Opera Theater of St. Louis premiere is well crafted but lacking dramatic spark

Tue Jun 18, 2019 at 11:03 am

By John von Rhein

Davóne Tines (standing), Jeremy Denis and Karen Slack in “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” at the Opera Theater of St. Louis. Photo: Camille Mahs

ST. LOUIS – Revenge, so goes the adage, is a dish best served cold. Actually, vengeance is served both cold and hot, in various forms of musical dramatization, in the four operas that make up the 2019 summer festival season of Opera Theater of St. Louis.

The present schedule, which runs through June 30 at the Loretto-Hilton Center, adheres to the repertoire balance that has served this opera-in-English company exceedingly well in the course of its 43 seasons. 

A world premiere, that of jazz and film composer Terence Blanchard and librettist Kasi Lemmons’ Fire Shut Up in My Bones, is surrounded by a Verdi warhorse (Rigoletto), a masterpiece from the infancy of Italian opera (Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea), and a Mozart staple (The Marriage of Figaro). Except for the Monteverdi, each production originated in St. Louis.

One came away impressed with the production values and the overall level of singing by the largely all-American casts once again, albeit with reservations about the new piece.

Saturday’s opening night performance of Fire Shut Up in My Bones was, to be sure, a major cultural event for St. Louis. Every member of the strong African-American cast received vociferous ovations from the capacity audience, which joined in a reprise of the jubilant second-act spiritual “Lift me up, Jesus.” Charles M. Blow, the New York Times columnist on whose eponymous 2014 memoir the opera is based, was among the notables in attendance.

Like the book, the operatic adaptation takes the form of a redemptive memory play. We are introduced to Charles, in flashback, as a boy of 7, a sensitive child nicknamed “Charles-Baby” living in a dirt-poor Louisiana backwater, raised by his fiercely protective, pistol-packing mother Billie (the charismatic soprano Karen Slack), who plucks chickens in a factory to support her five young sons. Her ne’er-do-well husband Spinner, the boys’ father (Chaz’men Williams-Ali), is absent most of the time. The threat of violence is ever-present.

It comes to a head when young Charles is sexually abused by an older male cousin, whom he had trusted as a role model. After that devastating betrayal, Charles’ life changes irrevocably. Will he wallow in the darkness or reach for the light?

The molestation comes back again and again to haunt Charles, now grown to young manhood (and an honors student at Grambling State University) as he grapples with feelings of shame, rage and confused sexual identity. (The rising young bass-baritone Davone Tines invests the role with brooding sensitivity.) At one point, on the urging of an imaginary figure named Destiny (the radiant, high-voiced soprano Julia Bullock, nicely insinuating), he contemplates killing the abuser who has, he says, turned his soul into a swamp of despair.

Only gradually does it dawn on him that he must will himself to move beyond the vicious cycle of violence that ensnares many black men in America, before he can find himself. His mother’s advice is crucial in his coming to that realization: “Sometimes you’ve gotta leave it in the road.” Charles’ odyssey of self-acceptance ends with his choosing forgiveness over vengeance, thereby coming to terms with himself as an openly bisexual man: he has learned to love the person he became.

One must admire the earnest efforts of everybody involved in the project, as well as applaud the St. Louis Opera Theater for mounting Fire Shut Up in My Bones – the company’s 28th world premiere – during Pride Month. It received a worthy production by OTSL artistic director James Robinson, with handsome abstract designs by the seasoned team of Allen Moyer (set), James Schuette (costumes), Greg Emetaz (video projections) and Christopher Akerlind (lighting).

Blanchard had a sleeper success with his first opera, Champion, which OTSL also commissioned and triumphantly premiered in 2013. Charles’ tortured psychic journey flickers to theatrical life, sometimes, in the composer’s similarly jazz-inflected score, which sets a rhythm section of piano, bass, guitar and drums percolating amid soothing orchestral strings, conducted with assurance by William Long. The quasi-arias and duets for Charles, Billie and Destiny are appealing even if they stop the drama in its tracks.

The crucial problem is Lemmons’ episodic libretto, which moves from scene to scene without a strong underlying dramatic urgency to sustain the opera’s two-and-a-half hour length. It couldn’t have been easy shaping Blow’s poetic prose into a viable music theater piece, but for all their good intentions the composer and librettist (the actress-filmmaker Lemmons is perhaps best known for her Southern-gothic melodrama Eve’s Bayou) miss the beating heart of the book. For all the libretto’s street-wise trash-talking, the story feels  too soft-centered and lacking in momentum and cumulative dramatic impact.

The grownup Charles may have found himself, but his victory over his demons doesn’t quite produce the audience empathy the opera’s creators clearly intended.

Fire Shut Up in My Bones runs through June 29 at the Opera Theater of St. Louis.  opera-stl.org314-961-0644

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