With “Champion,” the final opera of its 2021-22 season, Boston Lyric Opera planned for a sort of homecoming. After over two years of productions adapted for a world shaped by the coronavirus, the “opera in jazz” by composer Terence Blanchard and librettist Michael Cristofer would be the company’s first production that resembled the pre-pandemic days: live singers, live orchestra, fully staged in front of a live audience.
COVID-19 found a way to complicate things. A series of cases among the cast and crew disrupted the company’s plans to the degree that opening night (scheduled for May 18) was canceled, and the remaining two performances were hastily changed into what BLO called “concert-style”: yes to costumes, no to extensive sets, props, or any elaborate choreography; the orchestra (conducted by BLO music director David Angus, substituting for Kwamé Ryan) was seated on the stage, not in the pit.
But at Sunday afternoon’s performance, “Champion” was anything but down for the count. The concert-style staging didn’t break immersion; to the contrary, it enhanced it.
That’s partially thanks to the opera’s themes, and the structure of its story, which is based on true events. “Champion” introduces prizefighter Emile Griffith near the end of his life, suffering from dementia caused by years of blows to the head. As Emile’s partner and caretaker, Luis, prepares him for an important meeting in the present day, the past that led here is revealed through several flashbacks.
Griffith, who grew up in the US Virgin Islands and moved to New York City as a teenager, never aspired to be a fighter. But his physical strength caught the eye of his employer, Howie Albert, who was a former amateur boxer: Albert promptly whisked Griffith off to trainer Gil Clancy. (In the opera, Clancy and Albert are condensed into the single character of Howie Albert.) Griffith was almost an instant star in the ring. But his career was marred by a tragedy that effectively wiped boxing off of mainstream television: At a weigh-in between Griffith and Cuban fighter Benny Paret, Paret tried to get in his opponent’s head by calling him an anti-gay slur in Spanish. At the match later that evening, Griffith nailed Paret with 17 blows in seven seconds, knocking him out and leaving him in a coma. Paret died 10 days later.
Griffith continued to box for over a decade, and he fought his way to several world championship belts, but guilt over Paret’s death tormented him for the rest of his days. The opera’s final scene depicts Griffith meeting and asking for forgiveness from Paret’s now-adult son, a meeting that also happened in real life.
I was ultimately curious to see what director Timothy Douglas and set designer Sara Brown would have presented had the performances been staged as planned. But the transitions between past and present needed nothing more than what they had on Sunday: the clang of a ringside bell and the character of the Ring Announcer, portrayed by tenor Matthew Arnold (another last minute stand-in) with red-faced gusto and a sheen of showbiz unctuousness. With no set changes to divide then and now, and baritone Brian Major as present-day Emile almost always on stage bearing witness, it seemed Emile’s ghosts were truly invading his apartment. Cristofer’s libretto at first seemed slightly too reliant on recurring phrases and exchanges, but when taken in the context that the events represent Emile’s unreliable memories, that seems to be a feature rather than a bug.
The chorus, resplendent in colorful vintage finery beneath black face masks, was placed in the balcony box seats instead of on stage. This change of geography amounted to a theatrical coup, however unintentional. With their voices literally coming down from on high, and their faces obscured, they effectively played the roles of reporters, gay bar patrons, and more: all the literal and figurative spectators who watched Emile’s many fights. There was a particularly affecting turn near the opera’s end when Emile was attacked by three men outside a bar, and a trio of voices bellowed insults from above as the music intensified and baritone Markel Reed (as young Emile) doubled over and twisted in pain, keeping the audience’s focus on Emile, where it belonged.
Blanchard’s graceful and evocative score and the sublime chemistry within the cast carried the opera the rest of the way. Major was the production’s rock as the haunted present-day Emile, while Reed (a BLO newcomer) sang with magnetic swagger as the fighter in his prime. The cast’s other highlights included mezzo Tichina Vaughn as Emile’s mother, Emelda, who struggles with her own wayward past; bass-baritone Wayne Tigges as a steely yet fatherly Howie Albert with a cheesecake-thick New York accent in spoken dialogue; Jesus Garcia as the tender and careworn Luis, and mezzo Stephanie Blythe in an unforgettable albeit brief appearance as the glittering gay bar proprietress who wins Emile’s trust. Special bravos are also due to child singer Jonathan Harris, who made his professional debut here as Little Emile and carried a difficult melody and equally difficult subject matter like a true champion.
CHAMPION: AN OPERA IN JAZZ
May 22. Presented by Boston Lyric Opera.