‘Fire Shut Up in My Bones’ at the Met Marks Opera History

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Latonia Moore (center) as Billie reunites with her cheating husband in a Louisiana honky tonk in a scene from “Fire Shut Up My Bones”. Ken Howard / Met Opera

After more than a year and a half of silence, the Metropolitan Opera came back in force last night with a captivating new opera to open its 2021-2022 season. The melody of Terence Blanchard Fire shut up in my bones made history in more than one way.

To begin with, this is the first opera by a black composer already be staged by the often heavy Met. More importantly perhaps, it’s an opera with legs: Blanchard’s expertise ensures that it will be revived at the Met and elsewhere for decades to come.

In this piece, the composer demonstrates an easy mastery of the manner which is the basis of any successful opera, whether in the 18th century or the 21st century. It makes the text – spoken, recitative or full arioso – easily “float” above a dynamic orchestral movement. As a jazz musician, this movement can be, for example, a 12 bar blues, which Blanchard uses with the ease and fluidity with which Mozart could have used a minuet.

Librettist Kasi Lemmons structures the opera like a memory game – a “gift” with protagonist Charles doomed in a bloody act of revenge, recalling his childhood experiences as an outsider. This technique gives Blanchard the freedom to represent scenes in real time or to filter the event through narrative tunes colored by Charles’s emotions.

This is where Blanchard’s virtuosity, I think, becomes a bit of a mixed blessing. Given the playwright’s classic choice of “show or tell,” he sometimes does both. The central dramatic rhythm of the piece – the child Charles is molested by an adult parent – the opera presents in multiple ways: the event itself, a reaction soliloquy immediately after, a dream ballet and finally a confessional narrative. of the adult. Charles.

Each of these musical solutions is honest, skillful and, isolated, deeply moving. But in the context of the opera, it feels like hearing the same story over and over, without even Rashomon-like the variation. At its current duration of two and a half hours, Fire shut up in my bones is shortlisted for Best American Opera of the 21st Century. With maybe 20 minutes of rephrasing and watermarking, I think this would clearly be a winner.

Regardless of its length, this opera offers plenty of vocal and dramatic opportunities for the cast. Baritone Will Liverman pushed his lyrical voice to the limits of his abilities in Charles’s fiercely emotional tunes. And in more thoughtful moments, he revealed such a delicious piano sound that you couldn’t help but fall in love with him purely on the basis of the timbre.

Soprano Angel Blue has taken on a curious track of Muse roles with prodigious names like “Destiny” and “Loneliness” with the golden tone and radiant stage presence we know so well from her. Porgy and Bess two years ago. This time around, she added to her spellbinding effects repertoire a scintillating high-pitched pianissimo and a voluptuous richness in middle voice that would not be out of place for Wagner’s Kundry.

Angel Blue as Destiny, Walter Russell III as Char'es-Baby, Latonia Moore as Billie and Will Liverman as Charles in Terence Blanchard's
Angel Blue as Destiny, Walter Russell III as Char’es-Baby, Latonia Moore as Billie and Will Liverman as Charles in Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones”. Ken Howard / Met Opera

But, just like Gypsy ends up talking about Madame Rose, soprano Latonia Moore as Charles’ mother Billie skillfully picks up Fire shut up in my bones Safely deposits it in her wallet and goes home with her new property. The diva’s irregular career at the Met has so far included strong performances from Aida as well as a Madama Butterfly as lovely as I hope to ever hear. Now, given a complex and demanding prima donna vehicle, Moore left blood on stage in a performance comparable indeed to Karita Mattila’s Salome or Anna Netrebko’s Manon Lescaut.

Unlike the Met’s sometimes less than enthusiastic treatment of new opera houses, the company added luxury to this show., including the intrepid direction of musical director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, a smooth identity check and a series of eight performances. And the company is absolutely right: Fire shut up in my bones is simply a wonderful reason to return to the opera.

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