The opening night of the Metropolitan Opera’s season arrived on Monday, complete with a huge backlog: Fire stops in my legs, with music by Terence Blanchard, is the first opera by a black composer in the 138-year history of the Met.
Based on an eloquent recollection by Charles M Blow, now a columnist and television presenter for the New York Times, Fire stops in my legs tells the story of Blow’s abuse when he was seven, how he realized painfully with his bisexuality and his final realization of his love for and his guilt to his mother (mighty soprano Latonia Moore). Boys soprano Walter Russell III sings the child Blow, the light baritone Will Liverman the adult.
Blanchard is a well-known jazz trumpeter, ensemble leader and composer of scores for 60 films (including most of Spike Lee’s) and one previous opera, Champion, seen in St. Louis in 2013. He is no modernist; his father loved opera and played for him recordings of the 19th century repertoire, and Puccini and Bohemian is his templates. Like almost everyone since then, however, he lacks Puccini’s gift for the rising vocal line. In the third industry of Fire some of the vocal music approaches the true lyrics, but in general the music, led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the music director of the Met, is carried by the accompaniment (Howard Drossin is attributed in a small type to ‘additional orchestrations ‘). The instrumental music is full of drift ostinatos and alternating with richer effusions. There is also some ghostly refrain outside the stage.
The production has expanded the original St Louis original of 2019, with extra music plus choreography by Camille A Brown (from the recent Met production of Porgy and Bess), including a cadre of men with bare breasts as the fantasies of Blow and the elongated walking and line dancing of Blow’s fraternity brothers. For the audience, it was the hit of the evening, but little music was involved. (Brown co-directed with James Robinson, artistic director of the Opera Theater of St. Louis.)
But in general, the evening is carried by Blow’s tortured story and Kasi Lemmons’ libretto, which perfectly adapts the dramatic elements of Blow’s story. Lemmons, who is also a film director, compacted the first-person narrative into a single soprano depicting Destiny, Loneliness, and eventually Blow’s first true lover (all three portrayed by the fine soprano Angel Blue). However, much of the surrounding material – the small Louisiana town where Blow was raised, the racial context of the time, many subplots – is shifted, with Blue and Blow as observers.
★★★ ☆ ☆
Until October 23; metopera.org. Subsequent performances are planned for Chicago and Los Angeles