Perils of fresh perspectives. Houston Opera wrestles with two standard works
Houston — For the opening of its new artistic home, the Wortham Center, Houston Grand Opera general director David Gockley wanted the operas chosen to be explored with fresh perspectives: Thus, Verdi's ``A"ida'' tried to be intimate, and anti-spectacular; Mozart's intimate ``Abduction From the Seraglio'' tried to be glitzy and elaborate. Unfortunately, neither made for a particularly satisfying evening. But interest understandably focused on the theaters themselves. The Brown Theater, the main opera house, seats 2,176. The basic square hatbox shape of the auditorium gives it a rather Spartan feeling. In an attempt to ensure that no patron be too far from the stage, a certain gracefulness of interior proportion has been sacrificed - most noticeably in the treacherously steep, sightline-impaired third balcony.
Nevertheless, there is a good sense of communication with the stage in most areas. At this writing, there are passing acoustical problems that should be easily correctable. In the best seats of the house - the Grand Tier boxes - the sound is well blended, and very kind indeed to singers. But on the main floor, orchestral sound suffers somewhat: From the fourth row, percussion sounds retort off the side walls with startling presence; from farther back, the voices take on a certain hard edge, and there is the faint suggestion of an echo. The covered pit tends to muffle the brass and winds.
The ``intimate'' (1,066 seats) Cullen Theater is deeply disappointing - high, wide, vast, and chilly in feeling. The severely covered pit swallows up most of the sound, and the stage feels as large as the one in Brown.
The ``A"ida'' production (telecast tomorrow night on the Public Broadcasting Service) clearly demonstrated the problems of casting this almost hackneyed opera. The Houston solution was to feature an array of such top names as tenor Pl'acido Domingo, soprano Mirella Freni, bass Nicolai Ghiaurov, baritone Ingvar Wixell, and director/designer Pier Luigi Pizzi - whether they were suitable or not.
Mr. Pizzi opted for a lean, pared-down spectacle, with occasional pieces of scenery - a huge Egyptian head, some obelisks, the stern of a Nile boat - adding visual spice to a restrained yet impressive design concept. Unfortunately, Pizzi's barefoot staging lacked any sense of social structure and personal motivations. The ballet sequences looked borrowed. The ``Triumphal Scene'' fell flat.
Of the singers in this cast, only Mr. Wixell (Amonasro) and Mr. Ghiaurov (Ramfis) were appropriately cast, and though the former no longer commands the smoothness of phrasing and ease of top notes, his arrival on stage showed what real Verdi-size singing was about. Otherwise, the singing ranged from strained (Stefania Toczyska) to stolid (Mr. Domingo). In the pit, Emil Tchakarov rushed frantically through the score.
The ``Abduction'' production suffered even more than ``A"ida.'' Director Peter Mark Schifter set the action on a 1930s Hollywood sound stage. Suddenly this rich, magnificent music became merely background to his overfertile imagination.
The singers all looked better than they sounded. Evelyn de la Rosa's Constanze (a most difficult role) was brave but uneven vocally; Mark Thomsen cut a very dashing figure, but his singing was often tight and erratic of pitch; slender-voiced soprano Jeanine Thames made a pert Blonde in a Jean Harlow mode; British tenor Bonaventura Bottone's Pedrillo was more than acceptable, Fran,cois Loup's Osmin merely passable. John DeMain's conducting seemed rather soft-edged, and the orchestra sounded like it was playing from behind closed doors.