****HIGHLY RECOMMENDED During the 2021/2022 season, Lyric Opera of Chicago presented Terence Blanchard's contemporary opera "Fire Shut Up in My Bones" a mere six months after its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera. That production, which was the second opera that Blanchard had ever composed, proved to be a very popular selection with Lyric audiences as well as a huge critical success. While Blanchard was in Chicago for rehearsals of "Fire Shut Up in My Bones," talk quickly turned to presenting his first opera during a future season. Thankfully, that time has now arrived. "Champion," which Blanchard has described as "an opera in jazz" is a triumph. 4 BIG SPOTLIGHTS
First performed in St. Louis in 2013, "Champion" tells the true story of boxer Emile Griffith (1938-2013). Born in St. Thomas, as a young man Emile had dreams of moving to America to pursue a career either as a singer, a baseball player or a designer of hats. Finally arriving in New York in the late 1950s, Emile searches for his mother Emelda (soprano Whitney Morrison) who had abandoned him (along with the rest of her six other children). She finds him a job working for a milliner and shopowner named Howie Albert (tenor Paul Groves) who, upon noticing Emile's sturdy and muscular physique, insists that Emile should abandon his dream of designing hats so that he can train him to become a boxer, with the hope of eventually becoming his coach and manager. That fateful encounter changed the course of Emile Griffith's life.
However, the consequences of Emile Griffith's decisive match to regain the welterweight title at Madison Square Garden on March 24, 1962 would haunt him for the rest of his days.
Blanchard and Michael Cristofer, who wrote the libretto, have wisely divided Griffith's persona into multiple characters. When we first meet Emile Griffith (baritone Reginald Smith, Jr.) he is living in a small apartment on Long Island in the early 2000s and suffering from dementia. As his story unfolds we are introduced to Young Emile (baritone Justin Austin). Recounting his troubled childhood living with and raised by his abusive Cousin Blanche (mezzo-soprano Krysty Swann) we see in flashback scenes Little Emile, sung by the angelic Naya Rosalie James.
Austin gives a powerful performance as Young Emile, virile yet tortured and conflicted. He has admirable range as his character grows from a youthful and optimistic idealist into a celebrated prizefighter who won 85 of the 112 bouts that he competed in. With Young Emile's professional career in decline, Austin also captures the anger and denial of a man slowly losing control.
As good as Austin is -- and he is very good -- it's impossible to compare it to the majestic work of Smith as the aging and addled older version of Emile. Smith delivers a towering performance, perfectly controlled and heartbreaking in its intensity. While the two of them do share the stage together during some select scenes, they never directly interact with one another. As the evening progresses, their performances naturally begin to work in tandem as they develop an almost artistic symbiotic relationship. So when they finally appear together face to face during the curtain call, the enormous hug that they give each other is a thing of pure joy and very evident mutual admiration that is truly beautiful to behold.
On opening night, the role of Benny "Kid" Paret, which is usually sung by Leroy Davis, was covered by understudy Sankara Harouna, who did a remarkable job. Since the character of Paret is so pivotal to the story, as he was the boxer that Griffith faced in the ring on that tragic night in 1962, a great deal was required from Harouna and he delivered splendidly. Much of the role involves executing highly stylized and precise fight choreography, created by Camille A. Brown and Christopher Figaro Jackson, of which Harouna didn't miss a beat.
Music Director Enrique Mazzola, who has been a driving force behind presenting more contemporary fare each season for Lyric audiences, wonderfully conducts his first 21st-century opera here.
This "Champion" is a knockout.
"Champion" continues until February 11, 2024
Lyric Opera of Chicago is located at 20 North Wacker Drive, Chicago, IL
Tickets: Please call 312-827-5600 or visit www.lyricopera.org
Remaining performances are:
Tuesday, February 6 at 7:00 PM
Friday, February 9 at 7:00 PM
Sunday, February 11 at 2:00 PM
Run time is approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission