Monday 29 November 2021

Wagner - Die Walküre (London, 2021)

Richard Wagner - The Valkyrie (London, 2021)

English National Opera, 2021

Martyn Brabbins, Richard Jones, Matthew Rose, Rachel Nicholls, Nicky Spence, Emma Bell, Brindley Sherratt, Susan Bickley, Nadine Benjamin, Mari Wyn Williams, Kamilla Dunstan, Fleur Barron, Jennifer Davis, Idunnu Münch, Claire Barnett-Jones, Katie Stevenson

The Coliseum, London - 19th November 2021

The announcement of a new Ring Cycle at the Coliseum was welcome news for many opera goers and followers of the English National Opera. It was a sign that new Artistic Director Annilese Miskimmon had some creative ideas to revive the fortunes of a company that has recently been going through some difficult times. The news was also greeted however with a certain amount of caution and indeed even trepidation by those who had been to see director Richard Jones's previous Ring for Covent Garden, or indeed any of his productions. There was little here to suggest that Jones would be a natural fit for Wagner.

Still, that doesn't have to be an essential quality and sometimes it's useful to get another perspective where the Der Ring des Nibelungen is concerned. While it's perhaps a little too early to look for any distinctive ideas or themes emerging, some of those concerns do appear to be well-founded in this opening opera of the tetralogy; not least the fact that it's opening with Die Walküre - and following the ENO's dated ideals about English language performances it's of course The Valkerie - commercial imperatives perhaps necessarily superceding artistic considerations.

Those are the least of this production's concerns, although commercial considerations may have also been a factor in the set designs looking a little sparse and the ideas at this stage looking a little thin. One would think that being a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera in New York might have provided a few more resources, but considering the expense poured into the Met's last Ring Cycle - and continuing pandemic related problems -  caution may also have been the watchword there. Whether the concept is fully developed or not, and whether it is expanded on at all before it gets to the Met (it is surely too small scale for the Met), Jones's The Valkyrie looks like a work in progress.

There is always going to be something of a feeling of lack of completeness in any production of Die Walküre, and this Ring cycle hasn't even given us a Das Rheingold (or The Rhinegold) yet, but the problems here go deeper than that. Many of the great set pieces of this opera fell flat, with Act III suffering most in this respect. The horses ridden by the green raincoat wearing Valkyrie looked like the front half of a pantomime horse, the scene only saved by the combined singing strengths of the Valkyrie. Brünnhilde's fate to go out in a blaze of disgrace at the finale was scuppered by the Westminster council's refusal to allow naked flames to be lit on the stage of the Coliseum, but even with it I'm not sure that Jones would have pulled off the kind of spectacle needed.

For Richard Jones however it seems the limitations imposed, or self-imposed, is a chance to focus on the nuts and bolts of the drama, on the characters and the relationships between them. The idea of the cast wearing jeans and T-shirt type casuals is otherwise baffling other than it simply being an attempt not to distract or distance through traditional costumes of heroic mythology. With Wagner's music played for all its dramatic and emotional potential and some fine singing, the attention to character more than concept can pay dividends, and to an extent Jones succeeded in bringing in some tweaks to characterisation, but not on any level that would be considered insightful or revelatory.

The sets can best be described as functional and minimal, aligned to mood. A twisted ash breaking through the roof of Hunding's abode - a surprisingly small cabin rather than any kind of manor - was all that sat on the largely empty stage in Act I, with some shadowy figures hovering around to rotate the set now and again. The second scene of Act II consisted of a row of distorted trees and a few troughs of soil for the performers to run through. Each Act however concluded on a mostly bare stage with the concluding drama of the scene enacted in a circle of light. The dead heroes of the start of Act III were borne up to Valhalla on wires, to allow the Valkyrie their moment and clear the stage for the final non-conflagration.

It all played out fairly conventionally then with just little twists of emphasis on characterisation. Not even twists, just minor tweaks or injections of character and personality. Hunding was shown clearly to be an abusive brute to his wife, which enhanced the dangerous and distasteful side of his character and made his comeuppance feel truly merited. We also got excellent singing and performance to go along with this from Brindley Sherratt. Nicky Spence was labouring under a cold but showed little sign of it in another strong and consistent performance as Siegmund. His refusal to be transported to Valhalla without Sieglinde was heartfelt and absolutely heartbreaking. Emma Bell's also sang wonderfully, even if Jones failed to really get across the bond between her Sieglinde and Spence's Siegmund.

