Tonight’s opera in jazz, Terence Blanchard’s Champion, in conjunction with last week’s Dead Man Walking, and next week’s special operatic event with Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, is presented as part of JFKC, the season-long celebration of  the centennial of John F. Kennedy. The choice of these two contemporary operas is meant to be a rousing one. As ‘the national opera company’, artistic director Francesca Zambello is deeply committed to staging the pressing issues of the day, and thus demonstrate that opera is not entombed in its own traditional conventions but is an art form that may speak of – and to – the contemporary world. Tonight was the east coast première of the opera (which had premiered in the midwest in 2013).

Initially, I was surprised that it took so long to migrate east because, with its explicit evocation of identity politics and its original fusion of opera and jazz, it seems to fit neatly with the Zeitgeist. But, it is not an easy opera to listen to – the pace often seems lugubrious, the dissonances constant, the vocal and instrumental lines go their separate ways, and some of the most reflective passages fail to soar. I’m not sure whether Michael Cristofer’s libretto always draws the most out of the complex emotions of the man on whom this story is based; one of the recurrent lines – the crux of his catastrophising self-reflection went: something good turns into something bad so fast.

Remember only the past as its remembrances give you pleasure; that’s what champion boxer, Emile Griffith cannot do, and we find him on stage at first, an old man in failing health, trying to come to terms with his problematic past. The old Emile relives his earlier incarnations as a boy (Samuel Grace) and as a man (the energetic Aubrey Allicock). The old Emile, powerfully sung by Arthur Woodley, is a lone figure, looking for his shoes, needing help to dress himself. His confused questions “Where is my shoe? My shoe goes where?” are sung to a doleful melody, and are reprised several times in the course of the opera; frankly, the effect is not as poignant as it might seem. The opera ends with him shuffling off, on his shoe quest again. There is no closure, no resolution for all that he has managed to forgive himself. All is heading towards death.

If this seems dreary, at least it isn’t sentimental, and all credit to Blanchard for avoiding the most syrupy of clichés. For he could have played to the galleries more, could well have made the whole narrative sweeter for all its bitterness, could have given us that feeling of triumph at the end. Instead, the rug was pulled from under our feet and stayed that way. Everything was made to be off-centre, from the beginning to the end. At the very opening, there is an extended opening scene in which the orchestra tune up as the boxers warm-up with their punching bag; the end, as we’ve seen, fades into a shoe-hunt.

Because of the melancholy nature of Emile’s self-torment, we looked for light relief to the all-singing, all-dancing, and indeed all-boxing scenes. These were handled with panache: Afro-Caribbean island festivities, the gay bar presided over by Kathy Hagan (Meredith Arwady), the infamous boxing-match in which Emile killed the opponent who had cast aspersions on his sexual identity, and his wedding with Sadie (well-sung by Leah Hawkins). Emile’s Mommy, Denyce Graves, who was surprisingly omnipresent for someone who had initially abandoned all seven of her children, had a lush voice, and had some great low notes in her long song in Act II (although the song itself didn’t seem to be necessary to the forward momentum of the plot.) A special shout-out for Samuel Schultz, making his impromptu WNO debut as Howie Albert (Wayne Tigges was indisposed and could only walk the role).

The sets, designed by Allen Moyer and Greg Emetaz, were appealing and clever. There were deftly shifting video-projections presenting context – Emile’s  birth-home in the Virgin Islands, the busy cityscapes and mean streets of 1950s New York, the swinging party scene of the 60s, the depressing apartment block where he winds up. What remained constant throughout were the boxing lights over the ring, illuminating the space of his greatest triumph and his greatest anguish.

The orchestra, conducted by George Manahan, were joined by a jazz quartet for the occasion, a guitarist, bassist, pianist and drummer and rendered the score with feeling.