Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis: 'Fire Shut Up in My Bones' brings further acquaintance with Terence Blanchard as opera composer

For their debut as an opera team, Terence Blanchard and Kasi Lemmons draw upon a recent history of  collaboration in films, with a fifth joint project in the works destined for the public screen on the slavery abolitionist Harriet Tubman.
Uncle Paul instructs Char'es-Baby and Charles in the rootedness of manhood

In his second composition for the  company (following 2013's "Champion"),  Blanchard thus had a natural libretto partner. It's little surprise that the result — an adaptation of Charles M. Blow's "Fire Shut Up in My Bones" — looks and feels cinematic. The scenes, joined to the thickly scored music, flow into one another with something like movie "dissolves" making  the connections. The opera (of the same title) received its world  premiere June 15 in an Opera Theatre of Saint  Louis  production.

Another reinforcement of the cinematic approach is that "Fire Shut Up in My Bones" rests on a memoir foundation. This feels like a welcome novelty,  linking incidents in Blow's early life to the time-tested genre of opera, but it also presents creative peril. Here's the crux of it: A memoir forces a special kind of narrative, and however focused it may be, the selection of relevant memories doesn't make for a dramatic arc that can be substantiated and given coherence musically.

I found Blanchard's music  to be a thoroughly worked pastiche of motifs and melodies, some of which recur  to underline the message of revelation, much of it painful. The score thus provides a pervasive  texture behind the main character's journey toward an identity he can accept. A texture is not a trajectory, however, and that remains my chief reservation about the work.

Mother-son bond: Billie shares her anxiety with Charles.
As imaginatively staged and sung with gusto, "Fire Shut Up in My Bones" is rooted in the hero's marginalization as the baby of a family headed by a  determined, overworked woman in Louisiana late in the last century. He is loved, but in an oversheltered way. Known as Char'es-Baby, young Charles is especially ill-prepared to deal at age 7 with the sexual abuse he suffers at the hands of an older cousin who has come to visit. The trauma that results is the fire shut up in his bones, a phrase derived from the  Old Testament prophet Jeremiah. He struggles to come to terms with it even as he matures into an outstanding student and athlete (a transformation that the opera somewhat glosses over).

The work meets some of the inherent challenges of making a memoir dramatic by overlaying the 20-year-old Charles upon his younger self. The forces of memory and actuality alike are at work, and through the simultaneous singing of bass-baritone Davone Tines and treble Jeremy Denis, the incorporation of the child in the young man is effectively conveyed.

As the opera opens, the 20-year-old Charles, enraged and driving fast, is intent on coming home armed, finding the cousin who was once a shady role model turned predator, and killing him. The pathway to personal change that avoids homicide runs through Destiny, a character both personal and allegorical for the opera's hero. The role is enchantingly sung by Julia Bullock (who occasionally assumes the persona of Loneliness and, crucially, as Charles real-life first girlfriend, Greta).

The stage picture  (designed by Allen Moyer) is largely abstract, with a metallic square framing much of the action. Video projections sometimes remind  us of the milieu's thick forestation, and at other times present portraits of Char'es-Baby with a blank, vaguely troubled expression. Slight rearrangements of furnishing and props as well as lighting changes put us in a dive bar and a church in addition to the  home of Billie and her five boys. Characters are sometimes isolated in bright squares, evoking snapshots preserved in photo albums. There is an especially effective scene evoking the chicken-processing plant where Billie works. The gruesome drudgery of such work is given almost a comical turn with a bright choral number.

William Long conducted with an evident command of the variety of musical idioms Blanchard has stitched together. The music varies from low-down to high-flown. Strings sometimes soar in billowing phrases in unison with the vocal line, a sign of Blanchard's admiration of  Puccini. A small jazz group  in the  pit supplements the  orchestral effusions. The guitar's voice is especially prominent, adding the redolence of rural blues to the musical palette.

As the mother, Karen Slack was impressive, though sometimes under vocal strain that went beyond what is needed to express her character. Billie's errant husband Spinner is lent a sly, Sportin' Life feeling of feckless irresponsibility as the straying husband-father in Chaz'men Williams-Ali's characterization. Markel Reed is both sinister and alluring as Chester, the cousin at the  root of Charles' suppressed  troubles. Michael Redding projects salt-of-the-earth wisdom and stability in the challenging  environment as the rambunctious boys' Uncle Paul.

Charles and girlfriend Greta muse on romantic obstacles.
It's interesting that white racism  exerts so little conspicuous influence on the behavior and  thinking of these characters. Surely it shapes their situation and limits their prospects, but what "Fire Shut Up in My Bones" is mainly concerned with is the burdens a small community imposes on its members and the various strategies they adopt to work through the difficulties.  Thus it shares with nearly all operas a focus on the closed circuit of a few essential relationships.

Charles experiences rituals that sometimes fold individuality into group identity, but neither the exaltations of the black church nor brutal college fraternity hazing — startlingly presented in the show — address his alienation. A love affair, unfortunately loaded with cliches in the libretto, ends sadly as Greta leaves him after he reveals his childhood trauma.

The affair shows Charles how he must draw upon available resources to overcome the old woe and, as the opera's most memorable song suggests, "leave it in the road." He needs his mother's steadfast help in doing so, however, so the opera ends quietly in an African-American pieta back at home. He is about to reveal his secret, a toxic bloom whose involuntary nurture is daringly warmed by that fire shut up in his bones.

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