When “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” opened the Metropolitan Opera’s 2021-22 season, it caused a stir.
To begin with, it was the first opera by a black composer presented by the New York company, and the stamp of its creators certainly contributed to it: the legend of contemporary jazz Terence Blanchard, and the librettist Kasi Lemmons, director and scriptwriter renowned.
But more important was the quality of the offer itself. That became evident Thursday night when the Lyric Opera of Chicago opened its gripping version of this 2019 opera, the second work by a black composer to be performed on the company’s main stage.
Lyric Opera of Chicago – “Fire Shut Up in My Bones”
With a title taken from an evocative phrase in an Old Testament verse, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” is a sad, heartbreaking, and ultimately redemptive tale based on the bestselling memoir of New York Times columnist Charles M. .Blow.
It’s a specifically black story, but it’s also a universally human story that confronts issues of otherness and psychological trauma, focusing on a “boy of peculiar grace” in the rural south who desperately struggles to find his way. ‘to integrate.
Charles is haunted into adulthood by the sexual abuse he suffered from an older cousin when he was 7 years old and the shame, anger and loneliness that followed. At the opening of the opera, he has the opportunity for bloody revenge. Will he take it? That question looms ominously in the air as he looks back on his life.
The Lyric version of “Fire,” a co-production with the Met and Los Angeles Opera, is co-directed by James Robinson and Camille A. Brown, who deftly provide voice for the story’s gritty realism and emotional honesty.
Kudos to the dance scenes, which were originally choreographed by Brown and revived by Jay Staten – the ghostly dance fantasy at the start of Act 2 and the Act 3 show dance number on the college stage .
Allen Moyer’s set is simple but highly effective, relying primarily on conveying black-and-white and color images which are brilliantly deployed by projection designer Greg Emetaz across three giant screens to the rear and sides. of the stage and parts of two nested giant boxes. At first, the open, barnwood-covered interior of the larger of the two boxes faces the audience with the slightly smaller inset as its back panel, the whole unit serving as a sort of stage in the scene. Then the two boxes are constantly rotated and reconfigured, with furniture and other decor added to set the stage evocatively.
Baritone Will Liverman takes on the vocal and dramatic challenges of Charles’ central role, capturing both the deep pain and quiet tenacity of this character and deftly wielding Blanchard’s taut vocal writing.
But as obviously at the center of this opera as Charles is, much of the emotional heart of the story rests with Billie, his mother, dominating Act 1. In her operatic debut, soprano Latonia Moore commands the stage with a safe, perfect technique. nuanced vocal notes and nuances, conveying both Billie’s unstoppable strength and her harrowing disappointments.
Other stars include Reginald Smith Jr., who makes the most of the minor role of Uncle Paul, with his big, enveloping baritone voice, and tenor Chauncey Packer as Spinner, Billie’s husband.
Opera is a difficult medium due to its collaborative and theatrical nature, but Blanchard, whose Oscar-nominated compositions have clearly been a help, is at home in this area.
Away from any avant-garde trappings, he has created a score with depth, complexity and richness. The music, which can be airy, edgy and harsh, is decidedly tonal and classic with a jazz-tinged flair and hints of gospel and blues along the way.
Blanchard’s most ingenious idea is to insert a sort of jazz quartet into the pit orchestra augmented by nearly 60 musicians, this quartet functioning a bit like the continuo of the Baroque repertoire. The lively and fluid playing of pianist Stu Mindeman and the work of Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums are particularly noteworthy.
Conductor Daniela Candillari beautifully shapes the dramatic flow and emotional contours of this opera and deftly manages the shifting moods and idiomatic flavor of the music.
Does the “fire” have what it takes to last? It is too early to know. But this is a major and compelling work from one of the most important new voices in opera.