Washington National Opera continued a focus on recent works this season with Terence Blanchard and Michael Cristofer’s 2013 opera Champion on the life of boxer Emile Griffith. Though many of the stumbling blocks one might expect are no doubt present in this first attempt at an opera from Blanchard, there is also much to appreciate in this ambitious work. 

Originally commissioned by Opera Theatre of St. Louis and Jazz St. Louis, Champion is told as a series of flashbacks in the mind of the older, dementia-suffering Griffith. Act 1 follows his arrival in New York, reluctant entry into the boxing world and questioning of his sexuality. After opponent Benny Paret publicly taunts him at a weigh in, Griffith delivers an infamous knockout that leads to Paret’s death.

Act 2 shows the inevitable rise and fall from fame, with side plots about Griffith’s fitful marriage and continuing guilt over Paret. Years later, he is brutally beaten leaving a gay bar. In the denouement we return to the present, where the elderly Griffith meets with and receives forgiveness from Paret’s son.

The score has been billed an “opera in jazz,” which may elicit eye-rolls from jazz and operatic camps alike, but Blanchard’s music can’t be easily dismissed. The score thoughtfully incorporates raw materials from the jazz world to produce a variety of compelling effects. Some of the best musical moments occur in the solo vocal writing, such as Emile’s mother haunting memories of her past scored to a simple meandering bass line, but ensemble scenes also benefit from a broader rhythmic palette to illustrate the frenetic energy of a boxing match or factory.

The libretto’s clipped, impressionistic poetry is another asset. Cristofer clearly understands that a successful libretto cannot be a closed world unto itself, but must leave space for the music to complement the text, often identifying and repeating poignant images around which Blanchard weaves some his best moments of musical invention.

Moreover, where many new works for the operatic stage suffer from the notion that an opera libretto must simply be a traditional straight play set to music, the flashback elements in Champion support a richer and more fluid approach to the stage. The elderly Griffith weaves in and out of scenes, acting as chorus and observer, flashbacks are nested in other flashbacks, and characters in disparate times and places come together in illuminating combinations.

Unfortunately for “Champion,” these promising moments feel increasingly crowded out by less successful ideas as the night wears on. Flashes of invention aside, the score becomes cluttered with too many ideas and styles. Set piece scenes built around pastiche material, like a calypso island chorus, or a brassy, hammed up ensemble at a drag club, go on for far too long, while, for many of the major emotional statements, Blanchard throws innovation overboard and retreats to a bland, inspirational movie score sound.

Likewise, the libretto soon grows impatient with “haunting and enigmatic” and succumbs to more obvious sentiment, in moments like Emile’s long aria on manhood and an interminable, ill-advised closing chorus about finding forgiveness. While I found the first Act more or less consistently engaging, the second Act is decidedly less focused, as the libretto is hard-pressed to find a compelling through line in disparate incidents spanning many decades.

Perhaps the biggest structural flaw, however, is the character of young Emile. While the elderly Emile emerges as a deeply sympathetic character, his flashback self is less distinctive, too often registering as a cookie-cutter protagonist one might find in any sports rise and fall narrative (Griffith’s emerging bisexuality at times seems to occupy the spot in the story usually reserved for booze or pills, though the end of the opera redeems itself on this count).

Bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock, who originated the role of young Emile in St. Louis, reprises the part here. Allicock is a committed, game performer and a likeable stage presence. But the poorly drawn young Emile does not gain much from his generic characterization, or from his expressive but fairly anonymous sound.

Present-day Emile is movingly portrayed by Arthur Woodley, who makes much of the bleak scenes of dementia and other commentary numbers with a warm, enveloping bass, while treble Samuel Grace added a special quality to a poignant scene of Emile in childhood.

Denyce Graves introduced some welcome vocal glamour into the evening as Griffith’s profane, damaged mother. Her renditions of the mother’s two major arias demonstrated what a great vocal talent can do for unfamiliar new music, finding a searing intimacy in these simple reflections. Her luxurious mezzo can register as more commanding than beautiful these days, especially in a somewhat strident upper register, but it is consistently captivating, and low notes in the second aria proved especially thrilling.

Elsewhere in the cast, soprano Leah Hawkins (a WNO young artist) brought a strong presence and gorgeous sound to both Griffith’s wife and his disciplinarian childhood mother figure, while another young artist, Frederick Ballentine, made much of the somewhat thankless role of Luis, Griffith’s adopted son and caretaker. As Griffith’s manager, Wayne Tigges struggled through a cold early in the opera and most of the role ended up sung by baritone Samuel Schultz from a music stand at the edge of the proscenium.

The WNO orchestra and a jazz quartet was led by George Manahan, who gave a persuasive reading of the varied score and managed to successfully navigate a variety of tricky coordination scenarios.

Director James Robinson’s staging shines in the first Act, effectively conveying the the work’s shifting perspectives in complex ensemble scenes, though the pace of successful ideas begins to flag in the second half. Allen Moyer’s simple catwalk set (familiar from last week’s Dead Man Walking) is here transformed through the use of evocative projections (by Greg Emetaz) depicting various settings and closeups of the actors.

Photo: Ken Howard