New York Metropolitan Opera’s (Met) staging of Terence Blanchard’s 2013 opera, Champion, is a knee-bend to political correctness that has failed. It was Blanchard’s first opera. Dire. All around me, folk failed to return after the interval.
In contrast, his second opera, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, last season’s opener, is a fine piece of work. The political climate demanded another Blanchard work. So Champion was dusted down and sent to do battle in the opera ring.
Why the need for another Blanchard title so quickly? From press briefings and YouTube interviews featuring Music Director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin – much parroted by the New York rags – we are invited to believe it is a great thing that Blanchard, an African American, is the first new composer to be featured in back-to-back seasons at the Met since, wait for it, wait for it… Richard Strauss.
You must be kidding! Terence Blanchard is no Richard Strauss. I’m sure not even Blanchard thinks so.
This is an “emperor has no clothes moment”, virtue signalling tokenism at its worst. And, judging by his buffoonish behaviour at the podium, much of the blame must rest at Nézet-Séguin’s door.
Champion is about the real-life tragedy of 1950’s welterweight boxer Emile Griffith, who beat an opponent, Benny (Kid) Paret, to death in the ring with a flurry of 17 blows delivered in seven seconds.
Paret had mocked Griffith at the weigh in before the “big fight” for being a hatmaker (Seriously, hats had been his business. But hatmakers are clearly not looked up to in 50’s Harlem gyms) and a homosexual (Neither are they). When he eventually cornered Paret in the ring in Round 12, Griffith lost it and let loose.
One might be forgiven for wondering why a tragic opera featuring the event should not have focused on the unfortunate Paret instead of his killer. But Griffith, we are told, deserves his opera because he “was forgiven for killing a man, but not forgiven for loving one”. This ruined his life. Paret, had he survived, may have offered a contrary opinion.
Set aside for a moment the argument over whether the Griffith story merits operatic treatment at all. The incident is beyond argument tragic and Griffith’s subsequent life and self-questioning in Alzheimer’s-stricken old age deeply sad. Serious stuff.
So, what’s Maestro Nezet-Séguin up to, bouncing up to the podium, ever the Duracell bunny, in black and white boxers’ robes, sporting fighters’ gloves and cheerily aiming blows at the audience. What a lark!
This was more about a Nezet-Séguin stunt than setting a mood in the auditorium in which the tragedy could unfold. Tone deaf, if not downright bad taste. Certainly, tension destroying. Could we take what was to follow seriously?
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What’s wrong with Blanchard’s work? In a nutshell, the score is incoherent, and Michael Cristofer’s libretto is gobbledygook. Champion should never have received the greenlight from the get-go. Someone, and at the end of the day responsibility lands at the feet of the music director, was asleep at the wheel when the Met decided it was bound to bring on a “good thing”.
I think politics trumped the need to insist on quality. I can just hear the discussion; “The New York Times will give us kudos for performing another Blanchard, whatever it is. We are being relevant. Whoopee!” The music director could at least have insisted on the libretto being recrafted before elevating the work to Met status. Librettos often are, sometimes at the last minute.
Cristofer may be good with film scripts. He has no experience of crafting libretti. This was his first shot. Writing to complement an opera score is a different discipline. Phrases must match voice patterns and flow with the melodic line. And where did Cristofer get the idea that endless repeats of words are required? He sculpted the old back-to-the-beginning da capo aria form into a novel new concept, the da capo phrase. Endless looped repeats.
The lines – this holds true for all the characters – are reiterated so intensely they become mind-numbing. There are ugly endings of phrases that are difficult to sing.
In his “old man” guise, Griffith’s Alzheimer’s disease is flagged throughout. We get the point quickly. He constantly asks his carer, “Where is my shoe?” Once or twice, fair enough. But not every damned scene. The desire to chorus, “It’s behind you”, was almost impossible to resist.
What there is of a narrative plot is fractured and shallow. The homosexual relationship at the root of Griffith’s psychodrama is focused on a single fling with a Man in Bar in Act I. Is there no more to the boxer’s sexual ambiguity than that? No character development. This sexual awakening is meant to have haunted Griffith’s life.
The bit part of Kathy Hagan, who runs the gay bar which proves Griffith’s undoing, is more substantial than that of the Man. As Kathy was wondrously sung by mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe that is, perhaps, unsurprising.
Operas enthral by the development of sublots. Verdi’s Falstaff boasts four. And if they had chosen to grasp the opportunity Blanchard and Cristofer were spoilt for creative choice.
