Opéra de Montréal diverts its energy this season to the intimate and compelling accounts of celebrated American icons, beginning with the disenchanted circumstances of retired boxer Emile Griffith in Champion. Premiered June 15, 2013 at Webster University, the jazz opera attempts to take on the legacy of twentieth-century America through the lens of a double minority, idolized by all and accepted by none. Champion is the sole opera by American composer Terence Blanchard, a 2019 Oscar nominee for Best Original Score for his work on Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman. The composer has been recognized as an influential voice in jazz, both as a performer and educator, and he has been active in film, scoring over forty films since the early '90s, in large part due to his continued collaboration with Lee. Despite making a marked impact in the world of film music Blanchard's sense of musical dramaturgy has yet to translate to a vocal production. The intriguing, semi-factual libretto provided by Michael Cristofer rarely meets its potential, manifesting itself through awkward vocal lines and ostensibly indifferent choices of text stress. In fact, there were few moments when one was not painfully aware they were being sung to. This may not have been brought on by a mere lack of experience with vocal composition, but the curious absence of Blanchard's signature instrument. Indeed, the trumpet stakes no claim in an obbligato, pseudo-jazz fashion as one might expect. Correspondingly, the vocal lines have an unaccountable tendency to move in and out of their tonal boundaries, much as an improvising jazz performer might do. And so what initially strikes one as a lack of vocal intuition reveals itself to be transcribed jazz orchestration in disguise. Considering the versatility and imitative faculties of the human voice this would seem a suitable choice. But once encumbered by text the instrument has little choice in the manner of inflection it provides. We might also note the inherent problem in writing a jazz opera insofar as improvisation – one of the most rudimentary elements of jazz – becomes quickly implausible when prescribed to a form-fitting theatrical production. Nevertheless, missed opportunities for just such spontaneity presented themselves as inordinate masses of spoken text. Whether interpolated with more traditional recit excerpts or through improvisation, the information that was so copiously spouted about off air, as it were, would have been better put to use as music. Aesthetic issues aside the production was fueled by strong performances, namely leads Arthur Woodley, Aubrey Allicock, and Nathan Dibula as present, past, and infant takes on Emile. Their perseverance through the dissonant, dementia-driven harmonies of the orchestra remained the one constant on which the audience could rely. Likewise, Catherine Daniel's portrayal of mother Emelda Griffith was taken up with surpassing dedication that left the hall breathless, evoking the feel of a bedrock spiritual while reminiscing on the sea. Further life was brought to the stage by Brett Polegato and Meredith Arwady, performing as the opportunistic Howie Albert and the insatiable Kathy Hagan. The two got the most out of their bluesy call-and-response excerpts, delivering hard truths and using vocabulary that was convincingly grisly. Hagan's nightclub benefited from the use of a jazz combo, offsetting the orchestra with a much needed contrast from the low-brass/high-string passages that constitute Blanchard's stock idea of high drama. The staging, coordinated by James Robinson, enters firmly into the land of musical theatre, testing the rhythmic echoes of West Side Story with jazz fusion grooves and Afro-Caribbean dancers in his efforts to keep the chorus line busy. The most inspired direction was witnessed during the fight between Emile and Benny Paret (Victor Ryan Robertson), using freeze-frame choreography and a lights show to brilliant effect at the close of Act One. On the whole, Blanchard's jazz opera was never as engrossing as his film scores have proven to be. The real Achilles heel of Champion was not to be found in the use of jazz as an idiomatic form of expression, but in the oppressive, unremitting grief of the music. Just when one feels liberated at the thought of a gay black man living his best life in banging New York, the nightclub’s shred of musical levity reminds us he is there to get numb. The drama is downplayed in this way from start to finish, a slow burn that never culminates to a satisfying catharsis. It wants for cheer, awareness, and that special moment of arrival so crucial to the longevity of any such work.
This review brought to you from the last performance by Opéra de Montréal, February 2, 2019.