That might be a little harsh. I really did enjoy my evening at the opera. It did most things well- the music, the singers, the pit, the set, the lights, the staging... all spectacular. There was just something lacking in the drama. It wasn't focused enough on any issue, and it wasn't made personal enough. Of course, this is coming from someone who had only heard the name. Joe Louis has never been a hero of mine, and I don't really care much for boxing. Even for people not too interested in boxing such as myself, though, there should have been a more satisfying dramatic arch.
Proto's score was probably the biggest star of the evening. A handful of people left at intermission- that's understandable, the tonal language was difficult and perhaps a little tiresome at times. Proto did an excellent job of keeping it fresher than many contemporary composers do, though, with the inclusion of jazz into the score. Every time the sparse, but amazingly effective setpiece in the back was flown out a bit to reveal the jazz band behind, the mood changed. It definitely helped keep my attention in a first act that might have been a bit too long.
The entire cast was very strong. There were no real weak links, but there were no real standout strong performances, either. I was mostly impressed by how well everyone worked together, both vocally and with their acting. If I had to pick a standout, I might pick mezzo-soprano Adrienne Webster as Marva Trotter, Louis' first (and second) wife. Her singing was very clear, as was her diction. I also greatly enjoyed her slight jazz stylings here and there. It didn't hurt at all, though, that she had the two best arias in the show: her flirty first act aria and, especially, her powerful divorce aria in the second act. Another very strong performance in the cast came from bass-baritone Jarrod Lee as Old Joe. He sang the entire show... difficult lines and phrases that always sounded very melodic and inspired by the action... and he never showed the slightest bit of fatigue in his voice. His physical performance was also very impressive. I also very much enjoyed Andrew Owens as Reporter #1, but he didn't have much of an opportunity to show off his voice.
As I mentioned above, the ensemble work was more impressive than the solo passages. The three reporters, the three beauties, and Jack Blackburn, Julian Black, and John Roxborough were all excellent working with each other. Surpassing all of that, though, was the chorus. The chorus added a great deal to the show- they snuck in sometimes and you barely noticed they were singing, and when you did, the effect was pleasingly eerie. They had to switch between more classical singing and jazz singing rather quickly. At times they were a little difficult to hear, but the effect of their voices and their presence was still there. Proto's choral writing is excellent. I'm sure it was difficult for the chorus, but their hard work and the hard work of the chorusmasters really paid off.
The orchestra and the jazz band were also very strong. Everything felt very together and synthesized, even from the orchestra in the pit to the band at the back of the stage. Kudos to conductor Timothy Long for that very impressive feat. Everything felt natural and easy. Proto's orchestral writing is also excellent.
On top of great acting and great music from everyone on, below, and behind the stage, everything looked fabulous. Leon Major is brilliant. Absolutely everything worked in this production. It's difficult to pick out favorite aspects, it was just so spot on. The set and the lighting added so much... the obvious but very effective squares of light at many times instead of the common circle of light, the projections alternating with shadows of the singers cast on the walls from floor lights... all incredible things that came from the collaboration of Major, scenic designer Erhard Rom, lighting designer Nancy Schertler, and projection designers Kirby Malone and Gail Scott White. (The only projection I didn't much care for was the radio projection. Kinda silly.)
This is Proto's first opera, and Chenault's first libretto. I hope they collaborate again, or at least work in their respective fields again. Shadowboxer is almost a great opera... almost. I really enjoyed it, though.