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The painful story of a “Champion” boxer in Lyric Opera

Three different singers portray heavyweight boxer Emile Griffith in Lyric Opera’s visceral production of Terence Blanchard’s 2013 jazz opera “Champion.” This is not uncommon in biographical stories, especially one that moves from the impressionable youth of a tragic figure, through the slice of life marked by triumph and disaster, to the restlessness of a frantic old age spent in search of both harmony and redemption.

But what is most remarkable, and in my experience rarest, about director James Robinson’s deeply moving and richly sung staging of a magnificent jazz opera is how palpably in emotional harmony the three of them are. Naya Rosalia James, who plays little Emile, handles the gloves with baritone Reginald Smith Jr. He gives it to Young Emile’s Justin Austin, who arranged for it, and yet you could swear you felt the musical arc and psychological tenor of just one man.

The result of this harmony, for which conductor Enrique Mazzola and set designer Allen Moyer deserve credit, was an unusually intense experience in the opera house. I came away once again amazed at the arbitrary nature of professional admiration or disdain, how much the era you were born in can affect your happiness, how many of us feel guilty but only some allow it to languish, how random it is. It can ruin your life. Once I got through all that, somewhere in the rain on Wacker Drive, I started over again on forgiveness and my own capacity, or perhaps lack thereof. And where he might owe me money. Such is the power of Blanchard’s music, Michael Cristofer’s libretto, and Griffith’s real-life story.

Chicago theatergoers had encountered Emile Griffith before. in 2016 “Man in the Ring” premiered at the Court Theater Cristofer’s play is about what happened at Madison Square Garden in 1962, when Griffith, a champion boxer from the U.S. Virgin Islands, fought 25-year-old Cuban boxer Benny “The Kid” Paret. As the Tribune clearly reported from ringside at the time, Griffith threw 29 consecutive punches at Paret in just a few seconds in the 12th round. Paret hit the ropes, fell into a coma, never regained consciousness, and died of a cerebral hemorrhage 10 days later.

In the game version, the focus was on Paret’s pre-match taunting of Griffith, who identifies as bisexual. Thus the blows arose from the boxer’s pent-up anger; it was a result of being abandoned by his mother and mocked by Paret (sung by the impressive Sankara Harouna at the opera on Saturday night). However, although the libretto was written by the same person, Cristofer, the beats of the opera are completely different and are more in line with the concept of tragedy that occurs when the hero is thrown into sudden chaos.

Paret’s death feels both random and inevitable (given the boxing), and Blanchard’s score draws partly from the syncopated soundscape of the early 1960s, but mostly from what’s going on inside Griffith’s own head.

Playing the elderly Griffith, now fighting for his own sanity, Smith is indescribably impressive: I watched him watch Mazzola, almost as if he were taking cues from a caretaker, and then roaring in pain, all beautifully anticipated by James and Austin. The supporting cast is equally strong. Rising star Martin Luther Clark as Luis Rodrigo Griffith, the elder Griffith’s friend and adopted son, embodies empathetic compassion but also shakes the audience with the beauty of his voice coexisting with the ordinariness of the situation. as Mercedes Sadie” Donastorg Griffith, who married the boxer in 1971, Meroë Khalia Adeeb explores the intersection of love and denial, and soprano Whitney Morrison as Emile’s mother Emelda finds her way in the second act as her character’s previous decisions are blown up. on your face.

“Champion” in 2013 in St. It originated at the Opera Theater of St. Louis but is now a co-production with New York’s Metropolitan Opera, which staged Robinson’s version last spring. I’d argue there’s one part of Act 2 that doesn’t entirely work: Griffith’s transition from spiraling fighter to dementia sufferer is too abrupt to make any sense, relying on a quick scene with his professional handler Howie Albert. good tenor Paul Groves). But that’s a minor issue, given the richness of this expressionist production and how well Moyer, lighting designer Donald Holder, and client Montana Levi Blanco tie Griffith’s pain into their visual environments.

if you saw “The Fire in My Bones Has Been Silenced” You will recognize motifs and themes: especially the alienation of the individual and the enduring power of childhood trauma and abuse. The later, magnificent Blanchard opera is a simpler and more esoteric work. Now in a top-tier staging, “The Champion” tackles sports, media, celebrity, sexuality, immigration, poverty and trauma. But still the strings are lush and cinematic, the voices soar with longing and hope, and an old fighter never leaves the ring, even as he fumbles for his shoes.

Theater Cycle

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Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

cjones5@chicagotribune.com

Review: “Champion” (4 stars)

When: Until February 11

Where: Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive

Working time: 2 hours 45 minutes

Tickets: $49-$339 at 312-827-5600 and www.lyricopera.org

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