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'Shadowboxer,' opera about legendary Joe Louis, premieres at Clarice Smith Center

Joe Louis, the celebrated “Brown Bomber,” deflated Nazi propaganda with his two-minutes-in-the-first-round defeat of Max Schmeling in 1938, but the boxer found it a little harder to fight racism and personal weaknesses. The ups and downs of Louis’s life have been incorporated into an ambitious opera called “Shadowboxer” that has received a theatrically impressive premiere from Maryland Opera Studio. The words and music, alas, do not have quite enough punch to leave an indelible impact.

Frank Proto's carefully crafted score is at its strongest when moving into pop/jazz idioms, which allows the vocal lines welcome melodic freedom. But much of the time, singers are stuck in ponderous recitative mode, wading through a lot of text while the orchestra churns thickly and often obviously (string tremolos and percussive whacks invariably signal stress or ominous developments).

John Chenault's subtly rhyming libretto

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packs in too much detail to allow for a tight focus on the central character, and several lines land with a thud — “Your world is a boxing ring,” “The only way out is to fight your way out,” “The past is a graveyard.” At its best, though, the text sets up various historic incidents and dramatic situations evocatively. (This may be the first opera to mention the IRS, the boxer’s longtime nemesis; the n-word and several other ugly epithets are also sung.)

The piece is built on a flashback device, which finds a wheelchair-bound Louis in the opening scene facing death in the form of a boxer wearing a skeletal mask — an awfully creaky approach. Still, it's hard not to be caught up in the eventful Louis story, which touches on so many compelling issues.

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The production, directed with an almost choreographic flair by Leon Major, has a cool, sleek look. Erhard Rom's minimalist set is filled in with various projections (sometimes, as when standard World War II newsreel footage flashes by, the opera starts to look like a musical version of a History Channel documentary). David O. Roberts' spot-on costumes explore myriad shades of black and white. The ring scenes are neatly executed, with the boxing mimed by two actors.

As the older Louis, Jarrod Lee could use more tonal variety and heft, but his passionate phasing hits the mark. Duane A. Moody, as Young Joe, likewise sings vividly. Adrienne Webster uses her warm mezzo to keen effect as Marva, one of the boxer's wives (wisely, the others are not crammed into the opera). And soprano Carmen Balthrop brings considerable style and sensitivity to the role of Lillie, Louis' mother.

The well-drilled chorus adds a lot to the performance. Same for the excellent orchestra in the pit and jazz band located upstage, all conducted in sure, expressive fashion by Timothy Long.

PHOTO BY CORY WEAVER COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND

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