Thursday, March 31, 2022

Great Performances: Fire Shut Up in My Bones

Duke Ellington's opera Queenie Pie was sort of like Orson Welles eternally unfinished Don Quixote. He continued writing and polishing it throughout his life, but he never found the right venue to force him to finish it. Concert recitals have tried piece it together, but it never had the proper premiere it deserved. Today, jazz artists get more respect. In fact, Terence Blanchard became the first black composer to be produced by the Metropolitan Opera, launching their 2021-2022 season. The music is fresh, but Blanchard’s adaptation of Charles W. Blow’s memoir is as tragic as any great opera, with a libretto by Kasi Lemmons. Grown “Charles” returns to his hometown Gibsland, Louisiana to revisit his traumatic childhood abuse in Fire Shut Up in My Bones, which airs tomorrow night on PBS’s Great Performances at the Met.

Gibsland is best known as the nearest town to where Bonnie and Clyde met their untimely demise. Charles has something similar in mind. He has come back with a gun and he is looking for Chester the aptly-named cousin who molested him when he was a young boy. Instead, he finds “Char’es Baby,” the embodiment of his childhood self, who guides him through the memory play. Act 1 culminates with the abuse, whereas act 2 ostensibly shows teenaged Charles “getting on with his life,” by losing his virginity. However, in act 3, we see the abuse still haunts him as a freshman enrolled in Grambling.

Instead of a jazz opera, the Met describes
Fire as “an opera in jazz.” Don’t feel bad if that distinction is lost on you. Much of Blanchard’s score is stylistically akin to grand opera of the kind you expect to hear at the Met. Yet, Blanchard’s jazz background is still in there, especially in transitional passages that often a rhythmic bounce that you might even say swings. There are also a number of songs that transparently incorporate elements of the blues and gospel. Yet, ironically, one of the most memorable arias, “Golden Button,” would probably work even better as a Broadway book musical tune, given its lilting melody and endearing lyrics.

Jazz fans should also note musicians Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums, Matt Brewer on bass, and Adam Rogers on guitar supplement the Met orchestra. As a legit jazz rhythm section, they help Met pianist and assistant conductor Bryan Wagorn to really swing the score. Arguably, Blanchard might have found the sweet spot that keeps his jazz supporters tapping their toes, while remaining accessible to the Met’s core audience, without sounding like he is compromising or trying to placate either. (That’s a neat trick.)

Of course, this being the Met, the featured performers and ensemble are amazingly talented. Latonia Moore delivers several show-stopping arias as Charles’s long-suffering mother, Billie. Will Liverman drives the production with his voice and stamina as grown Charles, but the dramatic work of Walter Russell III (as young Char’es) definitely stole the hearts of the audience for this taped performance.

Blanchard’s score is probably less jazz than Ellington’s
Queenie Pie, but it is far bluesier and more swinging than Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha, which was the ragtime composer’s bid for genuine classical “respectability.” Somehow, Blanchard created music that successfully melds both classical and jazz aesthetics. However, it is likely to have more of a life as a recording and through in-concert repertoire than in repertory productions, because of the harshness of the subject matter. Highly recommended for jazz and opera patrons, Fire Shut Up in My Bones premieres this Friday (4/1) on PBS.