Review: ‘Fire’ Brings a Black Composer to the Met, Finally

On Monday, for the first time in its 138-year history and as it returned from an 18-month closure, the Metropolitan Opera presented a work by a Black composer: Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.” By opening the season with this work, the Met filled a gaping hole in its repertory at a time when the performing arts are rightfully being challenged to become more diverse.

Enthusiastic ovations at the end greeted Blanchard, a jazz trumpeter best known for his scores for Spike Lee films, and Kasi Lemmons, the writer, director and actress who with “Fire” becomes the first Black librettist of a work performed by the Met in its history. It was exhilarating to see them cheered on by an almost entirely Black cast, chorus and dance troupe, as well as by an audience with notably more people of color than usual at a Met opening.

“Fire,” which premiered at Opera Theater of St. Louis in 2019, is based on a 2014 memoir by the New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow; it’s an account of his turbulent upbringing in rural Louisiana as he endures emotional confusion, longs for affection from his tough-love mother and tries to come to terms with the wounds of sexual molestation. Blow’s book recalls his earlier life from an adult perspective, while also conveying his experiences as if they’re being lived in the moment. Blanchard and Lemmons use an operatic trick to present this layering.

Walter Russell III, left, and Liverman play the main character, Charles, at different stages of his life.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

When the opera opens, we see Charles (the muscular-voiced baritone Will Liverman, in a breakthrough performance) as a college student, speeding home, pistol in hand, bent on revenge for having been molested as a boy by his older cousin. In the next scene, his 7-year-old self, Char’es-Baby, is played by Walter Russell III, an endearingly gangly and sweet-toned boy soprano. The device of having a character be portrayed by two singers at different stages of life goes back a long way in opera, and works powerfully here. During long stretches of Act I, Charles hovers around Char’es-Baby, issuing warnings the boy can’t hear, and they sometimes sing in duo, with winding lyrical lines over mellow harmonies.

The opera also creates a twofold female character, Destiny and Loneliness, to embody qualities that haunt Charles. The use of spirit-like characters is another familiar device in opera, and here — with Angel Blue bringing her luminous soprano voice and unforced charisma to the dual role — it is more affecting than the cliché it could easily have been.

In his score, Blanchard deftly blends elements of jazz, blues, hints of big band and gospel into a compositional voice dominated by lushly chromatic and modal harmonic writing, spiked with jagged rhythms and tart dissonance. He commented in a recent interview with The Times about his approach to writing vocal lines: He speaks the words of the text over and over to learn its shape and flow.

The bright-voiced tenor Chauncey Packer, center, is a womanizing husband in “Fire,” with a libretto by Kasi Lemmons.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

The resulting musical setting is clear and natural. Blanchard mixes sputtered spoken moments into vocal phrases that unfold in a jazz equivalent of Italianate arioso. He has a penchant for cushioning these vocal lines with orchestral chords that hug them — or else he will often double the voices or write counter-melodies with extended lines for strings. (Howard Drossin is credited with additional orchestrations.)

Blanchard deploys this juiced-up lyrical style so persistently that passages risk slipping into melodrama. This issue is more problematic at the Met than it was in St. Louis. In Missouri, the opera was presented in a 756-seat theater, roughly one-fifth the size of the Met. Understandably, the creative team chose to adapt the work to the larger space. Some scenes were extended; dance sequences were added; the role of Billie, Charles’s mother, was significantly expanded to create a true leading soprano part, here sung movingly by Latonia Moore.

Though the opera still mostly avoids seeming inflated, these enhanced arias and scenes sometimes went on too long. I missed the intimacy and directness — the almost chamber-orchestra clarity, with the words leaping off the stage — of the St. Louis production.

Moore, center, is Charles’s tough-love mother, struggling to keep her family fed and housed.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Met’s music director, brought engagement and energy to the podium, drawing out the colors and character of the music, the nuances and brassy brilliance. But with the orchestra’s string players giving their all to that lyricism, the sound was often overly plush. I wish Nézet-Séguin had encouraged more subtlety and restraint.

Yet “Fire” remains a fresh, affecting work. You believe in these characters from watching scenes of their everyday lives, as when we see Billie and her co-workers at a chicken factory, plucking feathers on a table filled with carcasses; or when the teenage Charles decides to get baptized at church to rid himself of the inner demons of sexual confusion. (In the wake this, he is visited by Loneliness, who promises to be his companion for life.)

James Robinson, who staged the St. Louis production, has been joined at the Met by the director and choreographer Camille A. Brown, making her the first Black artist to direct a Met production. Brown created some stunning dance sequences, including a dream ballet in which the teenage Charles sees visions of alluring, embracing men circling his bed, and rises to join them, at once terrified and entranced. Act III begins with a long step-dance scene that stopped the show: Charles is rushing Kappa Alpha Psi, a Black fraternity, and 12 male dancers do a stomping and frenetic yet amazingly loose-limbed number.

Blanchard was fortunate to have Lemmons as a collaborator. Her libretto is poetic, poignant, sometimes grimly funny, always dramatically effective. Many lines, set sensitively by Blanchard, will stay with me, as in a soliloquy when the older Charles, echoing Destiny, sings, “I was once a boy of peculiar grace,” a “dangerous existence” for a man of his race. From his “lawless town,” he adds, where everyone carried a gun, “I carried shame, in a holster round my waist.”

Allen Moyer’s spare set — a kind of rough-hewed wood proscenium and some other shifting elements — is visually enriched with projections by Greg Emetaz. Paul Tazewell’s costumes were beautifully simple, yet evocative of the shifting periods and settings. The entire cast was excellent, including the bright-voiced tenor Chauncey Packer as Spinner, Billie’s womanizing husband; the earnest bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green as the kindly Uncle Paul, who takes in Billie and her sons; and the husky baritone Chris Kenney in the challenging role of Chester, the older cousin who molests Charles. The scene of abuse is all the more powerful for not being explicitly staged: We just see the cousins standing motionless as Char’es-Baby’s anguished face is shown in close-up projections.

In the penultimate scene, Charles meets a lovely woman, Greta, with whom he instantly bonds; he calls her his “destiny.” (She, too, is played by Blue, our Destiny and Loneliness.) Trading secrets, Charles admits the molestation he experienced; Greta then admits to having a boyfriend she is committed to. Crushed, Charles phones home and discovers from his mother that Chester has dropped by, which leads back to the opera’s opening, when we see Charles ready to kill.

Blue, right, plays Greta, Charles’s love interest, as well as the embodied qualities of Destiny and Loneliness.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

But when he reaches his mother’s house, Chester is gone. The opera ends instead with a poignant scene with wistful, mellow music, as Charles, looked over by Char’es-Baby, returns to Billie, finally able to accept the motherly advice she has always given about not carrying emotional baggage through life: “Sometimes, you gotta leave it in the road.”

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