X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X was telecast today. As a piece of sophisticated parochialism it will grip the hearts of Upper West Side New Yorkers who regularly attend the Met. If you seek a work for the lyric theater that touches a spark common to all men you will not find it in X’s litany of bad behavior by whites to blacks. There is no denying the historical accuracy of the mistreatment of blacks animated almost entirely by racial animosity. But its depiction is not sufficient to make an opera What’s lacking from Anthony Davis’s opera is a musical connection to the emotions. Malcolm X is three acts of racial grievance. It may appeal to black audiences because of its subject, but it has no purchase as a work of art.
The staging was unappealing with a combination of garish costumes mixed with more conventional garb. There was a “spaceship” above the stage that displayed messages, most of which I missed because the camera did not linger on them for long. Another in the Met’s endless succession of tuneless shows. Melodies aside, there were a few rhythmic moments that worked quite well.
The cast was competent without venturing beyond that standard. The biggest problem was Will Liverman as Malcolm. The real Malcolm was tall and charismatic in the extreme. Liverman is short and has a sad sack mien. He sang well enough, but his performance was as dynamic as a jellyfish. Blame nature, not him.
Leah Hawkins was X’s mother Louise in Act 1 and his wife Betty in the two succeeding acts. Her voice was adequate. Tenor Victor Ryan Robertson also played two roles. He was Street (a petty crook) in Act 1 dressed in a garish yellow suit with a three-foot-long chain and Elijah Muhammid in the rest of the opera. His high tenor gave Elijah just the right amount of insincerity.
The Met’s orchestra under the baton of Kazem Abdullah played well enough, though at times they seemed a bit distanced from the action. There was a jazz ensemble embedded in the pit as there had been for Fire Shut up in My Bones two years ago. They (the band) were enthusiastic, but a bit raucous.
There was also a lot of dancing – the choreography made the dancers look like rabid cobras whirling without purpose or goal. I feared they might whirl themselves off the stage and into the jazz band. Dance in opera is a perpetual problem that seems without solution. Best to close your eyes during a ballet in the middle of an opera.
The reasons for staging this opera include the political, social, cultural, historical, economic, and any other non-musical stimulus for staging an opera at the Met not grounded in artistic worth. A new opera (defined as less than 50 years old) with artistic endowment is as rare as reason in a theater.
Gary Halvorson’s video direction was, by his standards, relatively restrained. I could say more about this production, but it’s just another in a succession of operas of weak provenance that the Met keeps forcing on its gullible audience. If you’re in the mood for grievance catch the replay. Otherwise, wait for Thursday night football. The most interesting part of the show was a few clips of the real Malcolm. Even after 60 years in faded film he still dazzles.