Review: In This Corner – Terence Blanchard's CHAMPION Arrives at the Met with Ryan Speedo Green

How a Milliner and Would-Be Singer Turned Pugilist and Killer in Robinson-Brown Production

By: Apr. 13, 2023
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Review: In This Corner – Terence Blanchard's CHAMPION Arrives at the Met with Ryan Speedo Green
Green, Owens and dancers.
Photo: ​​​​​Ken Howard/Met Opera

In search of new audiences, the Met followed its audience-favorite production of Terence Blanchard's FIRE SHUT UP IN MY BONES with the jazz musician/composer's first opera, CHAMPION, the story of closeted boxer Emile Griffith's rise and fall from grace.

Honestly, never have I heard people whose usual venues are Madison Square Garden, Yankee Stadium and Monday Night Football on ESPN talk about how they "wanted to see the new opera at the Met." Many knew Blanchard's jazz performances, thought others were simply sports fans.

There's lots of good news that seeing Blanchard's two operas out of chronological order shows us: how he has a natural talent for writing music we want to hear and how he's developing in the world of opera. With the help of his director and choreographer, James Robinson and Camille A. Brown, and the Met orchestra under Yannick Nezet-Seguin, CHAMPION moves during its first act like a house afire; if the second act doesn't really live up to it, well, the composer--working with his librettist, here, Michael Cristofer--was a work in progress.

Review: In This Corner – Terence Blanchard's CHAMPION Arrives at the Met with Ryan Speedo Green
The fight. Photo: ​​​​​Ken Howard/Met Opera

The cast is strong. Bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green is a charismatic Griffith with the ability to make the most of anything given to him. About the only thing wrong with his singing is there wasn't enough of it, because the character is split between the young and old version of the boxer.

Some of the most important parts of the story go to his older self, sung and acted smartly by bass-baritone Eric Owens. From the start of the opera, he's already slid into dementia, the product of being brutalized by boxing and beaten badly by a gang as he left a gay bar, and the story is largely a flashback. I thought this was one of Owens's best performances in years.

Review: In This Corner – Terence Blanchard's CHAMPION Arrives at the Met with Ryan Speedo Green
Ryan Speedo Green. Photo: ​​​​​
Ken Howard/Met Opera

Yet I wished that Green had been given more to do and permitted to be part of the character's aging process, because he's shown himself a good actor as well as a first-rate singer. The younger Griffith doesn't really get to deal with the guilt of causing the death of his opponent (baritone Eric Greene in a strong debut as both Benny Paret and, later, his son), which I think was a mistake.

It's that pesky thing called a libretto. An opera's story has always been important, but in contemporary opera, it's more important than ever, particularly when super- (or sub-) titles and language allow us to know everything that's going on. Gone are the days when you would arrive in the theatre, read a synopsis, then just sit back and listen, letting the music overtake you. Now you read every word, every nuance of the storyline as the opera goes along.

Cristofer's work seems too thin in some ways. For example, he doesn't give the young Griffith (Green) much opportunity to deal with the bludgeoning that sends Paret into a coma and later to his death. But he also gives some characters too much to do, even if Blanchard shows the composing skills (though, disappointingly, not very jazz inflected here) to back them up. Although it's not credited as such, Cristopher wrote a play on the same subject almost a decade ago, which sounds like it had the same trajectory.

(There's a third version of Griffith, as a young boy, sung in a lovely performance by Ethan Joseph.)

Review: In This Corner – Terence Blanchard's CHAMPION Arrives at the Met with Ryan Speedo Green
Latonia Moore. Photo: ​​​​​Ken Howard/Met Opera

Soprano Latonia Moore was a sensational presence as Griffith's mother, who had abandoned him and another six children in St. Thomas, VI, but saw the gravy train possibilities when he followed her to New York as a young adult. Blanchard wrote some of his most potent music for the singer, and she puts it across exceedingly well, even if there seems to be more of her character than necessary to the story.

She takes her son off for a job with a hatmaker, since he has shown skills as a milliner (along with dreams of singing). But the hatmaker (the raspy tenor Paul Groves) had been in the boxing game and sees the young man's possibilities instantly. From there, the sky's the limit for Griffith, until his own demons begin to get the best of him.

The evening's piece of luxury casting is a star-turn--short but very sweet--by mezzo Stephanie Blythe who runs the gay bar where Griffith starts to go. The other larger female role is Griffith's wife Sadie, who he marries in an attempt to mask his sexuality, sung thoughtfully and well by Brittany Renee.

Review: In This Corner – Terence Blanchard's CHAMPION Arrives at the Met with Ryan Speedo Green
Eric Owens, Chauncey Packer.
Photo: ​​​​​Ken Howard/Met Opera

Nezet-Seguin and the Met orchestra (with the added rhythm section of Bryan Wagorn, Matt Brewer, Adam Rogers and Jeff "Tain" Watts) did knockout work in the fast-moving production. The Met's chorus under Donald Palumbo were up to their usual high standards. The outstanding sets were by Allen Moyer, projections by Greg Emeraz, lighting by Donald Holder and costumes by Montana Levi Blanco.

CHAMPION will be performed through May 13. For more information and tickets, see the Met's website.


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