into the opera sphere. The topics of race have become even more pressing now and this return to a firecracker opera from the US might just be the call for reason.
Composed by Jeanine Tesori, this is a score crammed with genres. It's all here: jazz, R&B, soul, spirituals and more. The orchestration is also impressive, the opening saw Henry Cowellesque piano string flurries, one of many thrillingly discordant bars. A decent amount of percussion is also featured and the brass has good outings here as well. As ever, the orchestra wowed, with conductor Matthew Kofi Waldren sharing a fiery spirit in this diverse opera that should bring in new audiences.
The story is extremely slight, most of the first act seeing this character of a policeman, his wife and their friends reduced to an extended pregnancy and birth, that felt like it was nine months on stage. Even though the programme resorts to compressing the second act to one sentence, the son who grows up is eventually shot down during a recent protest. A funeral ensues, leading to the intense surge of emotional weight that the opera leaves us with. The pain and fury over such injustice leave many questions unanswered here. How do we go on? What is my own justice? How do we learn to get along? Not a single white character is seen here, as this big, black production burst onto the London stage.
As The Mother, Nadine Benjamin might wear the crown for the most invigorating performance of the night, the voice commanding in these moments of misery. Her last scene sees her list a mouth-watering selection of native foods she has put on for her family, a happier moment before the chaos. The Father is Kenneth Kellogg who having a few wobbles in this demanding role, still won us over with his acting and plush vocals. The Son seen as an adult is taken by Zwakele Tshabalala. His promise was proven with his tenure with the ENO Harewood Scheme, not on stage a lot though some built-up tension with the father figure proved compelling. A supporting cast of random nurses, friends and a Reverend demonstrate powerful voices that shine through in the soaring conclusion.
The rectangular staging set by Alex Lowde and the Harlem-focused, prickly video work of Ravi Deepres adds to the grandeur of the themes, though audiences might want to sit as centrally as possible to see well. The libretto by Tazewell Thompson has surety, with a breadth of references and observations. A good wit from some lighter moments was a welcome relief also.
It runs till 4th May.
Review: James Ellis Photo: Zoe Martin