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Review: Washington National Opera's CHAMPION is a Winner

The winner, after two rounds...err...two acts and one intermission, is Champion at Washington National Opera (WNO).

Champion thought is a winner by decision of this judge, and not by knockout. The distinction being that while the East Coast debut of Terence Blanchard and Michael Cristofer's opera has moments of high poignancy; there are also elements that make you question whether opera was the right art form to tell boxer Emile Griffith's story.

Regardless, James Robinson's cinematic direction and Arthur Woodley's heartbreaking performance as the aging Griffith, combined with the story's themes of forgiveness and inner peace, make this a highly rewarding evening.

Griffith's (Woodley) story is told in a series of flashbacks. After two decades in the ring, it's evident that 112 boxing matches have taken their toll on the old champion. Sitting in his apartment and struggling to get dressed, we're slowly transported into his past.

Champion starts with Griffith's childhood carting cinder blocks under a malevolent aunt in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and then progresses to the 1962 title fight where he knocked out Benny "the Kid" Paret (who later died in a coma as a result of the bout), and concludes with Griffith's struggle to make peace with his sexuality.

What makes Champion's selection for this art form unique is its ability to push the boundaries of modern opera. Jazz features prominently, and quite naturally I might add, throughout Blanchard's score. It infuses the hustle of the boxing circuit, the pulse of America throughout the fifties and sixties, and the constant drive for inner peace that consumes Griffith. Providing synergy is the talented addition of a jazz quartet, under the skilled precision of Conductor George Manahan, allowing the opera to move like a boxer sparring in the ring.

Blanchard's score is quite remarkable in another aspect, in that it takes inspiration from the extensive preparation fighters endure. Champion opens not with an overture, but with several athletes training. The natural sounds of their punches hitting a bag, or their feet landing as they jump rope, form a rhythm and create a movement that is the backdrop for Griffith's story.

If the influence of jazz does have one downside, it is that the opera seems episodic. Deep, soul-searching Arias fill Act II, whereas similar moments in Act I feel like torch songs. This leads one to question: does Champion lend itself to being a stronger musical, rather than an opera? Cristofer's libretto fuels that question with a book that seems more attuned to Broadway than opera at times. This is, perhaps, the most dialogue-heavy opera to be seen at WNO in quite some time, alternating between being sung and spoken.

Nevertheless, Cristofer deserves credit for capturing the pain and torture felt by Griffith throughout his life. "I kill a man and the world forgives me. I love a man and the world wants to kill me," sings Woodley midway thru Act II. The line itself brought spontaneous applause from the audience.

Woodley turns in a powerhouse performance. Watching him capture the mix of pain and sincerity felt by Griffith is what makes Champion so rewarding. We can all understand that search for forgiveness, that longing for inner peace, and that drive to be accepted. Even more profound is that his Griffith wants more than acceptance, but redemption as well and Woodley is able to show how both are connected.

As the younger Griffith, bass-baritone Audrey Allicock channels the charisma that catapulted the boxer to fame. However, being in the constant shadow of Woodley, both literally and figuratively, results in a performance that is underwhelming at times. Ultimately, we are left wanting more from Allicock's Griffith, especially when it comes to balancing his fighting career and the demons that reside within him.

Washington-native and WNO favorite, Denyce Graves, is playful and cunning as Emelda, Griffith's mother. Despite having seven children, she escaped the U.S. Virgin Islands to New York and is later reunited with her son. Graves soars in her Act II aria where she reveals the philosophy that has driven her life. Her performance, along with that of Woodley, is what makes Act II surprisingly powerful. It is Emelda's concern for Griffith's wellbeing juxtaposed against his ultimate fate that intrigues us and holds our attention.

At Saturday's performance, Wayne Tigges was schedule to portray Griffith's manager, Howie Albert. Midway through Act I however, Mr. Tigges took ill. He continued to perform, but the role was sung by Samuel Schultz. Despite being on book, Schultz sung Albert with great passion matching the drive of Tigges' performance. Being Griffith's manager for two decades, Albert was the one role that deserved greater attention. Tigges and Schultz were excellent together, especially in Albert's Act II solo, but up till then little is said about his role in Griffith's development as a fighter.

Bringing the evening together was Robinson's fluid and focused direction and Greg Emetaz's vibrant projections. Flanking the stage on both sides, the projections carried the audience into Griffith's world, conveying the energy of each match with the solitude that filled his later years. They also heightened the feeling of success with each championship by coupling it with the disappointment of the decline of his career. Emetaz was aided by Christopher Akerlind's astute lighting design which placed boxing ring lights above the stage.

With its use of jazz, Champion is a polarizing choice for WNO. Opera purists may hate it, while others, myself included, will find its modernity fresh and rewarding. Indeed, Champion is a remarkable offering because it reminds us that opera, like plays, movies, musicals, can be equally as relevant and challenging as an art form.

Champion is the perfect offering for sports and opera aficionados. Many in Saturday's audience were reliving memories of Griffith's fights during intermission. Others commented about the need to tell his story.

Who among us hasn't fought for acceptance and inner peace? That alone makes Champion a winner.

Runtime: Two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission.

Champion at Washington National Opera runs thru March 18th at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts - 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC 20566. For tickets please call (202) 467-4700 or click here.

Photo: The company of Champion. Credit: Scott Suchman.

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