There’s the grasping mother, Emelda Griffith, who has abandoned seven children but takes advantage of Griffith’s fortune. She becomes a camp follower of the successful son, but her transition from irresponsible mum to permanent presence in her boy’s exploiting caravanserai happens almost casually.
Corrupt manager, Howie Albert, who feeds off Griffith unashamedly, has the potential for being written as a great villainous character role. But the opportunity slips by.
Griffith’s marriage to Sadie Donastorg, which comes almost out of the blue, should be the fulcrum of the plot. He is torn apart by his contradictory homosexual instincts, isn’t he? Yet he marries her almost casually. Why? Champion abounds in characters aching for development.
There was one bright spot. A world weary ringside tuxedoed announcer who steps into a spotlight and opens each scene with a mock preview of the action. “In the left corner ….”. Some ad lib comic relief. As we move towards the fight scene at the end of Act I he becomes hilariously ecstatic at the prospect of announcing a “real” fight.
First operas are not always howling successes. When did you last encounter Mozart’s Mitridate, Verdi’s Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio, or Puccini’s Edgar, other than on a CD, or more likely a shellac 78? If Blanchard had to make a second entrance it would have been savvy to ask him to write something new.
There were plus points. The choreography was top class, masterminded by Assistant Director, Melanie Bacaling. Bacaling dined with us at the Met Club pre the performance and bubblingly explained the challenges of pulling together the complex dance routines with five, yes five, assistant directors in the mix.
The boxing match at the end of Act I was enthralling. That was down to Fight Director, Chris Dumont. The temptation to draw it out unnecessarily, resisted. The rounds flipped by until the 12th when the spotlight fell on the hapless Paret and the fatal blows.
Griffith’s victory pose, with the traditional arms aloft, was set behind the fallen Paret, inert on the canvas, being assessed by medics. As realisation slowly dawned that tragedy was afoot, the winner’s hands lowered in acknowledgement. Some nuggets amongst the dross.
To ensure I had not lost my sense of judgement entirely, I re-watched Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones on Met on Demand. Blanchard’s second opera, which opened the Met’s 21/22 season, is in a different class. Ear-pinning music, sharp libretto.
It is set in 1970’s Gibsland, Louisiana, based on the memoirs of Charles M Blow, the American columnist and TV presenter. Fire, like Champion, is rooted in psychological trauma. Blow suffered sexual abuse in childhood, the victim of a predatory cousin living in his over-crowded single parent household.
Fire navigates Blow’s adolescence and his often-harrowing attempts to deal with the trauma of abuse. It is a heart-rending, but ultimately heart-lifting story. One also suspects it is not unusual for the time, overcrowded households being frequently packed tight with testosterone-high adolescents.
Librettist Kasi Lemmons and Blanchard have clearly set out to address Champion’s shortcomings. The technique of having the principal character represented throughout in different life stages, young boy, adolescent, adult – sometimes the two alter egos singing together – is repeated, but more deftly handled than in Champion.
We ain’t done on the woke front yet. Next season Met audiences will be asked to accept another insult to their intelligence. The prospect of X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, the 1986 “brainchild” of American composer, Malcolm Davis, is already setting tongues wagging and heads shaking.
Malcolm X was a notorious, outspoken preacher of Muslim activism, racism, violence and antisemitism in America’s already sufficiently troubled 1960s. The epitome of pure hate sums him up nicely. He was assassinated in 1965 by members of The Nation of Islam, opponents of X’s Sunni Muslim faction.
Why is the Met legitimising this ghastly man by re-running a clapped out 1986 opera? Whatever next? I know, let’s commission an opera about Osama bin Laden. I wonder if Nezet-Séguin has an outfit for that.
And Another Thing!
Virginia Zeani, the great Italian bel canto soprano who sang Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata 648 times, has died at the age of 97.
Her death truly marks the end of an era when giants strode the opera stages of Europe and America. Back in the Boeing 707 catwalk 50s musical fireworks topped well-honed academy techniques.
Maria Callas counted Zeani her closest rival. The truth was, Zeani always dwelt in Callas’ shadow.
Confession time. I had never heard of her. I made it my task of the week to find out. Spotify provides a dozen or so Zeani albums to graze. Well worth a visit.
As with Callas, it is the intensity of the voice that grabs attention. But Zeani exercises more control and is always pitch perfect. The finishing of long phrases leaves the listener wondering where the breath is coming from. Maria, you were right.
Zeani came from humble roots and first sang folk music. She ended her life teaching, with great success. But she always craved the limelight. “Teachers do not have a big public.” Btu when she did, that public was always thrilled by the diva admired by Callas.
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