NEW YORK — In 2021, the Metropolitan Opera opened its season with “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” the second opera from composer Terence Blanchard, and the first by a Black composer to be staged by the Met since its founding in 1880. This season, Blanchard returns with an expanded production of his first foray into opera, “Champion.”
“Champion” tells the tale — via a libretto by Michael Cristofer — of Emile Griffith, a hatmaker-turned-prizefighter whose 1962 title fight at Madison Square Garden against welterweight Benny “Kid” Paret gave him equal measures of fame and infamy: It opened with Paret taunting the closeted Griffith with homophobic slurs, and ended with Griffith knocking Paret into a fatal coma.
The traumatic impact of these “seventeen blows in less than seven seconds” throbs at the core of “Champion” like the ache of a concussion, its impact branching and spreading out like fractures in the foundation of Griffith’s consciousness — or like the network of spent synapses in his own mind.
“Champion” is related through the shifting memories and intrusive thoughts of an elder Griffith, suffering from dementia in a one-room apartment in Hempstead, Long Island in the early 2000s. An impatient ring announcer (played by Lee Wilkof) presides over Griffith’s unfurling memories with commentary and the clang of a ringside bell.
Blanchard’s music — he subtitles this “an opera in jazz” — ably captures the unsteady tectonics and shifting realities of dementia: it blooms with bursts of nostalgia and retreats into churning undercurrents of dread and anxiety. As with “Fire,” a core rhythm section anchors the atmospheric swirl of Blanchard’s orchestration. What Blanchard’s music forgoes in terms of a catchy tune or grabby hook, it makes up for in rich, indulgent, evocative textures and exquisite management of tension and release.
Met music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin led the orchestra with vigor and wit — emerging at the podium at the start of the second act in a satin robe and boxing gloves. I especially enjoyed the frequent passages of clobbering percussion that had my whole row suddenly sitting up straight. At times, the orchestra edged on smothering the dense overlap of low registers, but such loss of control was rare. As when he conducted the run of “Fire,” Nézet-Séguin proved himself a keen and confident interpreter of Blanchard’s richly hued abstractions.
Bass-baritone Eric Owens is superb in his portrayal of Griffith, bringing marvelous sensitivity to his singing — and his search for his stray shoe. Anyone who has a dementia patient in their life should brace themselves for Owens’s seamless (and heartbreaking) conveyance of fear, confusion, grief and grace.
In an echo of “Fire,” the character of Griffith is split between multiple singers, allowing for powerful dramatic dimension-bending. Some of the most potent moments of “Champion” find Owens’s elder Emile in tenuous dialogue with his younger self.
Young Emile is fully embodied — both physically and vocally — by the impressively beefed-up bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green, his voice as sturdy and strong as you’d demand from a boxing legend, but effortlessly evoking Griffith’s hidden frailty, his desperate longing for love. Green was a standout as Uncle Paul in “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” and “Champion” offers him both an overdue star turn and a comprehensive showcase of his versatility — able to glide from gleaming, brassy heights to smoky, leathery lows.
Honorable mention goes to the even-younger Little Emile, beautifully handled and impressively sung by Ethan Joseph. Left behind by his mother on the island of St. Thomas, hoisting a cinder block over his head — a punishment dealt by his abusive Cousin Blanche (mezzo-soprano Krysty Swann) — the young Griffith begs the devil to “make me strong.”
“Put some evil strength inside my bones,” he sings, “and get me through this night.”
In this aspect, another echo of “Fire” rings clear. Much like that adaptation of Charles M. Blow’s memoir of sexual abuse and psychological trauma, “Champion” spars with questions of manhood and masculinity — and manages to hit hard. “What makes a man a man” is a frequently asked question in Cristofer’s elegant libretto, and one of Green’s most gripping arias.
Soprano Latonia Moore, who sang a breathtaking Billie in “Fire,” returns here as Emile’s estranged mother, Emelda. Moore is a dazzling singer with sharp dramatic instincts — well-suited to sliding between deliveries demanded by Blanchard’s shape-shifting score. Her first act aria to her abandoned children (“Seven babies in the sun”) gave me chills; and “Far away, long ago,” a sinuous, mournful solo sung atop the sparse plod of an upright bass, was the vocal highlight of the evening.
Other standouts of the cast include baritone Edward Nelson, making his Met debut as the Man in Bar who Emile encounters at Hagen’s Hole — a gay bar busy with drag queens and helmed by a surly proprietress named Kathy, compellingly embodied and sung by mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe. Tenor Chauncey Packer sings the role of the elder Emile’s caregiver Luis with an endearing tenderness (and patience for the patient). Baritone Eric Greene serves a formidable Benny “Kid” Paret (as well as Benny Paret Jr., from whom the elder Emile begs belated forgiveness).
Certain elements of the story suffer from the gaps of the opera’s architecture. Apart from an interest in millinery and a certain “happy” naivete, the matter of Emile’s emergent sexuality remains something of a gloss. And the second act struggles here and there to cohere — slumping a bit, though perhaps appropriately so as Emile’s career and cognition declines.
But despite a few weak points, “Champion” feels, at the very least, like a technical knockout. Director James Robinson (who directed “Fire”) makes clever use of Allen Moyer’s set designs — the elder Griffith’s apartment hovering over the action, or emerging within it. The boxing sequences are impactfully staged — an exciting dialogue between the orchestra and the performers. Choreographer Camille A. Brown (who also co-directed “Fire”) brings beautiful movement and energy to the stage — especially so during a thrilling carnival scene (boosted by electric costumes by Montana Levi Blanco).
With the runaway success of “Fire” — as well as concerning dips in attendance for Met repertory staples and revivals — the Met has announced plans to lean more heavily into staging new operas by living composers, with general manager Peter Gelb committing to open each season with a new production of a contemporary work.
This may sound like a risky proposition for the company to make on paper, but a grand realization such as this feels like a preview of the potential rewards of reinvestment. When it comes to contemporary opera, you never quite know which ones will earn an actual shelf life. “Champion” has more than a fighting chance.
“Champion” runs at the Metropolitan Opera through May 13.