Falsely Accused, Falsely Convicted By ‘Blind Injustice’

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Derrick Wheatt (Sankara Harouna) and his mother (Deborah Nansteel) are separated by prison guards in Cincinnati Opera’s world-premiere production of ‘Blind Injustice.’ (Photos by Philip Groshong)
By Rafael de Acha

CINCINNATI – Blind Injustice, a gripping new opera  by composer Scott Davenport Richards and librettist David Cote that depicts the uncovering of multiple miscarriages of justice, received its world premiere July 22 in a resonant production by Cincinnati Opera.

Based on the book Blind Injustice by Mark Godsey, a University of Cincinnati law professor and director of the Ohio Innocence Project, the 90-minute opera dramatizes four historical instances of justice miscarried:

Nancy Smith (Maria Miller), a Head Start bus driver, is falsely accused of molesting children and convicted.

Forensic scientists present evidence, observed by Prosecutor (Joseph Lattanzi) and law student Alesha (Victoria Okafor).

Laurese Glover (Terrence Chin-Loy), Eugene Johnson (Miles Wilson-Toliver), and Derrick Wheatt (Sankara Harouna), known as “the Cleveland three,”  witness the shooting of a man. Despite tainted evidence, they are convicted of the crime.

Clarence Elkins (Thomas J. Capobianco), accused of the murder of his mother-in-law and the rape of her young granddaughter, is convicted without evidence.

Rickey Jackson (Eric Shane) is falsely singled out in a police lineup and convicted.

All of the six wrongfully convicted persons tell their stories of incarceration, exoneration, and redemption. Their individual plights are counterpointed by the selflessness of the Defense Attorney (Samuel Levine) and the self-righteousness of the Prosecutor (Joseph Lattanzi).

The East Cleveland 3 – Eugene Johnson (Miles Wilson-Toliver), Laurese Glover (Terrence Chin-Loy), and Derrick Wheatt (Sankara Harouna) – are accused of murdering a bystander (Morgan Smith) as Prosecutor (Joseph Lattanzi) looks on.

At the top of the opera, tenor Levine’s Defense Attorney sings about the Prosecutor: “I know that guy. I used to be that guy. Courtroom rock star…. They have this tough-on-crime demeanor. They develop this reflex where they have to act like hard-asses, no matter what. And in the Prosecutor’s office everybody feeds off each other. They feed and feed and feed.

There are two sides to the legal battle animated by Richards’ potent music and Cote’s hard-hitting text. But while the Defense gets an early aria, the Prosecutor does all of his vocal and dramatic heavy lifting in an ongoing exchange of sung and semi-spoken moments with the ensemble, a superb group of singing actors who, like a Greek chorus, provide the vox populi that counters unjust edicts of officialdom with anger and anguish.

Baritone Lattanzi’s prosecution does not rest. Instead he sputters out toward the end of the opera, wailing: “I believe in the rule of law! I believe in what I do. Crime is real! Justice is real. If I doubt, I can’t do my job. And if I can’t do my job, then no one in this room is safe!”

The entire cast of  young singers is top notch, with soprano Miller memorable as Nancy Smith and baritone Shane rock solid as death row inmate Rickey Jackson.

Robin Guarino gives the production a bold Brechtian staging, with the audience seated on both sides of a long playing area. At one end of the room sit the members of an ensemble that comments on the dramatic proceedings, often intervening in the action of a large cast that Guarino adroitly maneuvers with the simple aid of a long table, a few chairs, and a handful of props, creating stunning stage imagery.

Defense Attorney (Samuel Levine) confronts Prosecutor (Joseph Lattanzi).

The singers are accompanied by a sterling chamber ensemble made up of Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra players under the sensitive baton of John Morris Russell. Richards’ score is a mix of  styles. Lyrical vocal lines that blossom into arioso passages are juxtaposed with modern, jazz-inflected instrumentation, along with snippets of rap and gospel-like anthems. At times melodic, at times bluntly dissonant, the music never fails to drive the story forward.

The production design (scenery and costumes) by Andromache Chalfant is most effective, and greatly enhanced by the film-noir lighting of Thomas C. Hase.

Founded in 1920, Cincinnati Opera is the second oldest opera company in the United States, after the Metropolitan Opera. Led by artistic director Evans Mirageas, the opera company and the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music have been jointly developing new works such as the 2016 world premiere of Fellow Travelers by Gregory Spears to a libretto by Greg Pierce, a work that has gone on to be staged by Lyric Opera of Chicago and Minnesota Opera.

Opera Fusion is the name given to the partnership created by both parties to stimulate the development of new American operas by offering composers and librettists a residency in Cincinnati, utilizing the resources of both institutions. With Blind Injustice, they appear to have another winner.

Rafael de Acha is a free-lance music critic who writes for his own blog – www.RafaelMusicNotes.com – and frequently contributes to www.SeenandHeard-International.com. He holds a master’s degree in voice from the New England Conservatory of Music.