X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X
Davóne Tines, Whitney Morrison, Ronnita Miller, Victor Robertson; Boston Modern Opera Project; Odyssey Opera/Gil Rose
BMOP BMOP/Sound 1088 148:15 mins (2 discs)
Anthony Davis’s opera had its premiere in 1985 and received a major production by New York City Opera the following year. Over recent years there has been renewed interest in the piece, which has been subject to revisions and cuts, including specifically for this recording – though certain scenes still feel sluggish. That said, X is certainly a work of major importance, not only culturally – the subject is the life and death of an important if controversial figure in American history who was assassinated in 1965 – but also artistically: the well-crafted libretto (by Davis’s cousin, Thulani) tells Malcolm X’s story clearly and with nuance. With its roots in classical modernism and various genres of popular music as well as jazz and even improvisation, Davis’s score brings all these styles together purposefully and regularly to keen dramatic effect. The result is an opera whose time has undoubtedly (if belatedly) come.
The performance is strong, with a standout account of the title role by baritone Davóne Tines, who captures the qualities of the charismatic leader while also giving him a self-questioning dignity. Victor Robertson is vivid as Street (first cousin to Gershwin’s Sportin’ Life) and revels in the high tessitura of Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam. Whitney Morrison (Louise/Betty) and Ronnita Miller (Ella) attack their challenging roles fairly and squarely, while the complex choral writing is delivered with confidence. Conductor Gil Rose leads an impressive interpretation.