Financial troubles plague opera companies worldwide, yet the parade of new American operas continues. Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, buoyed by a $1m challenge grant from the Mellon Foundation, is offering a world premiere in each of its next three seasons – 25 per cent of its repertoire. The first of these is Terence Blanchard’s Champion about the welterweight boxer Emile Griffith, who had the misfortune of administering fatal blows to Benny Paret in a 1962 championship fight.
Champion raises so many social/moral issues, it’s hard to keep them straight. Even the librettist, Michael Cristofer, had trouble when he assigned Griffith the lines: “I kill a man and the world forgives me, I love a man and the world wants to kill me.” In fact, Griffith is racked by the death of Paret, who had taunted him about his sexuality, and yearns for forgiveness from Paret’s son. In addition to the anomaly of a bisexual boxer, Champion addresses the physical destruction caused by professional sports, more by depicting Griffith in a state of premature dementia than through Paret’s seemingly fluke death.
Opera Theatre, which partnered with Jazz Saint Louis on Champion, chose well in tapping Blanchard, whose first operatic score astutely mixes neo-Romanticism with sophisticated jazz elements, such that the latter are at home in the opera house. He skilfully supports recitative-like exchanges with jazzy musical backgrounds but is also capable of creating show-stopping numbers, such as the sultry aria for Griffith’s errant mother, who gave the young Griffith and his six siblings to others to raise.
Unfortunately, Blanchard never exerts the firm artistic leadership demanded of an opera composer and seems constrained by Cristofer’s problematic libretto. Shifts in time periods occur smoothly, thanks to excellent performances from Arthur Woodley and Aubrey Allicock in portraying old and young versions of Griffith. But the libretto flits from subject to subject, so that the opera sometimes seems like a revue. And it flirts with triteness, as when Griffith’s inability to find his shoes becomes a recurring emblem of dementia.
Still, like John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer two years ago, Champion has enthralled the audience here. It didn’t enthral me, but because of the virtues enumerated above – plus James Robinson’s rich production, Allen Moyer’s stylish and versatile set, George Manahan’s expert conducting and singers who also include Denyce Graves and Victor Ryan Robertson – it did hold my interest.