A Ring Cycle wouldn't be a Ring Cycle without some serious mishaps and problems and this one looks like having more than its fair share. Susan Bickley, cast as Fricke, was unable to sing at all, and had to walk through her role while it was sung from the wings by Claire Barnett-Jones, who took this on in addition to her role as the Valkyrie Rossweisse. This worked just fine. Matthew Rose was a capable and very demonstrative Wotan, striding onto the stage in Act II punching the air at the success of his plans in Act I, only to see them dashed soon after. This kind of dynamic set Wotan out as somewhat petulant, but a petulant god is still a fearsome thing, even one dressed as a lumberjack with his log cabin Valhalla.

It will be interesting to see why Giants are needed in the construction of a log cabin when it comes to producing
Das Rheingold, but there were at least some promising hints of what could be done in the highly effective use of some eerily lifelike projections of Alberich during Wotan's recounting of the fateful incidents that set this downfall of the Gods into motion. It's an indication that much more could surely have been done to make this production more menacing and visually interesting.

Sung in English, the translation tried to strike a balance between colloquial and rendering of Wagner's old German poetics, so the delivery was inevitably a little awkward in places, although sung passages were such more successful at sounding closer to the familiar German. The perceived and forced limitations of the production and stage design aside - functional but with little in the way of this director's usual flair - this was however an otherwise enjoyable production of Die Walküre at least as far as musical and singing performances go. Martyn Brabbins's conducting drove the drama along purposefully with impact and emotional charge where required. Far from feeling like a complete opera in itself, the ENO's The Valkyrie at least offers hope that there is room for improvement and development by the time we get to performances of a full cycle.

Links: English National Opera

Tuesday 9 November 2021

Beethoven - Fidelio (Dublin, 2021)

Ludwig van Beethoven - Fidelio

Irish National Opera, 2021

Fergus Sheil, Annabelle Comyn, Sinéad Campbell Wallace, Robert Murray, Daniel Sumegi, Brian Mulligan, Kelli-Ann Masterson, Dean Power, David Howes, Jacek Wislocki, Matthew Mannion

The Gaiety Theatre, Dublin - 7th November 2021

Fidelio is very much an opera shaped by the time in which it was written and the difficulties the composer had in bringing it to the stage. The composition of Beethoven's only opera was a notoriously long and difficult process, going through several different versions and an ignominious debut in 1805 that was considered a failure. Little of those initial problems are evident now in whichever version is produced, whether as Fidelio or its earlier incarnation as Leonore. Its reputation as an opera relies on it being Beethoven's only opera to some extent, which is no small matter of course, but there are indisputably greater qualities evident in the work's themes. Those themes are related to the period when Vienna was occupied by French forces, but they can still have powerful resonance and meaning today if you can get over some of the work's problems. I don't think the Irish National Opera were entirely able to do that in their current production.

Fidelio is purest Beethoven, a composition that rates with the very best of his work, but the operatic conventions do age the work somewhat, and as opera was clearly not somewhere the composer was entirely comfortable, it doesn't really strike out any new or original ground. The libretto, one of the main problems with the composition that needing continuous rework and revision over its development, has some opera-comique elements and dry recitative that don't sit well alongside the rather more serious main subject, which is that of a story inspired by French Revolutionary ideals of a prisoner being held captive in secret and treated horrifically in captivity without trial.

There are ways to bring these two stories together. Evidently they are connected in the fact that the main character Fidelio - who is the object of the prison warder's daughter Marzelline's attentions, and consequently the love rival of Jaquino - is actually a woman, Leonore, the wife of the prisoner Florestan. She is seeking to find and rescue her husband from the prison, despite his existence and presence there not being recognised, as he is being kept there is secret as an act of personal revenge by Don Pizarro. With word of the prison governor due to visit, Pizarro wants to cover up his crimes by executing the prisoner being kept in the deepest darkest dungeon, the man already practically dead from starvation.

The element that notionally holds the two parts together in its original incarnation is the theme of married love; of a wife who will go to desperate lengths to save her husband from an unjust fate for the love that lies between them. There are of course many other aspects, both political and humanistic - and even proto-feminist - that can be drawn from this situation, from the tyranny of Pizarro's injustice and the determination of Florestan to suffer the consequences of his belief in truth and freedom, but the rather domestic and conventional rescue opera situations involving a woman disguised as a man leads to some forced comedy in the opening act that really does little for the work. If this were Mozart, those themes can feed though to a more rounded character development and expression of sentiments that deepens the themes. Here in Fidelio, it just seems conventional and perfunctory. 

