‘Champion’: A Brilliant Operatic Exploration of a Famous Boxer’s Tragic Life: Review

The company of “Champion” on the Lyric Opera stage. (Michael Brosilow)The company of “Champion” on the Lyric Opera stage. (Michael Brosilow)

It is an absolute knockout — both literally and figuratively. And that is the most concise way to describe “Champion,” the physically, emotionally and musically stunning work now on the Lyric Opera stage.

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I will confess up front that I have always considered boxing to be a horrendous sport. But this opera is about something far deeper than the brutal fighting that takes place in the ring. In weaving the story of Emile Griffith, the welterweight boxer who won world titles in three categories during the 1960s and ‘70s, the opera serves as a brilliantly evoked portrait of a man with a dramatically emotional, as well as physical, life. The show moves from his childhood to his days as a notorious boxer to his old age, although not in that particularly straightforward order.

The work’s beautiful, richly evocative score by Terence Blanchard combines with an extraordinary libretto by Michael Cristofer to ideally capture the personalities of each and every character. In addition, James Robinson’s expert direction, Allen Moyer’s cleverly designed time-and-place-shifting sets (ideally lit by Donald Holder) and the ever-outstanding Lyric Opera orchestra conducted by Enrique Mazzola could not be more ideal.

But of course, it is the cast of superb singers — who also happen to be outstanding actors — that brings this tragic opera to vivid life. And most notably there are the three different performers who ideally capture Griffith at very different stages of his development — from childhood, to boxing years, to old age.

As it happens, the opera opens with an elderly Griffith in an outstanding turn by baritone Reginald Smith Jr. The boxer is now suffering from dementia (Griffith died in 2013 at the age of 75), and he babbles on in a tragi-comic riff about his misplaced shoes.

Paul Groves, Justin Austin and Whitney Morrison in “Champion.” (Michael Brosilow)Paul Groves, Justin Austin and Whitney Morrison in “Champion.” (Michael Brosilow)

We also are introduced to Griffith as a very young boy (played by a remarkably camouflaged girl, Naya Rosalie James) and learn about the fighter’s horrific childhood growing up in the Virgin Islands. His selfish mother of 7, Emelda Griffith (soprano Whitney Morrison), moved to New York and left him with a woman who was a horribly cruel caretaker.

As a young man, Griffith eventually arrives in New York, too, where he takes a job as a hat-maker and hopes for a career as a baseball player and singer. But when he is met by Howie Albert (tenor Paul Groves), a quite manipulative hat manufacturer, Griffith is pushed into the boxing profession, and as it turns out, he excels at the sport. But there is another complex facet to Griffith’s life, and it is that he is bisexual; his attraction to men deeply complicates things.

The most life-changing element in Griffith’s life occurs in 1962 when he ultimately knocks out the Cuban-born fighter Benny “Kid” Paret (expertly played by baritone Sankara Harouna). Paret calls Griffith “a maricon” (Spanish for homosexual), and in a matter of seconds Griffith pummels him with 17 blows that shortly later lead to Paret’s death. Griffith continues on to a stellar career, but of course this moment in his life will haunt him forever. (I will not, however, give away how it all ends.)

Childhood abuse, monumental fame (and guilt), a late-life beating on the street and a profoundly moving ending — all of this is powerfully rendered in a superb opera that is being ideally performed. There is only one thing left to say: Catch this production if you possibly can.

“Champion” runs through Feb. 11, with just five more performances at Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Drive.  For tickets, visit lyricopera.org or phone 312-827-5600.

Follow Hedy Weiss on Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic

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