The Long Beach Opera takes over The Central Park Five, with minimal staging

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Bernard Holcomb, Cedric Berry, Ashley Faatoalia, Orson Van Gay and William Powell III in The Central Park 5 | Credit: Jordan Geiger/Long Beach Opera

Three years ago this month, the ever provocative Long Beach Opera took another step forward with the world premiere of Anthony Davis The Central Park 5. The opera was generally and deservedly acclaimed, while generating some controversy mainly due to the insertion of the character of Donald Trump – who was still president at the time – in the cast. (In response to my review, I myself received a few angry letters.) Knowing the disheartening lifespan of most new works, no one could say whether the play would be revived.

Well, a lot has happened since. The Central Park 5 The score was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in May 2020. Just three weeks later, the murder of George Floyd sparked a national “count”, with the collateral effect of a widespread overhaul of the classical repertoire to include far more music from black composers.

Davis suddenly became a hot property. The Central Park 5 received further productions in New York and Portland, OR, and Davis’s almost forgotten first opera, X: The Life and Times of Malcolm Xwas relaunched in Detroit in May and will come to the Met in 2023. Now half an hour ago Central Park 5 Suite for trombone, double bass and piano. And Long Beach Opera revisited their unexpected success last weekend, with an in-studio recording session to follow this weekend (June 25-26) and a release in an unrevealed format slated for early September. fall.

Orson Van Gay and Bernard Holcomb in The Central Park 5 | Credit: Jordan Geiger/Long Beach Opera

When this performance pair was announced – I caught the second Sunday afternoon, wouldn’t you know, Juneteenth – they were billed as “new production”, not a revival of the mighty design of the former artistic and general director of LBO, Andreas Mitisek. from 2019. Granted, it was a new design, but it felt more like a rudimentary, semi-stage gig than a full production. It was almost like a public dress rehearsal for the recording session – which is a pretty good practical idea since you want to get it right for a document that will spread the word about an important new work.

True to its habit of giving performances in unexpected spaces, LBO this time chose the auditorium of Jordan High School in North Long Beach near the interchange of highways 91 and I-710. It’s actually a much better-than-average high school that completed an impressive $22 million renovation in 2021, with modern lighting and sound installations, comfortable new seating, and a 1,350-seat capacity.

While the orchestra was in the pit in the original production at San-Pedrofrom the old Warner Grand Theatre, here the musicians were on stage behind the performers — all pleasantly amplified. Unlike the original production in which Mitisek rolled out a collection of portable walls and doors on wheels, there were no sets except for a single fire escape metal structure. There were also no projections to establish time, place and mood – as there were on portable walls in 2019. Helped by minimal lighting effects, first in dim light , the focus was on the characters and the score – and the work turned out to be solid and simple enough to stand as a concert piece.

Bernard Holcomb, Josè Luis Maldonado, Cedric Berry, Joelle Lamarre, Ashley Faatoalia, Corey Estelle, Orson Van Gay, Lindsay Patterson Abdou and William Powell III in The Central Park 5 | Credit: Jordan Geiger/Long Beach Opera

To briefly summarize the real case of the Central Park Five, five boys aged 14, 15 and 16 were charged in 1989 with raping and mutilating a 28-year-old woman in Central Park, and four of the five were coerced by the law enforcement to make signed and videotaped confessions even though DNA testing did not link them to the crime. After being tried as adults and imprisoned, the five were exonerated in 2002 when another inmate, convicted rapist Matias Reyes, confessed to the assault. The opera lays out the case in a linear, easy-to-follow fashion in a relentless outburst of outrage against the justice system and racial profiling.

Davis’ score remains a highly absorbing and harmoniously integrated blend of atonal classical writing and swinging, occasionally free jazz, which often wanders into a surreal dreamlike state beneath Richard Wesley’s coruscating lyrics. Led by studio stalwart Anthony Parnther, the onstage orchestra with its jazzy rhythm section and bluesy solo trombone sounded even looser and freer than its predecessor, generating particularly energetic work against the string counterpoint during the “wild” scene. “. Jazz lovers will appreciate the Ellingtonian colors in the orchestrations very early on when one of the boys imagines Harlem as a black and fire fantasy. (Harlem” and Black and Tan Fantasy” are the titles of Ellington’s compositions.)

Todd Strange in The Central Park 5 | Credit: Jordan Geiger/Long Beach Opera

New director J. Ed Araiza has some conflicting ideas about the treatment of the characters – particularly that of Trump, who in 1989 was a famous real estate developer whose inflammatory ads in New York newspapers stirred public opinion. public against the boys. Previous production portrayed Trump primarily as an attention-getting buffoon, drawing laughter from the audience when he barked orders while seated on a gold toilet. But here he looked more like a grim, aloof figure, mostly pouring verbal gasoline on the fire from his perch at the top of the fire escape. No one laughed this time.

At the end of the opera, when the newly vindicated boys line up and proclaim in an uplifting finale that they’re still here (it reminds me of Porgy’s “I’m on My Way” which ends Porgy and Bess), Mitisek’s production countered this with projected ominous headlines about upcoming racial profiling cases. The last thing we see in Araiza’s production is an unrepentant Trump standing alone on the fire escape, a preview of the political attractions to come.

Three of the five singers representing the boys in the 2019 cast – Cedric Berry as Yusef Salaam, Bernard Holcomb as Kevin Richardson and Orson Van Gay as Raymond Santana – returned in 2022, along with William Powell III ( Antron McCray) and Ashley Faatoalia (Korey Wise) completing the quintet. All are strong singers, and all now look considerably older than the teenagers they portrayed (although it’s only fitting that they sing on a high school stage). Justin Ryan powerfully sang the composite role of The Masque, whether reciting the rhetoric of law and order or bullying the boys with the imperious DA, Lacey Jo Benter. Trump was imitated – red tie and all – by Todd Strange in a thin tenor voice.

At a time when some are gearing up to crush police reform in the name of rising crime rates, I guess The Central Park 5 will serve as a warning that injustices still exist. But even if by some miracle the problem disappears, I think that this opera can have a long life on the strength of the score alone. We are waiting for registration.

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