Tough on Blue, the new opera by Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson, that it reached London in the same week Innocence opened down the road. With common storylines of youthful violence and teenage victims, English National Opera and the Royal Opera may find themselves vying for the same audience. Let’s hope there’s enough interest to go round.

Kenneth Kellogg (The Father) and Ronald Samm (The Reverend)
© Zoe Martin

As with Kaija Saariaho’s opera, the arrival of Tesori’s new work reaches London on the back of an acclaimed debut elsewhere, in this case at Glimmerglass Opera four years ago. To my disappointment, alas, Blue turns out to be a problematic piece hamstrung by Thompson's unsubtle, emotionally manipulative libretto. After a brief prelude, there are two long scenes that amount to 45 minutes of exposition: first for a mother-to-be and a trio of girlfriends who behave like Job’s Comforters when they discover her baby will be a boy; second for the father-to-be as a trio of workmates warn him about the pleasures of sleepless nights, colic and croup that lie ahead. So far, though, nothing you’d call the stuff of opera.

The story turns into a New York tragedy when the baby grows up and, 16 years later, becomes yet another victim of street crime. The irony is that the boy’s dad and his colleagues are all Black men in blue (i.e. policemen) and the conflicted father’s hunger for revenge eats away at his instinctive rectitude. Act 2 allows a chink of drama into the scenario thanks to a blazing duo scene between the father and a priest, but all too soon stasis returns with an overextended funeral scene. Tesori and Thompson introduce plenty of wailing and gnashing of teeth here, but there’s little concern for character development.

Nadine Benjamin (The Mother)
© Zoe Martin

Still, Tesori’s orchestrations are bracing and ENO’s crack musicians squeeze every penn’orth from her score under the assured baton of Matthew Kofi Waldren, an unsung hero of UK opera conducting. The music’s shape bears an array of American influences. I defy anyone to listen to the opening scene without muttering Bernstein’s name under their breath; Barber is seldom far away either. The ENO brass blares satisfyingly, though, and Waldren’s conviction always carries the day, especially when anger and anguish – the composer’s strongest suits – are to the fore.

These reservations are more than quibbles; they explain why, ultimately, Blue is a broken-backed job of work. Yet, it could hardly have been better rendered than here. Indeed, I wish every opera I see could be staged with such grace and finesse. The production is brand new – not an import, like Innocence – and once I’d realised the score was likely to short-change me I surrendered to the brilliant attentiveness of Tinuke Craig’s direction and the modest yet imposing designs by Ravi Deepres (video) and Alex Lowde (set and costumes), that allow the action to unfold within and around a revolving wheel of misfortune.

Zwakele Tshabalala (The Son) and Kenneth Kellogg (The Father)
© Zoe Martin

Kenneth Kellogg and Nadine Benjamin as the tragic parents lead a cast of faultless quality and class. Both sing with rapt beauty and create a persuasive couple despite a shortage of shared stage time, while ENO Harewood Artist Zwakele Tshabalala, notwithstanding his beautiful tenor voice, is frighteningly convincing as their rebellious teenage son whose anger at social injustice leads him to his doom.

With all the various friends and supporters expertly differentiated and characterised by six more fine singers, all of whom have substantial music to sing, that only leaves one final character. The priest who uses all that is good to counter the bereaved father’s despair is a difficult role, little more than a cipher yet an important counterweight to the negativity, but he dominates Act 2. Tenor Ronald Samm inhabits him superbly with decency, humanity and musical power.

Chanáe Curtis, Idunnu Münch, Nadine Benjamin and Sarah-Jane Lewis in a scene from Blue
© Zoe Martin

While Blue itself is flawed, then, the production is anything but. As for the company, when you consider that five of its nine productions this season are from the 20th Century or later, including the final four, ENO deserves nothing but plaudits for carving its own route to relevance and inadvertently making a mockery of the bean counters who go for its jugular.