Or at least in as far as you can ever find anything in Beethoven conventional or perfunctory. There is much to admire even in the opening scenes of the opera, which has some beautiful arias in there amidst the rather stiff recitative and the formality of the musical arrangements and romantic complications. If there is any real purpose to the opera revealed in these scenes aside from the consideration of what is important in a marriage and what is not (and a same-sex marriage would be one thing that would never have been considered in the original), it's in the way that the opera begins to really define what is and what is not important, establishing areas of light and shade, lightness and darkness, captivity and freedom, and viewing them as two sides of the same coin. Even behind the ordinary everyday matters there can be an underlying darkness. Fidelio's great achievement is in showing how even with that, hope can still exist and not be extinguished.

There are clear references to that in several scenes of the first act, not least in the brief release of the prisoner from their dark cells to spend a moment in the sunlight and fresh air. The prisoners chorus is simply a glorious moment, the gross inhumanity of what they have endured overshadowed/enlightened by a small act of kindness that means so much. It's a beautifully expressed sentiment and it is hope that holds it together; the belief and indeed even holding onto the memory that there is something better out there, something that it is not beyond reach.

Directing the Irish National Opera production Annabelle Comyn rightly focusses on light/dark and hope as being the humanistic heart of the work and its importance is no more clearly brought out than at the start of Act II. There is a noticeable shift in Beethoven's music, the heaviness that has been gradually alluded to now becoming inescapable as we are taken to the dark depths of the cell where Florestan is being detained, bound in chains, starving to death, about to be executed. All hope is almost snuffed out and yet we see the almost dead Florestan crawl towards a thin sliver of light that somehow manages to penetrate the utter darkness of this dank hole. It's chilling and a heart soaring moment at the same time.

The greatest expression of this human ability to endure and strive to hold onto hope and the fight for truth and justice is of course in the singing. In Florestan's voice we sense that purpose and determination, much as we have already seen it to a similar extent in the bravery of his wife Leonore's actions. It's interesting that the same qualities were evident in the performance of Satyagraha that I saw in London last week, about how it becomes possible not to submit to despair when you know you have truth and right on your side. Comparing Glass with Beethoven might raise eyebrows, but the same principle applies; the meaning and its ability to reach out to an audience is expressed through the music and through the human voice much more so than the dramatic presentation.

Fortunately, Beethoven's music - long laboured over to achieve just such an effect - and the performance of it under Fergus Sheil manage to get this across superbly at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin on the opening night of this production. So too did the singing, with notably fine performances from Robert Murray as Florestan and Sinéad Campbell Wallace as Leonore. Kelli-Ann Masterson also stood out as Marzelline, but all the singing performances were excellent, finding the truth to their characters situation even if the libretto, the English translation of the recitative and the delivery of it left something to be desired.

This is something that the director never managed to get to grips with. The fact that the opera was sung in German and the recitative spoken in English wasn't really a problem, that was an easy enough switch to make. The way it was delivered however was completely lacking in any naturalistic intonation and it just contributed to the early scenes feeling inauthentic and lacking any real drama or emotion. The set designs didn't particularly help. They were basic and functional in the presentation of a relatively modern prison or containment facility - a computer screen, the prisoners wearing orange jumpsuits - but there could have been much more done to make this relatable and relevant to contemporary struggles for truth, freedom and justice.

Putting aside what it wasn't or what it maybe should have been, the little touches and emphases of light and dark were enough to win over an appreciative Dublin audience to the brilliance of Fidelio as an opera and highlight the important expression of humanistic qualities within it. If the production was lacking and didn't manage to address the dialogue/acting weaknesses that remain hazardous in this particular opera, the musical performances and the singing were nonetheless of the usual high standard we have come to expect from the Irish National Opera.

Links: Irish National Opera

Friday 5 November 2021

Glass - Satyagraha (London, 2021)

Philip Glass - Satyagraha

English National Opera, 2021

Carolyn Kuan, Phelim McDermott, Sean Panikkar, Musa Ngqungwana, William Thomas, Sarah Pring, Verity Wingate, Felicity Buckland, Gabriella Cassidy, James Cleverton, Ross Ramgobin

The London Coliseum - 28th October 2021

There aren't many contemporary operas by living composers that consistently draw audiences, but Philip Glass's Satyagraha is back this year for a third run (unless I've missed any) at the English National Opera, so I guess it must be popular. That's something I can testify to since it's also the third time I've been to see this production at the Coliseum in a well-attended close to sold-out theatre (in 2006/07 and 2009/10 seasons), not to mention even taking the opportunity to see the same production by Phelim McDermott when it was livestreamed from the Met in 2011 where I imagine it will also be regularly revived. 

