Two operas in Houston - without last year's hoopla

The Houston Grand Opera was the center of musical attention last fall, when it presented the world premi`ere of John Adams's ``Nixon in China.'' But premi`eres show little about the day-to-day quality of a company. And there was the added distraction of this company's settling into its brand new opera home, the Wortham Theater Center here. Therefore it is a welcome change to experience the company in something like normal context, performing Puccini's ``La Rondine'' (playing through Friday) and ``Mozart's ``Cos`i fan tutte'' (through tonight).

The two operas and their production styles could hardly be less alike. Yet both were handled with integrity, and it is clear that the company is at least as concerned with production values as with casting.

``Rondine,'' Puccini's all-tunes-and-fluff attempt at a tribute to Viennese operetta, is simply yet effectively staged by Lotfi Mansouri on the pretty Ralph Funicello sets seen on a New York City Opera telecast several seasons ago. ``Cos`i,'' part of the company's Mozart cycle being directed by Sweden's G"oran Jarvefelt and designed by Carl Friedrich Oberle, is a serious, if flawed, attempt at dealing with the issues in this deceptively frothy comedy.

In the past, directors tended to treat ``Cos`i'' as a colorful, if slightly misogynic, story whose theme is the capriciousness of womankind. A bitter old gent, Don Alfonso, challenges two young swains to prove their beloveds are faithful. So they pose as Albanians bent on wooing each other's partner - successfully, as it turns out. Traditionally, after the women finally capitulate, they are forgiven because they are women, and the opera ends on a cheery note.

In the past few decades, directors have been listening more carefully to Mozart's sublime score and da Ponte's magnificent words. Today the story is usually presented as a rather cruel game, in which all discover that their tidy mores and pat behavioral patterns have been permanently unsettled and that they must question who the right partner is for whom.

The Houston production strives to delineate the emotional ambiguities from within a traditional viewpoint. Oberle has designed a unit set - used throughout the cycle - of simulated stonework arches and wide wooden-planked flooring. The ambiance is less starchily formal than usual. And the crucial disguises are all startlingly effective. The mood of much of the second act is unexpectedly languid, and there is, throughout, a feeling of real emotions being tampered with.

Jarvefelt occasionally miscalculates the comedy to the point of irritation. And unfortunately, this ``Cos`i'' lacks the thoroughness and the painstaking eye for detail that have marked the best of his Santa Fe Opera productions. But it is nevertheless provocative and often very moving.

At the third performance, the cast was dominated by Karita Mattila's generously voiced Fiordiligi. At its best, hers is a big, luscious soprano - warm, true, and easy at the top of the range, full of overtones throughout. The rest of the cast was out of balance vocally with so potent a soprano. Mezzo Jeanne Piland (Dorabella) has both a gorgeous and refreshingly direct stage presence; tenor G"osta Winbergh made a dashing and earnest Ferrando; and baritone Robert Orth played Guglielmo with mercurial conviction. But all three tended to compromise their work by pushing for sound.

Renato Capecchi's Don Alfonso was sprightly of step but less than his usual incisive self, interpretively; Melanie Helton made Despina more complex than usual. In the pit, Dennis Russell Davies had good ideas for tempo relationships but had trouble keeping the ensembles together.

``Rondine'' is also a very difficult opera to pull off. It requires a superb cast of beautiful voices and convincing performers. In the lead role of Magda, Frances Ginsberg (stepping in for Daniela Dessi) lacked an intrinsic feel for this music, and histrionically she never really suggested Parisian stylishness. Franco Farina (Ruggero) had an appropriate boyishness, but not the ingratiating top notes demanded. As the supporting couple, David Eisler and Jeanine Thames used their slender vocal resources shrewdly and engagingly.

In the pit, John DeMain managed the sentimental moments with great tenderness and beauty, but his leisurely pacing sapped the score of its animation and variety.

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