Saturday, October 2, 2021

"Fire Shut Up in My Bones" Reopens Met


Will Liverman, photo @ Zenith Richards
This conversation has played out several times in my life: I hear about a brand-new, contemporary opera that I MUST see. And I think about all the times I saw a contemporary opera screech on for three + hours and my response is, "Yes, but, will I LIKE it?"

Last night I went to the Metropolitan Opera for the first time in 18 months, and I saw a brand-new, contemporary opera that was moving and likably accessible. Terence Blanchard's musical style is tuneful -- he combines jazz, blues, soul, gospel, and pop. Blanchard does not insist that the whole thing is sung-through -- there is dialogue, much like musical theater. The story is direct and heartfelt. The performances were uniformly excellent. The choreography by Camille A. Brown including a show-stopping line dance. Fire Shut Up in My Bones is contemporary opera for people who think that the last great opera was Turandot (1926).


Young Char'es Baby and Charles
Blanchard's adaptation of writer Charles Blow's memoir is the first work by a black composer to ever grace the Met's stage. This is a reflection both of the conservatism of Met audiences and the Eurocentric bent of classical music. But the time is always right to do what is right, and hopefully, Fire will have a long shelf life and there will be more diversity in classical music.

Librettist Kasi Lemmons chose to tell of Charles Blow's childhood as a memory play -- the adult Charles (Will Liverman) watches, narrates and commentates as the young Char'es-Baby (Walter Russell III) enacts the scenes, and various soul-spirits like Destiny and Loneliness (all played by Angel Blue) push the older Charles to react to his childhood. 

For the most part, this structure works well -- we get both the real-time reactions of Char'es Baby as a child and the more mature reflections of the adult Charles. However, sometimes this means that the same story is told and retold several times, to the point of redundancy. The central drama of Charles being molested by his cousin Chester is told by the old Charles, enacted by young Char'es Baby, shown in a dream ballet in Act 2, and then summarized in another soliloquy by old Charles near the end of the opera. 

Another thing Lemmons favored was the repetition of certain phrases throughout the night. One example was "Char'es Baby, youngest of five" -- this was repeated nearly every time Char'es Baby was onstage. "A black boy from a lawless town/where everyone carries a gun" was also repeated ad nauseam. After awhile, it got repetitious and a bit pretentious.

Latonia Moore as Billie, photo @ Ken Howard
Fire is also one of those operas where the first act and final scenes are deeply moving and musically compelling, but most of Act 2 (where Charles goes to college at HBCU Grambling State University) could be dropped and we wouldn't notice. The aria "Peculiar Grace" was fine, but the rest of the act felt superfluous. The opera runs pretty long (a good 3 hours and 20 minutes), but I didn't find myself checking my watch except in the second act.

What saves all of this is both the quality of Blanchard's music and the strength of the performances. Baritone Will Liverman anchored the performance as the tormented, rage-filled adult Charles. Liverman's baritone occasionally got drowned out by the rich orchestrations, but this was an excellent performance. The boy-soprano Walter Russell III, however, stole all scenes as young Char'es Baby. He was so natural and believable as a gullible young boy, that whenever he was on stage you looked at him and only him.

Latonia Moore played Charles' strong mother Billie and got the loudest applause of the night. Moore was just about perfect -- she was warm, earthy, and funny. Her soft-grained soprano nevertheless filled the Met with waves of sound. Billie also brought much-needed levity to this rather heavy opera -- believe it or not, Billie chasing her husband Spinner and his girlfriends' around with a gun is funny.

 

Angel Blue as Greta, photo @ Ken Howard
Angel Blue played a series of spirits/women -- Destiny, Loneliness, and a college girlfriend named Greta. Blue's soprano is one of the most gorgeous on the scene today, but her characters are mere abstractions and this device was only intermittently effective. It wasn't till the third act, when Blue has a gorgeous love duet to sing with Liverman, that Blue's soprano soared.

I also enjoyed Ryan Speedo Green as Uncle Paul, tenor Chauncey Packer as Charles' womanizing father Spinner, and Chris Kenney as the evil cousin Chester. Kenny got character-booed during the curtain calls. The ensemble dancers were wonderful.

Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin certainly captured all the different genres of Blanchard's music -- the Met orchestra sounded as plush as a movie soundtrack. But YNS is also one of those conductors who at times doesn't seem to hear his singers -- he has a tendency to drown them out.

The unit set, photo @ Ken Howard
Director James Robinson and Camille A. Brown don't do anything revolutionary in their production -- it's all rather straightforward and that's fine. When an opera is new, better to just let the libretto speak for itself. The unit set was a wooden frame that served as the backdrop to the various scenes of the opera. Brown's choreography won a lot of applause during the night, especially the fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi's line dance that opened Act 3.



The opera ends with a heartrending duet between Charles and Mama Billie that is maybe the best music of the evening. There's healing, and there's a new beginning. Somehow, that was so appropriate as the Met's return vehicle. After 18 months of the pandemic, there is no "going back to normal." There's simply trying for a new beginning. 

3 comments:

  1. Glad you are back too Ivy. I am looking forward to the Met in HD of this opera.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Glad to read this before I go to see it Monday night. I'm just about finished with the book.
    I agree about Yannick. First time I saw him with Parsifal, he did a great job of drowning out some of the singers, and has continued to do so.

    ReplyDelete

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