Indeed it may be McDermott's production that makes this an attractive prospect. There's no question that the colourful and creative set pieces work well with the music, but in an opera that is without a conventional narrative, that is written in Sanskrit and is fairly abstract in its treatment and subject, it is not so easy to say why it works so successfully. It is surely more than just spectacle, although that is evidently part of it, and the manner in which the Improbable team scale up simple ideas made out of paper, cardboard and sellotape to great theatrical effect is definitely impressive.

In some ways the simple grandeur of Satyagraha (as opposed to the busy grandeur for example of McDermott's almost equally excellent work for Akhnaten) aligns perfectly with the purpose of the opera. Ostensibly it's an opera about Gandhi, one of the famous three early Glass portrait operas, but the real purpose of the opera is of course to express an idea, Gandhi's idea of Satyagraha; achieving justice, change and peace through the truth force of nonviolent protest. It's this idea and the expression of it through the opera, through the music of Philip Glass at the peak of his creativity and originality (other opinions on Glass may vary) that are undoubtedly brought out or supported in the stage direction.

It's interesting in the meantime, since my last viewing of this opera production, to have seen McDermott's Tao of Glass at the Theatre Royal in Manchester in 2019. A semi-autobiographical piece, in it the director himself explored his relationship with the music of Philip Glass - in a very "Improbable" way of course - and by staging it as something magical it proved to be much more effective and enlightening than any interview with the director. The music of Philip Glass, despite what some critics might think, can touch deeply and in its hypnotic way perhaps even achieve an almost spiritual awakening. Or that was true at least of McDermott's experience.

The music of Glass for Satyagraha strives to achieve that impact as well, and it is capable of putting forward its theme with no need of any directorial assistance. Without even narrative reference to it in Constance de Jong's libretto - which just takes texts directly from the Bhagavad-Gita, Gandhi's inspiration for Satyagraha - the opera nonetheless chronologically follows the development of this theme and the autobiographical progress of Gandhi's path of non-violent protest in South Africa and India in its outline stage directions. It's also laid out in the actual titles of the three sections of the three acts of the opera also refer to the idea of Satyagraha throughout history, from Tolstoy and Tagore through to Martin Luther King.

Act 1 scene 1 (The Kuru Field of Justice) starts as it means to go on, already putting everything into place. It opens with the solo unaccompanied voice of Mohandas Gandhi, turns into a duet with Prince Arjuna and then a trio with Lord Krishna, and soon involves a whole chorus as the warring families prepare to do battle. From a single lone voice, the message spreads into a whole movement that has purity and strength of purpose to find a better course of action than violence. The music increases accordingly from a simple cello pattern to full orchestration (the limits of the original production leaving no room for brass section with a Glassian keyboard used to fill out the sound). Similar patterns are used for each scene in the other acts, the rhythmic pulse always present, the changes a little more dramatically inclined and more sudden in this opera than the typical repetitive music-with-changing-parts early-period Glass.

Phelim McDermott finds a simple and abstract way to illustrate each scene, while keeping the characters in traditional period costume and Gandhi in his familiar robes. Each scene of Julian Crouch's set is almost like a tableau vivante, with limited movement yet enough to give a sense of the setting for the staging of protests. Like the music, the director takes the time to slowly let the scene build, uses newspapers (the importance of the Indian Opinion newspaper as a channel to Gandhi's spreading of his message with no outside influence over the content), sellotape and corrugated cardboard cutouts. These can expand out match the huge scale and ambition of the work, the subject and the musical progression, with giant puppet figures battling each other, people floating up into the heavens and Tolstoy, Tagore and King present in little mini tableaux high up at the back of the stage.

There is plenty to enjoy in McDermott's staging that makes this worth repeated viewing, and seeing a Glass opera live in a theatre is always a worthwhile experience. It's enough clearly to keep drawing audiences back to see revivals of this work (and I expect back to Akhnaten again in the future). Perhaps more than anything however what is attractive about Satyagraha is the appeal of the subject and the unconventional abstract approach it takes towards getting its message across.

