Brilliant Philip Glass opera brought to life in Houston

It was obvious that Houston Grand Opera would want to make something special out of its 25th anniversary season. Carlisle Floyd's "Willie Stark" was the crowning production of the season's International Series and garnered the broadest critical attention of a season that also boasted a new Maurice Sendak production of Mozart's "The Magic Flute."

But Houston Grand Opera is more than the International and American Series of grand opera at Jones Hall. Texas Opera Theater (TOT) takes two tours every year , giving young singers a chance to get to know their vocal selves and to learn the rigors of performing a given role numerous times. The Texas Opera Studio, a recent innovation at HGO, offers a workshop for the creation and perfecting of new operatic works. It is, in fact, this "studio" that gave Floyd (coincidentally a co-director of the project) the opportunity to work out much of "Willie Stark" before preparing it for the big stage.

Music Theater Workshop, yet another HGO facet, also produced a work by Henry Mollicone called "Starbird" which was given a series of performances around "Willie Stark" time. The Studio and TOT collaborated on the Mollicone mini-opera "The Face on the Barroom Floor" as well.

Neither work is as auspicious an event as the ambitious feature of "Premiere Week" put together to celebrate the first 25 years of Houston Grand Opera. That truly premiere event was the United States premiere of "The Panther," a madrigal opera with music by Philip Glass, and conceived, written, designed, and directed by Manuel Lutgenhorst.

Glass is probably best known for his collaborative work with Robert Wilson in such works as "A Letter to Queen Victoria" and "Einstein on the Beach." "The Panther" score was written as an independent, abstract work that would find its life in the hands of a visionary director using the music to frame his own opera out of it.

Thus the first performance of the score was heard in Amsterdam under the title "Attaca," with Rob Malasch supplying the visual/dramatic framework. "The Panther" is Lutgenhorst's brainchild, and a stunning one at that. He has taken as his inspiration and his framework Rainer Maria Rilke's three-stanza poem "The Panther." He elucidates the poem by means of a story of a woman seen simultaneously in the five stages of her life -- 15 year-old, 30, 45, 60, and very aged.

It uses the slow, expansive, gradually crescendoing time system of Glass's music. Glass shares some ideas with Steve Reich in the conception of music. He starts this score with a seemingly endless repetition of one desolate arpeggiated phrase that, after quite some time, begins to change -- first with a note, eventually with the addition of a small chorus singing vowels.

Then new changes occur like barnacles on a ship's hull -- except that, rather than crustaceans, the additions are more like jewels. At the peaks of Glass's 74-minute score the irridescence is captivating.

Lutgenhorst has brilliantly paced his work and fused the seemingly abstract music into something more telling than the sum of its parts. One can point to literary influences on Lutgenhorst, including Beckett. However, the despair is not so existential. Throughout, Lutgenhorst keeps us aware of the ultimate conclusion of the woman's life, whereas in Beckett there is no hint of resolution.

The work is seen through the bars of the room that has become her prison -- but more than a room, it is actually her disheveled mind. She tries, as she is putting together her biography, to come to terms with the major crises in her life, from maturing, through childbearing, to aging. It is a vision of emptiness and loneliness, in which Glass's music takes on an almost icy desolation. At the end, when one has experienced this, and when one rereads "The Panther," one can only marvel at how completely Lutgenhorst has managed to encapsulate the poem, how faultlessly he has used Glass's score, and how remarkably he has molded the performers to his uncommonly engrossing vision.

"The Panther" opens at Cafe La Mama in New York this evening, and it is to be earnestly hoped this is not the last time it will be made available for a public that should get to know a contemporary piece of exceptional quality and integrity.

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