|Will Liverman, photo @ Zenith Richards|
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|
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|
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|
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|