“Champion” may be the single most important world première in the 38-year history of Opera Theatre of St. Louis. On Saturday night in the Browning Theatre, Terence Blanchard’s much-heralded “opera in jazz” lived up to the hype, its powerful story and score propelled by a dynamic cast and production.
The story is based on the true history of boxer Emile Griffith. He rose to become welterweight champion of the world, killing an opponent, Benny Paret, in the ring in 1962. He was beaten nearly to death himself 30 years later after leaving a gay bar.
Blanchard and his librettist, Michael Cristofer, have constructed the piece in 10 rapidly moving “rounds,” complete with the ringing of a bell. In OTSL artistic director James Robinson’s production, with Allan Moyer’s simple black sets and projections and video by Greg Emetaz, the action moves fluidly and cinematically between the worlds of Old Emile, lost in anxious dementia, and Young Emile, as he rises in the world of boxing and then falls, the victim of arrogance and too many blows to the head.
People and situations slide seamlessly on and off the stage: Old Emile, fretting over a lost shoe; Young Emile’s arrival in New York from the poverty-stricken island of St. Thomas, with a hat, a bat, a song and a killer smile; a still younger self’s midnight sorrow, holding cinder blocks over his head as punishment as his bed lies empty.
Blanchard’s substantial score is heavily jazz-inflected in a variety of styles, from bluesy to Afro-Cuban, but it owes just as much to his work in film. There aren’t a lot of memorable tunes to take away, and at times it threatens to slide into background music, but it’s perfectly suited to its dramatic purpose. There are only a few moments that sag in the course of it.
Cristofer’s libretto has some beautiful spots, like Young Emile’s Act I aria, “What makes a man a man?” There are also spots that evoke Dr. Seuss: “This ain’t Frankie that you missed. This ain’t Frankie that you kissed.” It’s filled with vulgarities and slurs that fit the context, but are difficult to quote in a family newspaper.
Opera Theatre has assembled a first-class cast; from the largest roles to the smallest its members create indelible personalities. The charisma quotient has seldom been so high.
Bass-baritone Arthur Woodley, shuffling through his past, was heartbreaking as Old Emile, lost in the blind corners of his brain and haunted by the ghost of his opponent. Mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves gave a vivid, show-stopping performance as Emile’s thoroughly bad mommy. She’s appalling and funny, venal but sensible, using the full range of a still-beautiful voice to tremendous effect, and always watchable.