At Washington National Opera: Griffith vs. Paret

Washington National Opera’s “Champion” — a self-described “jazz opera” or “opera in jazz” at the Kennedy Center through March 18 — has as the center of its plot and its heart and soul a fight, a singular night’s moment when a rough victory turns to tragedy.

Everything in the work we see onstage moves toward that moment, then spreads out in its aftermath like a stick of dynamite.

The moment comes when Emile Griffith, an ambitious, young, volatile boxer from the islands, knocks out welterweight champion Benny Paret in a vicious flurry of punches after Paret taunts Griffith, a closeted bisexual, with a sexual slur before the fight. Paret died days later.

The opera itself — a WNO debut, like “Dead Man Walking,” the other contemporary opera now at the Opera House — can’t exactly be counted a knockout, and it has its shortcomings, but a lack of intensity, drama and ambition are not among them.

The knockout is where “Champion” rests at intermission. What comes before and after amounts to the creation of a whole world, several worlds in fact — colorful, rich, compelling, kinetic. It’s a production that uses almost every stage resource you can think of, including dynamic sets, video and music that is surely “different” from the classical form of opera, but has its own operatic uses and tensions.

“Champion” is the story of Griffith’s life, and it’s told in a twilight flashback by the older version of Emile, long after the cheering has stopped and the gaudy lifestyle has ended.

Working from a poetic, moving libretto by Michael Cristofer, “Champion” begins near the end, where we find Griffith an old and failing man, trying to remember his life with his caregiver. The “old” Griffith is embodied powerfully and forcefully, even tragically, by Arthur Woodley, whose strong bass voice carries with it the sadness of confusion and a hope of settling with the past; Paret’s death still haunts him more than anything in his life.

Even though it takes place decades ago, “Champion” is very much a contemporary work. It deals with the often hyperventilated world of boxing, which, in the 1960s, was still one of epic events, a gaudy and often glitzy part of the sports world. It was one of those holy grails minority athletes, including immigrants, could pursue in hopes of riches, fame and a Hollywood lifestyle.

That’s the story of Griffith, too, who came to the United States looking for his “mami,” the glamorous, but often feckless, Emelda, played to spectacular, dramatic effect by star mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves. Her voice moves in a manner that is jazzy but still classic, and her performance brings the diva-like Emelda to vivid life.

Griffith is taken under his wing by a hat manufacturer named Howie Albert, who looks at the young man’s buff body and sees a boxer, not a hatmaker. Griffith soon starts winning, and also partakes of the New York’s sexually fuzzy nightlife of showy gay bars.

The young Emile — a dynamic Aubrey Allicock — takes it all in as if it were an island carnival, without care and with energy.

After the defeat of Paret — a cocky, arrogant, challenging ring presence — things look up for Griffith. He amasses wealth, a brassy wife — the high-energy Leah Hawkins — and almost all the ring titles available at his weight(s). But such things always come to an end in that world. He starts to lose, and fade, the punches coming his way doing damage to his brain.

In some ways, “Champion” is like a show business biography, hinging on a tragic event. Although long, it doesn’t get in the way of its narrative. Musically, the score by Terence Blanchard is not so much jazz — it could in fact use a little more — as it is contemporary operatic. The narrative and book, while often poetic, is also crassly salty. It’s probably not the language opera patrons are used to hearing, some of it sung by Graves. Be forewarned: it’s graphic to a fault.

The opening-night production even had its own little snafu, never quite experienced that way in my memory. Wayne Tigges, who has a big solo in the second act, literally lost his singing voice, and mouthed his words while Steven Schwartz sang them on the sidelines.

Probably not too many people had thought of boxing as a setting fit for an operatic tragedy, but in the end “Champion” packed more dramatic punch than most operas — and most fights, for that matter. Several years ago, WNO actually produced a short and very effective opera called “Approaching Ali.”

It isn’t enough to call both “Dead Man Walking” and “Champion” laudable efforts at presenting contemporary works at WNO. Both operas deserved to be here, and perhaps should have been long before that. Hopefully, we’ll see more.

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