Champion (L”Opera de Montreal) was not quite the winner, baby. Granted, it’s not the complete and untter catastophie of JFK, and it did have some “brief shining moments”, but not a knockout.
Premiered and directed by Opera Theatre of St. Louis, James Robinson, they will be doing Terrence Blanchard’s second opera “Fire Shut Up in my Bones” this summer. (I worked at St. Louis Repertory and studied at Webster Conservatory, both of which, including Opera Theatre of St. Louis, use the same wonderful theatre in Webster Groves, Missouri). Opera Theatre of St. Louis has a brief summer season always with one premiere, elegant dining under a tent on the lawn with cocktails and cast encounters before, intermission and after, it’s a wonderful experience if you ever have the chance to go.
Back to Champion: The overall takeway can be best summed up by the woman who sat next to me: “Not a lot to sing along with, is there?’ No, there isn’t. And modern opera doesn’t require basically anything anymore, but excellent modern opera like John Adam’s Nixon in China is just, well, excellent. I wasn’t surprised to find that Terrance Blanchard mostly writes movie scores and the librettist is a playwright. I kept thinking: the orchestra has the best vocal lines, but the lyrics are mundance, repetetive and have no lyrical flow. At times so obnoxious, like beating a dead horse: “yes, we get it, we get it, now end this sucker, pleeeeeze”.
I could hear where the vocal lines should be, where is should modulate to and how it should end. The ONLY aria that was well-constructed and written well for the vocal part was “How Does it Feel to Kill a Man”, sung by Brett Polegato who played Emile’s fight manager, and sung with spirt!
Fascinating rhythms: It was a study with various jazz, Carribean, military, swing, etc. countering or having nothing to do with what was being sung, like the composer was simply fascinated. There were definite periods, locations, and tranistions it enhanced, and the choreography fit like smooth jazz hand glove (gyrating pelvis’s that would make Elvis swoon).
Arthur Woodley as the doddering old version of the boxer, Emile Griffith, and the child version, Nathan Dibula from right here in Montreal, were the best at singing and ACTING Emile. Unfortunately, Aubrey Allicock as the main event Emille, had no fight, no spirit, and wallowed.
An acting teacher once told me: Why does an audience go to the theatre, the movies, the opera? To see how the characters survive, make it through, get what they want. The audience does NOT want to see someone wallow in the mud of the hardships, moaning and groaning for hours. The story of boxer Emile Griffith, gay, black, immigrant and hat maker, just wallows in his sadness to the point where the woman playing his mother, laid down on the stage. When you’re at the bottom there’s no where to go. Rise UP!
Great set, great costumes, great chorus (although NO interesting harmonics or structures in what they sang), good intentions, but with movie score composer (Black Kklansman) and a playwright (Shadow Box), there were a lot of sweeping drone shot music (paging John Williams) and lyrics spoken more often than should be in opera, but when sung, did not illuminate the music or the character, just sat there like a bad poet jam, plus he went on an on. Editing is the key for both composer and librettist.
The whole thing felt like a bio-pic as they tried to include his whole life in one opera. The key is to find an event, or a few times in a life that explain how we got here and why… not the volumes A-Z of the encylopeida Britannica. And with today’s opera, please get a main character that can act. Yes, i know it’s opera, but this is not your grandma’s opera anymore. Opéra de Montréal you get kudos for trying new opera and new direction. Minmalizisim is the stripping of everything and building anew. Opera is still under construction.