The Met’s fine production of Champion conveys important social messages

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Terence Blanchard, Champion:  Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York / Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor).  Broadcast Live in HD (directed by Gary Halvorson) from New York’s Metropolitan Opera to Dundonald Omniplex Cinema, Belfast, 29.4.2023. (RB)

A scene from Champion © Ken Howard / Met Opera

Production – James Robinson
Set designer – Allen Moyer
Costume designer – Montana Levi Blanco
Lighting designer – Donald Holder
Projection designer – Greg Emetaz
Choreographer – Camille A. Brown

Emelda Griffith – Latonia Moore
Young Emile Griffith – Ryan Speedo Green
Old Emile Griffith – Eric Owens
Emile Griffith as child – Ethan Joseph
Kathy Hagen – Stephanie Blythe
Howie Albert – Paul Groves
Benny ‘Kid’ Paret – Eric Green

The Met: Live in HD Director – Gary Halvorson
The Met: Live in HD Host – Lawrence Brownlee

Terence Blanchard is a distinguished jazz musician and film composer. He has collaborated on several high-profile projects with the film director Spike Lee. His opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones opened the Met’s 2021-22 season to universal acclaim. Champion is Blanchard’s first opera and the second to be performed by the Met. It is based on the life of the of the African-American welterweight boxer, Emile Griffith. Blanchard has described the work as an ‘opera in jazz’, rather than a jazz opera.

The opera opens with a scene showing the older Emile Griffith in a nursing home fighting the effects of dementia. He reflects on episodes in his life, including his childhood and departure from St Thomas in the 1950s and his boxing career and private life in New York from the 1950s to the 1990s. The young Griffith enjoyed making hats and playing baseball, but because of his physique and encouragement from his mother he entered the world of professional boxing. Griffith described himself as bisexual and was known to frequent gay bars. The opera focuses on a famous boxing match between Griffith and Benny Paret. Prior to the bout Paret taunted Griffith with homophobic abuse. In the boxing match which followed Griffith subjected Paret to a vicious barrage of punches and won by a knockout, as a result of which Paret went into a coma and died in hospital ten days later. The opera also covers several other episodes in Griffith’s life including his short-lived marriage to Mercedes Donastorg, the gradual downturn in his career and the vicious homophobic attack which almost killed him.

In addition to the standard symphony orchestra, Blanchard uses a jazz quartet (piano, bass, drums and guitar) throughout the work; this functions as a modern continuo. The music was primarily influenced by jazz but there was also lush orchestral writing reminiscent of Puccini. Some of the arias also seemed to be influenced by Broadway numbers and there were sections of the opera which sounded like film music. The dance numbers were rhythmically exuberant although they sometimes suffered from excessive repetition. I found the music engaging and enjoyable, although there was nothing in the score which was truly memorable.

James Robinson’s production succeeded in weaving together the episodes in Griffith’s life to create a clear dramatic narrative. Allen Moyer’s set allowed for fluid scene changes as we moved from a room in an apartment to a colourful party to a scene in an office and to various bouts in the boxing ring. In various scenes the older Griffith hovered above the action in his room, seemingly reminiscing on events. Greg Emetaz’s projections of the New York skyline provided an evocative backdrop and helped to place the action in a historical context. Camille A Brown’s choreography was a highlight of the evening and added fizz and energy to the production. The party scene during the journey from St Thomas in the Virgin Islands had a Caribbean carnival flavour and some of the brightly coloured costumes were vivid and eye catching. In other scenes we saw boxing routines turned into elaborate dance sequences and ‘dirty dancing’ in a gay bar.

A scene from Champion © Ken Howard / Met Opera

The social messages of the opera around discrimination against the LGBT community were well handled.  The scene in the gay bar was suitably outrageous and unapologetic with Stephanie Blythe holding court over a gathering of sequinned drag queens and out gay men. There was something particular poignant about the scene where Griffith tried to come out to his manager with the latter making clear he did not want to know. It reinforced the desperation LGBT people of that era must have felt in trying to make basic human connections. The scene at the end of the opera where Griffith was gay-bashed and hospitalised brought home the day-to-day reality of the discrimination many LGBT people face.

The cast were very impressive in their respective roles. Eric Owens injected dignity and pathos into his arias and he gave a pitch perfect portrait of an older man suffering from dementia. Ryan Speedo Green had clearly spent hours in the gym for this production and was suitably buff. He portrayed Griffith as genial and likeable while at the same time wrestling with his own demons. He sang with a smooth rich tone throughout and his rendition the Act I aria ‘What makes a man a man’ was beautifully controlled and calibrated. Young Ethan Joseph also gave a very accomplished portrayal of Griffith as a child. He sang with a clear ringing treble voice and his intonation was perfect.

Latonia Moore was impressive in the role of Griffith’s mother, Emelda. She captured the superficial and parasitic nature of the character while also showing that she too was a victim of her own circumstances. Moore sang with enormous power and flair while also allowing space for reflection in her Act II aria. Stephanie Blythe let her hair down in the role of the gay bar owner, Kathy Hagen. She sang the outrageous words of her aria (‘Well, fuck me sideways’) with gusto while doing a fabulous job holding court in the gay bar. Paul Groves gave an accomplished performance as Griffith’s manager, Howie Albert, although occasionally there was a slight strain at the top of his vocal register.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin decided to throw himself into the performance by wearing a boxer’s dressing gown. The orchestral entries were well coordinated and the players seemed to relish Blanchard’s funky rhythms and jazz idiom. The rhythmic sections coursed with energy while Nézet-Séguin coaxed rich opulent Puccini-like textures from the players in the lush sections of the opera. Occasionally, the balance was not quite right between the orchestra and the players, although for the most part the singers projected themselves well, sometimes against large orchestral forces.

This The Met: Live in HD performance was well directed by Gary Halvorson. The camerawork provided viewers with a good sense of the overall architecture of the set as well as focusing in on key details. The sound quality was generally very good, although there were a few short instances where the sound dipped in quality at the start of the opera. In the middle of the production there was a short section where the performers sang in Spanish. The subtitles showed the Spanish words instead of translating them into English, which was not altogether helpful. The interviews with the composer, conductor and performers were all very informative – I was particularly intrigued to learn that Stephanie Blythe works as a cabaret and drag performer and I would welcome the opportunity to see one of her performances. Lawrence Brownlee did an excellent job as the audience compère for the evening.

Overall, this was a strong production with a first-rate cast conveying important social messages. Terence Blanchard’s score was enjoyable without being particularly memorable.

Robert Beattie

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