This review contains spoilers.
Written by Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson, this award-winning opera about the death of a black teen (Zwakele Tshabalala), shot during a protest by an unknown New York police officer, premiered at the American Glimmerglass Festival in 2019. Originally directed by Thompson, this new production by English National Opera (ENO), directed by Tinuke Craig, sets the action within a gigantic spinning wheel (Alex Lowde); empty, but flooded with abstract video projections (Ravi Deepres), conveying the opera’s locations within New York.
Tesori, best known for stage musicals Thoroughly Modern Millie (2002) and Shrek the Musical (2008), has written a gorgeous score that fuses a Gershwin-esque “New York” sound with languishing, orchestral accompaniment. The melodies are often slow and drawn out, drawing the audience’s attention to the meaning of every syllable. Conducted by Matthew Kofi Waldren, the ENO orchestra and cast of ten give an assured and emotionally charged performance.
Thompson’s libretto is full of contemporary vernacular that feels authentic to black voices and perspectives. But there is something that feels slightly perverse about Tesori, a white woman, giving voice to an entirely black cast of characters, in a story specifically about black attitudes to racial violence in New York. Though beautiful, musical lines like “I lay my burden down / I ain’t gonna study war no more” feel inauthentic at best, and proto-Negro-spiritual at worst.
American bass Kenneth Kellogg, who created the role of the father in the original production, has come over to London for this new production, and is a particular stand-out. Trinidadian heldentenor Ronald Samm also shines as the reverend.
Playing at the London Coliseum, 20 April – 4 May 2023.