In the end, Blanchard, a jazz trumpeter best known for his Spike Lee film scores, received rapturous ovations, and Kasi Lemmons, the writer, director, and actress who with “Fire” becomes the first black librettist for a work performed. by the Met in its history. It was exhilarating to see them cheered on by an almost entirely black cast, choir, and dance group, as well as an audience of noticeably more people of color than usual at a Met opening.
“Fire,” which premiered at the St. Louis Opera House in 2019, it is based on a Memories of 2014 by New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow; is an account of her turbulent upbringing in rural Louisiana as she endures emotional turmoil, craves her mother’s affection, and tries to come to terms with the wounds of sexual abuse. Blow’s book recalls his previous life from an adult perspective, while conveying his experiences as if they were being lived in the moment. Blanchard and Lemmons use an operatic trick to present this layering.
As the opera begins, we see Charles (muscular-voiced baritone Will Liverman, in a groundbreaking performance) as a college student, speeding home, gun in hand, hell-bent on revenge for being sexually abused as a child by his older cousin. In the next scene, her 7-year-old self, Char’es-Baby, is played by Walter Russell III, an adorably lanky, sweet-toned soprano boy. The device of having a character played 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 wanders around Char’es-Baby, issuing warnings the child cannot hear, and sometimes they sing in duet, with sinuous lyrical lines over soft harmonies.
The opera also creates a double female character, Destiny and Loneliness, to embody the 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’s more poignant than the cliché it could easily have been.
In his score, Blanchard skillfully combines elements of jazz, blues, big band and gospel touches in a compositional voice dominated by exuberant chromatic and modal harmonic writing, with irregular rhythms and sour dissonance. Commented on a recent interview with The Times on his method of writing vowel lines: pronounce the words of the text over and over again to learn their form and fluency.
The resulting musical scene is clear and natural. Blanchard mixes sizzling spoken moments into vocal phrases that unfold into a jazzy equivalent of Italian arioso. He has a penchant for muffling these vocal lines with hugging orchestral chords, or else he will often double down on vocals or write against melodies with extended lines for the strings. (Howard Drossin is credited with additional orchestrations.)
Blanchard displays this energetic lyrical style with such persistence that the passages risk slipping into melodrama. This problem is more of a problem at the Met than it is in St. Louis. In Missouri, the opera was presented in a 756-seat theater, about one-fifth the size of the Met. Understandably, the creative team chose to adapt the work to the larger space. Some scenes were enlarged; dance sequences were added; the role of Billie, Charles’s mother, was significantly expanded to create a true lead soprano part, here poignantly sung by Latonia Moore.
Although the opera still mostly avoids looking bloated, these enhanced arias and scenes sometimes drag on for too long. He missed the intimacy and the directness, the almost chamber orchestral clarity, with the words leaping off the stage, of the St. Louis production.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Met’s musical director, brought commitment and energy to the podium, highlighting the colors and character of the music, the nuances and the metallic sheen. But with the orchestra’s string players giving their all for that lyricism, the sound was often too luxurious. I wish Nézet-Séguin had encouraged more subtlety and restraint.
However, “Fire” remains a fresh and moving work. You believe in these characters when you see scenes from their daily lives, like when we see Billie and her co-workers in a chicken factory, plucking feathers on a table full of corpses; or when the teenage Charles decides to get baptized in the church to rid himself of the inner demons of sexual confusion. (As a result of this, he receives a visit from Soledad, who promises to be his companion for life).
James Robinson, who organized the St. Louis production, has been joined at the Met by director and choreographer Camille A. Brown, making her the first black artist to direct a Met production. Brown created some dazzling dance sequences, including a dreamy ballet in which teenage Charles sees visions of attractive, embracing men surrounding his bed and stands up to join them, both terrified and in a trance. The third act begins with a long scene of dance steps that brought the show to a halt: Charles is rushing Kappa Alpha Psi, a black fraternity, and 12 dancers dance to a frantic, yet surprisingly laid-back theme.
Blanchard was fortunate to have Lemmons as a collaborator. His libretto is poetic, poignant, sometimes sadly funny, always dramatically effective. Many lines, delicately written by Blanchard, will stay with me, as in a soliloquy when Major Charles, echoing Destiny, sings: “I was once a child of peculiar grace,” a “dangerous existence” for a man of his race. From his “lawless city,” he adds, where everyone carried a gun, “he wore shame, in a holster around his waist.”
Allen Moyer’s replacement set, a kind of rough carved wooden proscenium and a few other changing elements, is visually enriched with projections by Greg Emetaz. Paul Tazewell’s costumes were wonderfully simple, yet evocative of changing periods and settings. The entire cast was excellent, including the brilliant-voiced tenor Chauncey Packer as Spinner, Billie’s womanizing husband; serious bass baritone Ryan Speedo Green as kind Uncle Paul, who takes in Billie and his children; and the husky baritone Chris Kenney in the defiant role of Chester, the older cousin who annoys Charles. The scene of abuse is even more powerful if not explicitly staged: we only see the immobile cousins as Char’es-Baby’s anguished face is shown in close-up projections.
In the penultimate scene, Charles meets a charming woman, Greta, with whom he instantly bonds; he calls it his “destiny”. (She is also portrayed by Blue, our Destiny and Loneliness.) Business Secrets, Charles admits to the sexual abuse he experienced; Greta later admits to having a boyfriend she is engaged to. Crushed, Charles calls home and discovers from his mother that Chester has passed by, leading back to the opening of the opera, when we see Charles ready to kill.
But when he gets to his mother’s house, Chester is gone. Instead, the opera ends with a poignant scene set to melancholic and honeyed music, in which Charles, who is watched by Char’es-Baby, returns to Billie, finally able to accept the motherly advice she has always given him about not. carry an emotional baggage through life: “Sometimes, you have to leave it on the road.”