Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones”, which opened the Metropolitan Opera season, tells the story of a young black man who grew up in a rural Louisiana town, his exuberant childhood clouded by family discord and sexual abuse. There would be nothing too newsworthy about such a story in an Off Broadway theater or an independent cinema, but it is a radical novelty for the world of mainstream opera, which lies largely in the European past. . This is indeed the first time that a black composer and librettist have visited the Met: so far, Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” has been the main problematic vehicle for capturing African-American experiences. The libretto is by writer, director and actor Kasi Lemmons, who adapted it from the eponymous memoir of the Times columnist Charles M. Blow.
The book is truly an inner narrative, with Blow recounting, in lyrically candid prose, his youthful struggles to define his masculinity and sexuality. He is the prey of an older cousin and also of an uncle; at the same time, he feels himself intermittently attracted to men. He tries to bury his feelings by practicing zealous worship, and in college he gets lost in the culture of fellowship. Shame and rage drive him to the brink of violence: at the start of the book and the opera, he goes to his mother’s house with a loaded pistol, intending to kill the cousin. He doesn’t take action and finds his way to a different future. The title comes from the book of Jeremiah: “His word was in my heart like a blazing fire locked in my bones, and I was tired of patience, and I could not stay. “
Much of that interiority inevitably disappears in the lyrical adaptation, as Blow’s writer-consciousness no longer controls every scene. There is a compensating gain, however, in addition to a sophisticated and nimble compositional personality. Blanchard’s journey to opera was hardly conventional: he started out as a jazz trumpeter, then established himself as a prolific film composer, collaborating regularly with director Spike Lee. He tried his hand at opera for the first time in 2013, when he wrote “Champion” for the Opéra Théâtre de Saint Louis, which also premiered “Fire” in 2019. the requirements are so special that they can only be discovered in practice. What Blanchard possesses above all is a knack for musical storytelling: he summons disparate characters and scenes into a distinct personal voice.
In the opening pages of the score, Blanchard establishes a lingua franca for the tense and turbulent world of the main character: rapid harmonic movement, astringent orchestral textures, dissonances of added notes, lines of unison strings that twist and fail. to find rest. During Charles’s lonely times, the restless movement slows down, allowing for generous expanses of post-Puccini lyricism. When crowd dynamics take over, R. & B. and gospel styles come into play, with a guitar, bass, piano and drums combo punching through the ensemble. Transitions between inner and outer worlds are handled with unwavering skill.
Since the opera’s inaugural production, Blanchard has fleshed out the work in a variety of ways, with the goal of filling the Met’s vast stage. Some of these changes blur the intimate merits of the score, such as Anthony Tommasini, at the Times, underline. (I saw the original production on video.) The second act begins with a dreamlike ballet that suggests, on sinuous textures dominated by strings, Charles’s repressed desires. For the production of the Met, Blanchard increased the prelude by over thirty bars, exhausting the material. Likewise, Charles’s plaintive, reflective air (“I was once a boy of special grace”) receives one repeat too many.
In the fraternity scene, Blanchard added a surprisingly powerful orchestral interlude – a dazzling evocation of a hellish week of extraordinary sadism. In one passage, the brass section oscillates between B flat major and B flat minor chords, in fractured triplet rhythms. Yet this criticism of fraternity hazing is offset by the spirited progression routine that James Robinson and Camille A. Brown, the show’s co-directors, unleash on stage. While the footage is a tumultuous joy to watch, you get the feeling that fellowship life is all about boys being boys, which isn’t the message Blow delivers in his book at all. “By running away from pain, I became an agent of it,” he writes. The production is well put together throughout, but it struggles to dramatize the main character’s ambivalence towards group dynamics and male bonding rituals: the vitality of the crowd keeps winning out.
Better lead performance could have corrected this balance. In St. Louis, Charles was sung by bass-baritone to charismatic Davóne Tines. Will Liverman at the Met stood out for his round tone and great attention to text, but he sporadically struggled to be heard, and the character lacked alluring complexity. Angel Blue, playing a trio of female roles, including the voices of Charles’s inner conflict, has risen impressively above the orchestra, as has Latonia Moore, as Charles’s explosive mother, and Ryan Speedo Green, as his uncle Paul. Walter Russell III created a gently heartbreaking portrayal of Charles as a child. Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted with characteristic vigor and enthusiasm, sometimes at the expense of the singers.
When Benjamin Bowman, one of the principal violins in the Met Orchestra, stepped onto the podium to conduct the tuning, a wild standing ovation rocked the hall. The public hadn’t forgotten that this brilliant ensemble, one of the most accomplished of its kind in the world, had gone unpaid for most of the pandemic. A similar noise erupted when the players gathered the following night for a cover of Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov”. The applause also seemed to honor the small army of people who were finally back to work at the Met: choir members, stagehands, lighting designers, makeup artists, costume designers, ticket agents, ushers and the rest.
This season, “Boris” stars not in the familiar four-act version but in Mussorgsky’s original shorter version from 1869 – seven tight scenes showing the fall of the murderous Tsar and the rise of pretender Dmitri. To see this prodigious creation alongside Blanchard’s “Fire” is to remind you that “Boris” is the archetype of realistic opera, a clinical study of political ambition and psychological decadence. The production, by Stephen Wadsworth, has too much foreground clutter and lacks scenic depth, but we have no trouble following the brutal interaction between the Sovereign, his boyars, his subjects, and the Mad Saint.
René Pape’s lambent bass, who plays the title role, has fascinated Met audiences for nearly thirty years. When he sang King Marke, in “Tristan”, in 1999, I wrote that he was “maybe a bass for the ages”. The possibility remains at stake, even if the unspoiled beauty of the Pope’s voice goes hand in hand with a dramatic fire deficit. The performance was physically sharp, both regal and faltering, but in vocal terms it lacked the necessary extremes. An accomplished cast surrounded the Pope, including the increasingly formidable Green as vagrant Varlaam, and two notable debutants: English tenor David Butt Philip, lending a creamy shine to the pretender’s role, and Russian-American baritone Aleksey. Bogdanov, majestically lamenting like boyar Shchelkalov. Sebastian Weigle did wonders in the pit, engraving details without sacrificing shadows.
In short, it was a tonic return after a long absence: a bristling twenty-first century score followed by another from the nineteenth century that has not lost its power of destabilization. What if every Met season started with a premiere? No other gesture would more strongly communicate the company’s often-repeated intention to engage in the modern world. ??