The opera world got its rare baseball-themed work Saturday evening when Minnesota Opera premiered “The Fix” by composer Joel Puckett.
Puckett’s opera is based on the infamous “Black Sox Scandal” of 1919, when Chicago White Sox players conspired to throw the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for money.
Walt Spangler’s set designs certainly looked handsome. Curtain-up revealed a reverse view of the bleachers at Chicago’s Comiskey Park with a neon sign that blazed “White Sox” when illuminated. Beneath it all was a multipurpose area serving variously as a railroad station, locker room, nightclub, courtroom and domestic interior.
Central to Eric Simonson’s concise libretto is the character of “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, who set batting records for the White Sox and was one of eight players permanently banned from baseball in the wake of the scandal. Jackson’s precise role has always been disputed. “The Fix” depicts him as a heavily conflicted character, uneasily caught up in criminal events.
Puckett’s music cast something of a halo around Shoeless Joe as he wrestled with the moral complexities of his situation. Tenor Joshua Dennis looked the part as the conflicted slugger, singing ardently in the soaringly lyrical music Puckett gave him for moments of introspection.
Dennis’ lower voice was less penetrating. In duets with his wife, Katie — played by pulsating soprano Jasmine Habersham — he was occasionally outfaced for volume.
Among a claustrophobically male-dominated cast of gangsters, grifters, sportswriters and baseball players, several key performances stood out — especially Wei Wu as player-conspirator Arnold “Chick” Gandil. Wu’s gritty bass voice dominated the crucial scene in a Chicago hotel room where the fix was hatched, fronting up cockily against the organized criminals who later threatened the White Sox players.
Bass-baritone Kelly Markgraf was equally impressive as Ring Lardner, the baseball writer who mixes an obsessive love of the game with a weakness for the bottle. Markgraf’s sonorous aria, extolling the enduring virtues of baseball as a metaphor for American life, closed out the opera, striking a curiously rose-tinted tone. Just before, we saw scandal, chicanery, financial shenanigans and the ruination of eight players’ livelihoods. Are the better angels of baseball really supposed to compensate for that?
Puckett’s music for “The Fix” referenced period idioms including jazz and ragtime. But the score was capable of harmonic adventure, too. Despite a slightly leaden trial scene in Act 2, it struck an interesting balance between nostalgically evoking the atmosphere of an era and signaling its underlying tensions.
Trevor Bowen’s costumes included baseball uniforms that colorfully evoked the period.
The orchestra played expressively under conductor Timothy Myers.
If ultimately “The Fix” veered somewhat precariously between entertainment and social analysis, it did raise serious questions about the role power and money continue to play in professional sports.
For that, and for Puckett’s playful, eerily suggestive music, “The Fix” is definitely worth seeing.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.