Much has happened in the world since the opera was written in 1980 and indeed much has happened even since the first performances of this production in 2007, but all of it seems to chime with or validate the idea of a 'truth force' or a force for truth against the tyranny of injustice. From the protests in Hong Kong to Black Lives Matter and Climate Change Extinction Rebellion protests, whatever your contemporary reference, Satyagraha has a very persuasive message that change can be achieved through peaceful protest, through "people power". The opera invites you to share in that idea and as an audience feel a part of something noble and perhaps even achievable.

That was very successfully put across on the final night of the current run of Satyagraha at the Coliseum. Carolyn Kuan's handling of the orchestra was excellent, meeting the uniquely challenging and unconventional demands of this work. One other thing that has changed in the meantime since I last saw the opera is that despite ingrained prejudice and fear of a "woke agenda", it is probably no longer sustainable for Caucasian actors to take on roles like Mohandas Gandhi, particularly when a singer of closer and more authentic ethnicity like Sean Panikkar shows what can be done when given the opportunity. He sings the role superbly with a clear, bright lyrical tenor. Aside from Gandhi, while there are defined roles, individual performances are less critical than the role they play in the ensemble, and the power of the work was fully felt through each of the singers and the chorus.

Links: English National Opera

Monday 1 November 2021

Blanchard - Fire Shut Up in My Bones (New York, 2021)

Terence Blanchard - Fire Shut Up in My Bones

The Metropolitan Opera, New York - 2021

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, James Robinson, Camille A. Brown, Will Liverman, Angel Blue, Latonia Moore, Walter Russell III, Ryan Speedo Green, Cheikh M’Baye, Oleode Oshotse, Ejiro Ogodo, Judah Taylor, Norman Garrett, Terrence Chin-Loy, Briana Hunter, Chauncey Packer, Denisha Ballew, Marguerite Mariah Jones

The Met: Live in HD - 23rd October 2021

There are many obvious reasons why Fire Shut Up in My Bones is an important opera. Not only is it the first opera written by a black composer ever to be played at the Met, it was also chosen to be the flagship opera opening the new 2021/22 season. That alone is something to celebrate, never mind the little pleasure that can be taken in the discomfort it will bring to a segment of a certain classical music site's commentariat who live in abject fear of woke-ism encroaching into their sad little world. As important as this is as a historical and a necessary development in the world of opera - it's utterly incredible that black culture has not been represented at the New York opera house until now - the only thing that really matters is whether Fire Shut Up in My Bones is a good opera or not. We can clear up that question right away; it certainly is.

Actually, it's not enough to say it's either an important opera or a good opera; it's much more than that. It's a brilliant opera, tackling a difficult subject boldly and wholly successfully. For a new opera by a black composer to be accepted on its own terms is a considerable challenge, particularly as it could be judged either indulgently or with unreasonable expectations. Terence Blanchard has composed only one opera before, but has considerable musical experience and acclaim as a jazz musician (as a jazz fan, I am familiar with his writing and playing). His talent is abundantly evident here, and it's the fact that he doesn't come from the traditional academic classical position that makes his musical arrangements here far more original than almost any modern opera I've seen in a long time.

The subject of the opera is, as I said, a difficult one and it's well-named; Fire Shut Up in My Bones a biblical reference from Jeremiah to a burning passion that could be love and could be hatred, that simply has to be let out otherwise it will be all-consuming. It's based on the memoir of writer and journalist Charles M. Blow's account of life as a black man in the American South. Race prejudice is certainly an issue that cannot be avoided, but the difficulties experienced by Charles as a child are compounded by him being of a sensitive and delicate disposition. More than anything it's experiencing episodes of sexual abuse by a cousin at the age of 7 that mark the young child and which become something that affects his life thereafter as he struggles to find his place in the world and find a loving relationship.

The construction of the opera as a flashback with a framing device might not seem original but it suffices to grab attention, and once it has you it doesn't let go. Charles has a gun and is on his way back home to kill the man who abused him as a child. Or kill himself. After that however, there is little that is conventional about what also appears to be a difficult coming-of-age story blighted by the horror of living with being sexually abused as a child. What makes this journey extraordinary is not so much the subject - which is of course powerful in its own right - as much as the treatment, and there is nothing about Blanchard's writing that follows any expected musical rule or convention.

