Thursday, June 27, 2013

It coulda been a contender

Photo: Ken Howard
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Who: Opera Theatre of St. Louis
What: Champion
When: Through June 30th, 2013
Where: The Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus

The opera receiving its world premiere this month at Opera Theatre has an impressive pedigree. The music is by jazz trumpeter, bandleader, and genre-crossing composer Terrence Blanchard, and the libretto by Pulitzer Prize­winning playwright Michael Cristofer, whose play “The Shadow Box” remains a perennial favorite of small theatre companies. It’s a bit surprising, then, that while I found “Champion” moving and often profoundly sad, I felt that it lacked the real dramatic depth I would have expected from that kind of talent.

The true story on which “Champion” is based is certainly tragic enough. In 1962, U.S. Virgin Islands immigrant Emile Griffith won the World Welterweight Championship in a controversial fight that left his opponent Benny “Kid” Paret dead and Paret’s two-year-old son fatherless. Griffith went on to win multiple titles but ultimately lost them all and had to end his career as “boxer’s brain”—the result of multiple knockouts—began to claim his mental faculties. A beating from a group of thugs outside a Manhattan gay bar exacerbated the damage and hastened his slide into dementia.

Photo: Ken Howard
As the opera opens, an aging and confused Emile is preparing to meet the son of Benny Paret in an attempt at reconciliation. As Emile’s adopted son and caretaker Luis helps him dress, Emile’s mind drifts back and forth in time, unveiling his story in a series of flashbacks and visions. Along the way we meet important figures in his life: the mother who abandoned him in the Virgin Islands and later reconnected with him in New York, his manager, his wife (whom he married in an attempt to deny his homosexuality), and the men and women at the gay bar he frequented. Through it all we see Emile try to come to grips with the contradiction between his private and public persona and his guilt over the death of Kid Paret.

This is the kind of material that offers opportunities to ask serious questions about the way our culture defines masculinity and the odd contradictions that definition creates. Mr. Cristofer’s libretto certainly does that, often very effectively. As Griffith observes in the opera, “I killed a man and the world forgave me; I loved a man and the world wanted to kill me.” Mr. Blanchard’s eclectic score supports and adds emotional resonance to the text. But ultimately the most genuinely moving moment in the evening came near the end, when Emile embraces Paret’s son—a touching scene that takes place in total silence.

The problem, I think, is that most of the scenes in “Champion” go on too long and lose their dramatic impact in the process. The scene in which the young Emile and his mother visit the hat factory run by Emile’s future fight manager is a typical example: the same words and music are repeated, more or less unchanged, at least two or three times, like some sort of instant replay. It’s a pattern that’s repeated often enough to drain away the sense of dramatic momentum and make the show feel a bit plodding. I think a bit of editing would tighten the overall structure and add a sense of dramatic urgency that “Champion” often lacks.

And then there’s the matter of the ending. After the touching silent embrace and a scene in which Emile finally finds a way to forgive himself for his past mistakes we’re back to the beginning, with the confused Emile not sure where his shoe goes or where he goes. It’s not clear that he’ll remember the catharsis he’s been through or that anything has actually changed. That might be medically realistic, but after everything he (and we) have been through, I think we all deserve better than that.

Still, it’s a pretty good opera as it stands. With some work, I think it could be a great one. And there’s no question that “Champion” is getting a truly outstanding production from Opera Theatre, with a wonderful cast, fine orchestral playing, and polished tech.

Bass Arthur Woodley captures the confusion and vulnerability of the elderly Emile perfectly, right down the palsied hands and slumped posture. And you can hear the echoes of the character’s youth in that powerful voice. Bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock is a real force of nature as the young Emile. He sings powerfully as well. He is not, however, a good physical match for Mr. Woodley, who is noticeably taller.

Making her OTSL debut, Denyce Graves shows considerable acting skill and a remarkably wide-ranging voice as Emile’s mother Emelda. The role sounds more alto than mezzo to me, but Ms. Graves didn’t seem to be particularly challenged by the low notes. Baritone Robert Orth is very effective as Emile’s aggressive manager Howie Albert and tenor Victor Ryan Robertson does an excellent job as both the brash, light-footed Kid Paret and his more mild-mannered son.

There’s very fine work here as well by soprano Chabrelle Williams in multiple roles (including Emile’s wife), mezzo Meredith Arwady as bar owner Kathy Hagan, tenor Christopher Hutchinson as the Ring Announcer (who acts as something of a Greek Chorus), and tenor Lorenzo Miguel Garcia as the Young Man with whom Emile flirts on the night of his beating.

Tenor Brian Arreola cuts a sympathetic and loving figure as Luis and young Jordan Jones shows skill beyond his years as Little Emile.

Director James Robinson keeps the show moving and the blocking focused and motivated, assisted by Seán Curran’s always reliable choreography. Allen Moyer’s multi-level set make very effective use of video projections (by Greg Emetaz) to quickly define time and location, enabling swift set changes.

Mr. Blanchard’s score sounds modern without being harsh. Jazz, blues, and Afro-Caribbean elements are present as well, with the former mostly showing up in urban scenes and the latter in Emile’s memories of his home. There’s even a jazz rhythm section in the orchestration (piano, bass, and drums). Mr. Manahan’s direction integrates it all seamlessly.

The bottom line on Opera Theatre’s “Champion” is that its flaws aren’t big enough to overcome its strengths and, in any case, a world premiere here in St. Louis always deserves attention. I think “Champion” is worth seeing for the quality of the performances and for the importance of the questions it raises. Performances continue through this Sunday at the Loretto-Hilton Center in Webster Groves. For more information:

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