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Opera Parallèle & SFJAZZ

In Review CHampion hdl 316
Left to right: Kenneth Kellogg as Young Emile Griffith, Victor Ryan Robertson as Benny “Kid” Paret, Mark Hernandez as the Ring Announcer and Arthur Woodley as Old Emile Griffith in the Opera Parallèle and SFJAZZ co-production of Terence Blanchard’s Champion
Bill Evans

SINCE EMERGING IN THE MID-1980S as a trumpeter with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Terence Blanchard has been well known in jazz circles for his improvisational ability and award-winning albums. His creative voice found a felicitous outlet, and even wider recognition, in writing film scores, including nearly every Spike Lee joint since Jungle Fever (1991). More recently Blanchard expanded his list of accomplishments even further with Champion, a two-act "opera in jazz" with a libretto by Michael Cristofer that had its premiere at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2013. Last season, Blanchard and conductor Nicole Paiement, artistic director of Bay Area-based Opera Parallèle, presented a revival of Blanchard's concert work for jazz combo and orchestra, A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina), at the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco. The collaboration was renewed on February 19 when Paiement and OP presented the West Coast premiere of Blanchard's jazz opera Champion.

Champion tells the story of Emile Griffith, a closeted bisexual boxer who knocked out Benny "Kid" Paret in 1962 after his opponent mocked him as a "maricón" during a pre-fight press conference. This fateful third Welterweight title-match between the two rivals proved fatal for Paret, who died from the beating ten days after the fight. It was also traumatic for Griffith, who would be tormented throughout his life with guilt over killing a fellow athlete. Blanchard's opera introduces Griffith as an elderly man, confused with dementia from years of pugilistic abuse, reliving his inner and outer struggles in a series of flashbacks.

Blanchard's score calls for an orchestra of twenty-six players, thirteen principal roles, chorus, and jazz trio. The latter ingredient, performed by pianist Edward Simon, bassist Marcus Shelby, and drummer Jaz Sawyer, made a decisive impact on the jazz aesthetic of Champion. In large numbers, the trio was augmented by orchestral players, especially hand percussion, vibraphone, or the brass section, while at others lent its members' playing to the larger orchestra. Blanchard's use of this musical give and take is well suit to the narrative's sudden shifts of time and setting. While the deployment of diverse musical forces is surely one of Champion's greatest assets, the work suffers at times from clumsy dramaturgy and excessive length. Even with fluid movement between scenes and Paiement's expert pacing throughout, the work's lulls and a few overlong episodes too often thwart its momentum.

Brian Staufenbiel's production made effective use of lighting, film screens, and the entrances and placements of the cast to keep the action moving on Dave Dunning's single unit set, which resembled a tiered boxing ring. Christine Crook's costumes provided visual flair to the boxing press corps and a scene with 1960s nightclub dancers. Joe Orrach contributed solo workout routines to open each act—one with a speedbag and the other with a jump rope—that synthesized the discipline of boxing with the rhythmic precision of tap.

Bass Arthur Woodley, the creator of the roll of Emile Griffith in 2013, gave a moving performance as the troubled champ. He sang with attention to expressive details and completely embodied the role. Woodley's characterization dispelled any mystique about the idolized athlete, showing him as a broken, tormented man in search of redemption. As the young Emile Griffith, baritone Kenneth Kellogg was convincing as a man caught between his public victories and private conflicts. At times he was difficult to hear and he tended to recede into the background when the chorus and orchestra were in full swing, but befitting his role, Kellogg did not bow. With the sympathetic support of the jazz rhythm section, soft hits by the brass section, and pizzicato strings, Kellogg sang his Act II aria "I need a man" with authority. After suffering a brutal beating by a pair of gay-bashing hoodlums, he sang a paraphrase of Emile Griffith's famous quote about being forgiven for killing a man yet persecuted for loving one, with terrific impact, adorning the melodic line with noble, melismatic flourishes.

Soprano Karen Slack's performance as Emile's mother, Emelda, was a tale of two halves. In Act I, the role's high tessitura tested her instrument and the repetitive name chanting of Cristofer's libretto found her adrift dramatically. In Act II, she rose to the occasion and her aria, a duet with jazz bassist Marcus Shelby, was a triumph.

Baritone Robert Orth, was perfectly cast as Emile's trainer, Howie Alpert, a role he also sang at the work's world premiere. Orth's brash characterization made a vivid impression and each word, smirk, and gesture carried to the capacity audience with clarity. If Slack and Shelby provided the musical highpoint of the evening, Orth provided one of its dramatic climaxes in the scene where he tests Griffith's memory and observes the irreversible effects of absorbing so many punches to the head over the years. Rattling off Griffith's victories in the ring, Orth's disenchantment and mounting guilt over his role in Griffith's diminishment were painfully evident as he matter of factly repeated a refrain of defeat, "But it's over. Now that's over."

Exploitation and alienation are key themes of Blanchard's opera and the performance given by Paiement and Opera Parallèle powerfully communicated the work's gravitas. If Blanchard and his librettist were to streamline the work with some judicious cuts, Champion would undoubtedly pack an even more potent punch.  —Jeffery S. McMillan 

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