Based on the true story of boxer Emile Griffith, audience members are invited to follow our protagonist from childhood into the last chapters of his life, as he battles the demons within. The role is played by three actors, at times gracing the stage simultaneously, who serve to deliver Emile’s inner monologue and engage us with his sorrow. Arriving in New York in the late 1950’s, Emile finds his mother (Catherine Daniel, Mezzo-Soprano) who abandoned her many children to start a new life. She welcomes her long-lost son, and tries to find him work in a hat factory. There he meets Howie Albert (Brett Polegato, Baritone) who quickly decides he is staring right at the perfect physical specimen of a boxer and thus begins his training.
From there, Emile’s career soars. A celebrated welterweight, he gets swept up in the attention, the money, and the glory. All this leaves him wondering, why he still feels so empty inside. During an unexpectedly wild night in a Manhattan gay bar, something awakens in Emile that is both foreign and familiar. These feelings confuse our champion and leave him vulnerable to the taunting of his next adversary, Benny Paret (Victor Ryan Robertson, Tenor). Then the unthinkable happens, during the match Emile puts Benny in a coma. This, however, does not slow down Emile’s career. His successes continue to mount, and he takes a wife, but none of this can stop his spiral into the world of excess and indulgence. Anything to bury his feelings of guilt over the match, and his oppresed desire to explore his sexuality.
As his brain injuries mount, and his career begins to falter, Emile returns to that Manhattan bar looking to lose himself, to forget. He then gets more than he bargained for, when a group of gay-bashers nearly take his life.
This is not an easy review to write, there are so many positive things to say about this operatic jazz bebop blues production, and yet those things may not outweigh the negative. There is much to be learned from this tragic tale of bigotry, and it is a story that deserves to be told. The use of a multi-tiered stage so that an old Emile (Arthur Woodley, Bass) can bear witness to his past by staring down upon his younger self (Aubrey Allicock, Baryton-Bass), is an incredibly effective staging. It truly gives one the sense that this ailing man is doing his best to recollect the path that lead him to his present day. Incredibly effective as well, is the use of screens flanking the stage. I have seen screen usage in multiple OdM productions, but these were most well-suited to the task at hand. A special mention must also go to the fight scenes, beautifully choreographed by Seán Curran and Maverick Lemons.
This production was a wonderful departure from the norm for the Opera de Montreal, and truly for all opera goers. However, there is a difference to be made between the enjoyment garnered from experiencing something new, and that of the quality of the experience itself. The diversity of the cast, crew, and composers of Champion, and the raising of important issues pertaining to LGBTQ2+ community, should herald a new standard in the programming of every OdM season. This unto itself is cause for praise, but the production itself was a difficult to cheer for. The marriage of the libretto and the composition seemed troubled, and consequently the performers sounded as though they were either over or under performing at any given moment. If you could flush out the dialogue and find a steady tone, I could even envision Champion being a Broadway musical success. Unfortunately, despite the heartwarming addition of the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir, and the charming debut of Nathan Dibula (Soprano) as the pre-teen Emile, Champion was by no means a knockout.
Photo Credit: Yves Renaud