It's not just the richness of the musical language used, although again in itself it shifts imperceptibly from sweeping orchestral romantic to swinging jazz, disco, ballet and gospel, but any scene and song arrangement can incorporate a number of those elements blended together or in sequence. Aside from the skillful manner in which this is employed, Blanchard bringing a daring newness and freshness to the Met stage (and credit to the Met for bringing it to the stage also), everything matches and works well with the content. And, since the libretto is so strong, so heartfelt, poetic and meaningful, never sinking to platitudes, each scene brings its own lyrical, emotional and dramatic challenges. What it brilliant is that Blanchard just knocks it out of the park in each scene.

That is immediately apparent in an early scene in Act I in a Louisiana bar where Charles's mother Billie turns up with a gun to settle matters with Charles's no-good womanising father. It's quite classically cinematic, but what is impressive is the concision of it all. Not a line or musical line is wasted. Blanchard uses blues for the playing band, but blends this with music that captures a whole range of situations and characters, capturing a period, place, character and atmosphere to perfection, while at the same time dramatically it just holds you rapt, amused and emotionally connected. It's not just an insert for local colour either but you are aware that this will become a key moment, an important life lesson, without knowing just how vital it will be. And that's only the start. There is not a single superfluous or wasted line or situation that doesn't have a similar purpose and concision that gets the essence of the scene across perfectly.

Only the fraternity scene at the beginning of Act III feels less easy to relate to from a personal perspective and it's a little too coming-of-age making-of-a-man conventional, but even so it's important to the progression of the Charles life. Director Camille A. Brown, working alongside James Robinson, was previously assistant director on last season's Porgy and Bess for the Met, and her experience is principally as a choreographer. That is put to marvellous use in such scenes, bringing a fluidity to the movement that matches the music and progression of the drama. Allen Moyer's sets are simple but effective, using box like constructions that similarly move into place and can be transformed in an instant with projections and lighting without the huge expense for example of Robert LePage's Machine for the Met's Ring Cycle. All this ensures that the opera never feels static.

Blanchard's music is similarly fluid and incremental, each scene building on the previous one, harnessing what has come before and taking it further, creatively, emotionally and lyrically. And this is no relatively short modern opera or music theatre either, but a full length two-and-a-half-hour opera of rich and constantly inventive music with singing that requires real stamina. It's staggering to feel the accumulated impact of it all when streamed live on a cinema screen, but imagine the impact this must have on a member of the audience, seeing the story of a black man presented in this fashion. Imagine the audience that this must bring to the Met for their first experience of an opera, but for anyone, this would simply be an impressive work by any standard. And there is no question that it is wholly operatic in nature.

I've mentioned the qualities of the music and the libretto, but there is so much more than that, and a successful opera demands that equal (not greater or lesser) importance be given to the singing and the stage direction. Needless to say, Fire Shut Up in My Bones got the treatment and cast it deserved. The most demanding role is not Charles or indeed Char'es-Baby, nor even the three important roles that Angel Blue has to carry as Destiny, Loneliness and girlfriend Greta, but the role of Charles's mother. Latonia Moore gave a simply stunning performance as Billie, carrying the full range of emotions that come with a mother's role, and seeing how much she put into every scene in this live stream broadcast was simply phenomenal. It's surely impossible not to be deeply moved by her total engagement with this role and everything it entailed.

Will Liverman as the older Charles had a similar emotional and vocal journey to travel and was thoroughly convincing, working incredibly well with the young Walter Russell III as his younger incarnation. There are not many child roles in opera as extensive as the one written for Char'es Baby. Even Britten's children in Turn of the Screw and those in Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel are commonly sung by experienced opera singers. I was absolutely dumbfounded and full of admiration for how well Walter Russell III took such a challenging role on the Met stage. Again no special pleading needs to be made here; the role was sung beautifully, flawlessly with real engagement and understanding of character, situation and emotion. This was no mannered stage-school child performance. Showing the complexity of the writing for all the roles, Angel Blue also had an important part to play throughout the opera in different guises and her role and her voice contributed to the richness and the success of the opera as a whole.

A few of the metaphors and use of repeated refrains seem forced in places, but they prove to be important touchstones for the characters to hold a sense of identity, love and purpose. In the end that is really what the story is about, not a colourful life story, a difficult coming-of-age for a young boy to man, not any special pleading or attachment to black lives movement that it could easily have used to its advantage. It has rather an important universal message of empowerment, of taking control of one's life away from the hold others may have over you. That message is brought home emphatically at the conclusion of this remarkable new opera that will hopefully be followed by more from Blanchard, and inspire others. As Charles sings at the end of the opera, this is not the end, it's a beginning.

Links: Metropolitan OperaThe Met: Live in HD 2021-22 season