Blanchard's world premiere opera is a champ in its own right

ST. LOUIS – The Opera Theatre of St. Louis has done more on behalf of contemporary and 20th century opera than perhaps any other major U.S. regional company, having presented a remarkable 23 world premieres in the course of its 38-year history. Unfortunately, very few of these works has had the artistic legs needed to travel beyond the Gateway Arch, let alone enter the domestic repertory.

Now, at long last, this enterprising, opera-in-English company has given us those rara aves: a new work of quality and staying power, one that deserves to be taken up by other opera producers far and wide.

"Champion," the so-called "opera in jazz" with music by composer Terence Blanchard and libretto by Michael Cristofer, was commissioned by the opera theater and co-commissioned by Jazz St. Louis. It is the big winner among the works that make up the company's spring festival at the Loretto-Hilton Center here. The season also includes Bedrich Smetana's "The Kiss," Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Pirates of Penzance" and a double bill of Puccini's "Il Tabarro" and Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci."

Based on the real-life rise and fall of Emile Griffith, a boxer who became world welterweight champion during the 1960s, "Champion" is receiving a knockout (you should pardon the expression) production by James Robinson, the company's artistic director. Robinson played a crucial role as dramaturge, steering the project from page to workshop to stage. A flawless cast and production take care of the rest.

Neither Blanchard – a jazz trumpeter, bandleader, arranger and film score composer perhaps best known for his soundtracks to director Spike Lee's films – nor the Pulitzer Prize-winning Cristofer (1977's "The Shadow Box") had written an opera before. But nothing feels tentative or half-finished about their work, so smoothly do all the elements coalesce into powerfully engaging music theater.

The libretto focuses on the demons that haunted Griffith at his peak and following his retirement after 19 years as a professional fighter. The boxer's conflicted sexuality is treated as the key factor prompting the tragedy that haunted him into old age: Egged on by his trainer and by the homophobic taunts of his opponent, Benny "The Kid" Peret, before a nationally televised bout in 1962, Griffith batters him so badly that Peret lapses into a coma and dies 10 days later. (The real Griffith, reportedly suffering from dementia, lives in a nursing facility on Long Island, N.Y.)

Wracked with guilt and remorse, struggling to conceal his homosexuality at a time when even saying the word was taboo in sports circles, Griffith is presented to us at three stages of his life. The old Emile (poignantly played by Arthur Woodley) reflects on his past when he isn't interacting with his younger selves – the young Emile (powerfully sung and acted by Aubrey Allicock in the opera's leading role) and the child Emile (effectively portrayed by Jordan Jones, a boy soprano).

At a key moment during the second act, the elder Emile recalls the near-fatal mugging he received outside a gay bar and sadly muses, "I killed a man in the ring and the world forgives me; I love a man and the world wants to kill me."

The innocent ebullience the young Griffith brings to his relationship with his tough-as-nails trainer (Robert Orth, whose bitter aria is one of several showstoppers) is repeatedly shot down by the need to keep up appearances in the macho world of prizefighting, where multitudes of fans lionize their kings of the ring.

A scene that could easily have descended into bathos, when the aged Griffith seeks forgiveness of Peret's son, Benny Jr. (Victor Ryan Robertson, who's terrific in a dual role), takes on real emotional resonance at the end, when the young Benny tells him he must forgive himself.

Blanchard's extensive background as a film composer helps him to infuse the opera's 10 concise scenes with a dramatic urgency in keeping with the gritty poetry of Cristofer's text. It's no mean feat to integrate hard bop, scat singing, driving Afro-Caribbean rhythms and lyrical arioso into a coherent and fluid musical unity, but Blanchard has done so brilliantly. The vocal writing is singable and appealing and nearly always supports and propels the dramatic action.

Another important factor contributing to the success of "Champion" is the surefooted conducting of George Manahan, whose St. Louis Symphony Orchestra players are augmented by a jazz trio. The only problem I had at the performance I attended last week was catching all the words when the orchestra was punching out its jazz syncopations at full tilt, this despite the generally good diction of the performers.

Among the other principals, Denyce Graves nails her every scene as Emelda, Emile's ambitious, foul-mouthed mother, who gets to display her earthy chest tones in a sizzling solo number that quite rightly brings down the house. Meredith Arwady camps up a storm as the proprietor of a gay bar rather too stereotypically adorned with drag queens. Both Brian Arreola and Christopher Hutchinson excel as the elder Emile's adopted son/caretaker and a ring announcer, respectively.

Many a smaller opera company in search of a viable contemporary work will want to give Blanchard's first opera serious consideration. Chicago Opera Theater, are you game?

At least on musical grounds St. Louis is to be commended for exhuming Smetana's rarely performed "The Kiss," a kind of "Bartered Bride" manqué that boasts a melodious score flavored with Czech folk song and dance. This is one of the very few opera librettos ever to have been authored by a woman, and its feminist sensibility is remarkably advanced for a piece composed in 1876.

Too bad the libretto is so flimsy. The shamelessly padded storyline concerns an independent village girl, Vendulka, who rejects attempts by the recently widowed Lukas to kiss her before they are to marry. The young lovers spend the rest of the opera being miserable before reuniting for the inevitable happy ending. A silly subplot involving smugglers feels like something Smetana cribbed from Bizet's "Carmen."

The spare, stylized co-production with England's Wexford Opera finds director Michael Gieleta trying to summon laughs by inserting such pointless bits of business as the smugglers' unspooling a giant chain of white sausages. Hardy har har.

The St. Louis performance, graced by the ample, gleaming soprano of Corinne Winters as the virtuous Vendulka (keep your ear on her) and the heroic high vocal extension of Garrett Sorenson as the flummoxed Lukas, does what it can to make this thin material worth the audience's while. Matthew Worth lends firm baritonal support as the hero's friend and counselor, Tomes. The chorus of happy, peppy peasants sings heartily. Anthony Barrese conducts.

Thank goodness for "Pirates of Penzance." The mirth flows freely in director-choreographer Sean Curran's antic production, which is dressed in James Schuette's whimsical sets and costumes and crisply conducted by Ryan McAdams. To my mind this is the most nearly perfect of the G&S operettas, and its inspired nonsense finds a spirited ensemble of young singing actors in tip-top form.

The flutelike soprano Deanna Breiwick and the stalwart tenor Matthew Plenk are adorable as the sweethearts Mabel and Frederic. Hugh Russell dithers delightfully as Major-General Stanley. Bradley Smoak, with his strong bass and impeccable comic timing, has a ball as king of the soft-hearted pirate band; so does Maria Zifchak as Ruth, the maid-of-all-work. Jason Eck is fine as the police sergeant whose cops appear to have graduated from the John Cleese school of silly walks. No less than Queen Victoria gets to put in a brief cameo at the end. We were amused.

The Opera Theatre of St. Louis' season runs through Sunday at the Loretto-Hilton Center at Webster University, Webster Groves; $25-$128; 314-961-0644,

Twitter @jvonrhein





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