Opera Magazine Review: “Blue Monday”

New York By John Rockwell | September 2013

When the Met closes shop and the spring rains arrive, little New York opera companies pop up like mushrooms, some delicious, some deadly. Of their recent presentations, the most piquant was a collaboration between the newish ON SITE OPERA and the HARLEM OPERA THEATER at the COTTON CLUB (still in Harlem, but a couple of miles from the iconic Cotton Club of Duke Ellington, where white swells slummed it uptown). The vehicle was George Gershwin’s Blue Monday (June 19). Lasting 25 minutes and composed in five days, it was first heard at a revue called, The Scandals of 1922, with Paul Whiteman and his jazz orchestra, sung by whites in minstrel blackface. A success in its out-of-town try-out in New Haven, it bombed on Broadway and was dropped from the revue after the first night. Critics found its downbeat ending inappropriate for an already long, upbeat revue, and many heaped condescension on a Tin Pan Alley tunesmith daring to attempt a quasi-opera. Yet Blue Monday, despite a creaky libretto by Buddy DeSylva‚ still counts as Gershwin’s first ‘serious’ work, and led to Whiteman’s commission for Rhapsody in Blue (1925).

The score was revived a few times, with shifting titles and orchestrations, but Gershwin lost interest in it. Only in recent decades have recordings and performances cropped up. But the music is good, a prescient mixture of blues, opera and showbiz, full of juicy parts for the singers. Those at this performance were all up to the mark, although all had operatic voices and so were really loud (even though unamplified) when heard close up (in 1922 there was apparently a blend of operatic and Broadway voices). Alyson Cambridge offered glamour and a full-throated soprano as Vi, who shoots her gambler boyfriend dead after a jealous misunderstanding. Chase Taylor, a tenor, was Joe the gambler; other parts, all baritones were taken by Clayton Mathews, a particularly vibrant Alvin Crawford, and Lawrence Craig, who was so hammily villainous that he would have twirled his moustache had he had one.

The conductor was Gregory Hopkins, the director of Harlem Opera Theater, which seems largely devoted to operatic excerpts, recitals and educational activities. On Site Opera’s founder, Eric Einhorn, directed. The intimate Cotton Club was atmospherically ideal, with a handy big band called the Cotton Club All Stars providing an hour of music for enthusiastic Swing dancing (Performed it seemed by a few ringers Joined later by actual audience members). For the Gershwin the band was supplemented by a rather soursounding string quartet, the Harlem Chamber Players. The dancing in the opera was overseen by the noted choreographer George Faison‚ and Candida K. Nichols handled the spiffy period costumes.

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