Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis gets into the ring with jazzman's first opera

A brutal sport that reflects a brutal world lies at the center of a new opera by Terence Blanchard, a well-known jazz trumpeter and film composer who makes his debut as an opera composer with "Champion," an Opera Theatre of Saint Louis production.

The 23rd world premiere in the 38 seasons of OTSL, "Champion" is the story, based on real life but told in a dreamlike fashion, of boxer Emile Griffith, whose success as welterweight champion in the 1960s was forever marked by his fatal victory over Benny "Kid" Paret. "Champion" takes Griffith's guilt over his flurry of punches that sent Paret into a coma resulting in death and sets it against the champion's own mental deterioration, a hazard of his profession.

Manager Howie (Robert Orth) encourages Emile (Aubrey Allicock) before fight.
Blanchard and his librettist, Michael Cristofer, have posed challenges for themselves and their audiences. The voice of the hero is divided among three singers: bass Arthur Woodley, bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock, and boy soprano Jordan Jones. Woodley is the aging fighter, now retired, who struggles with sorting out his memories and the simplest daily tasks. As he slowly gets dressed in the opening scene, he plunges into a clouded reverie, wondering what a shoe is for. The opera thus sets a course that the music often mimics: Life proceeds at a banal, repetitive level. The somewhat demented Griffith rehearses each move, urged along by his adopted son and caretaker Luis (Brian Arreola). He is getting ready for a meeting with Benny Paret Jr., which provides the opera's narrative frame.

As we get to know him, the younger Griffith (Allicock) sings "What makes a man a man" -- one of several arias in "Champion" positioned as individual showcases for major characters. The identity question involves not only Griffith's professional identity, since he came to the U.S. from the West Indies intending to be a hatmaker, baseball player, or singer.  It also concerns his sexual identity, because Griffith's bisexuality is more than a matter of rumor, and we see directly his confusion about it in a gay-bar scene. But an early scene in a hatmaking shop, where his mother has taken him to get a job, reinforces the frequency with which the music treads water. As the shop boss Howie Albert (Robert Orth) muses aloud on Emile's greater suitability for boxing, a side interest of Albert's, the hatmakers work on their routine tasks in the background, the music following suit.
While crowded with incident, the opera has a static feeling musically. Sometimes that seems entirely appropriate, as if the creators want to confirm the narrow range of choices available to Emile. He is consistently subject to the authority of a fate he has little control over. His most vigorous assertion of power beyond that range is the vicious hammering of Paret in the ring, driven by his anger at the cocky opponent's taunting remarks during the weigh-in. And yet, as Howie reflects in anguish (in Orth's showcase aria), Paret had dreaded the fight, despite his bravado, because he sensed his head wasn't right. Thus, even Emile's most life-defining act turns out to have been foreordained.

Emelda Griffith, Emile's mother, has a keener feeling for fate than her son, expressed in an introspective aria that Denyce Graves   made a little too flamboyant in the performance I saw June 25. Emelda's own life, marked by a series of bad liaisons with men and abandonment of the children produced by them, is overshadowed by the familiar immigrant story of dashed dreams.

Even the upper-body strength of the  young Emile that so impresses Howie Albert is the result of involuntary conditioning. A touching showcase handled well by Jordan Jones is an aria recalling the religious fanaticism of older cousin Blanche (Chabrelle Williams), who forced the boy to hold cinder blocks over his head to scare out the devil. As Emile realizes later, the internal devils are not so easily exorcised.

The show's outbursts of Manhattan nightlife, prizefight excitement and Caribbean revelry are welcome and expertly staged by director James Robinson. Projections of posters and newsreels on side panels recall the faded glory of boxing's latter heyday. The orchestra is required to produce sweeping sounds, sometimes reinforcing a sustained vocal line in Puccini fashion, as well as providing a pointillistic, jazz-inflected backdrop for singers and dancers. The music is typically nervous, twitchy and variegated, and the voices, both combined and alone, are allowed lots of room to shine. Everything was precisely managed from the podium by George Manahan.

Especially impressive vocally were Allicock and, though more sparingly used, the tenor Victor Ryan Robertson as Griffith's nemesis Paret. Meredith Arwady got considerable traction in her brief character role as Kathy, the owner of the seedy gay bar Emile visits. Another tenor role lent plentiful intensity and pathos, thanks to Arreola's peformance, was that of Luis. Unfortunately, many of the versatile Orth's lines as Howie were sort of barked out, perhaps a mode of delivery stipulated by the score or the show's director.

The biggest flaw in "Champion" may have been one of its most stunning triumphs from a show-biz standpoint. The full-cast ensemble near the end, draped in chorale-like stateliness, seemed an unnecessary summing-up. It also suggested that a largely exploitative or indifferent world would have a lot to say unanimously about Emile Griffith.

Probably doubtful — and a sentimental notion linked to a peculiar slackness in Cristofer's writing near the end, with its trite sunsets, etc. At that point, it's uncertain what self-knowledge Griffith is capable of, given the limited mental capacity Woodley so movingly indicates remains to him. For the sake of opera, Blanchard and Cristofer want to load more significance upon the boxer's pathetic existence than it can comfortably bear. That is part and parcel of the redemptive power of art, I suppose, but it seems forced in "Champion."

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