Mozart Fares Well in Houston

The city's festival productions rank with the best performances on the American opera scene. OPERA

THE Houston Grand Opera (HGO) has been such a consistent and persistent friend of new works, one forgets that, as one of this country's major operatic institutions, it focuses on the standard as well. In fact, these past few weeks (through May 5), the company has been absorbed in an ambitious five-opera Mozart festival at its two-theater Wortham Center "The Magic Flute," "La Clemenza di Tito," and the three with librettos by Lorenzo da Ponte, "Le Nozze di Figaro," "Don Giovanni," and "Cosi fan tutte."

This "Flute" dates from the 1980 design by Maurice Sendak and, this time around, was staged by the author-illustrator as well. It is visually enchanting - one of the best painter-turned-designer productions of the opera I have seen. Unfortunately, Sendak the director is not really up to bringing this complex yet deceptively simple opera to life, particularly with the vast stretches of spoken dialogue. That said, the evening was not without its felicities, including Jan Grissom's sweet, direct Pamina, Ke v

in Langan's sonorous Sarastro, and Mark Thomsen's well-phrased Tamino. HGO music director John DeMain kept things moving at a good clip, and elicited fine playing from the Houston Symphony Orchestra.

Mr. DeMain made a particularly strong impression in the "Clemenza di Tito," where he conducted the new Houston Grand Opera Orchestra tellingly. Though this work is particularly maligned as dull and dated, careful listeners have always appreciated its merits. DeMain and director Stephen Wadsworth made clear how worthy "Clemenza" is of being ranked among Mozart's most moving creations.

Mr. Wadsworth chose to set the piece not in Titus's Rome of 79 A.D., but in the period it was written, 1791, the composer's last year and a time of great social and political upheaval in Europe. Thomas Lynch's set suggested a neglected Roman courtyard, dominated by a huge brick wall of filled-in arches. The reddish color fit the autumnal quality of the music perfectly. Dunya Ramicova's costumes were also executed in basic earth tones, though the chorus was dressed in various styles of late-18th-century

Europe. Wadsworth's staging kept the focus tightly on the characters, their inner feelings, and their inter- relationships, while offering some profoundly beautiful stage images.

The entire cast was excellent, but worthy of particular note were: Lorraine Hunt's committed Sesto; Peter Kazaras's richly characterized Tito; and Marquita Lister's thrillingly tempestuous, vibrant-voiced Vitellia. DeMain did some of his very finest conducting in this score - deeply felt, nobly executed, and conjuring ravishing playing from the orchestra.

The da Ponte trilogy was seen in the stagings by the late Goran Jarvefelt, who used a set designed by Carl Friedrich Oberle that limited the amount of movable scenery and forced a controlled use of imagery and of lighting. The director's solutions work well for all three operas. The "Cosi," which I saw three years ago (but not on this trip), is superbly colorful and very strongly directed.

The "Nozze," too, moves well, but as revived by Margaretha Soederling, it has a certain listlessness to the action. Yet the cast was strong, starting with Philip Skinner's handsomely vocalized Figaro, and Nuccia Focile's radiant Susanna. As the Count and Countess Almaviva, Thomas Allen and Renee Fleming gave virtuoso displays, he of superlative singing-acting, she of exemplary Mozart style.

Mr. Allen and Ms. Fleming were also linchpins in the "Giovanni," which is quite simply the finest production of the work I've seen. As revived by Harry Silverstein, the production illuminates so many details while moving forward in a smoothly flowing dramatic line.

The cast was generally stunning, from Stella Zambalis's delicious Zerlina, to John Macurdy's harrowing Commendatore, and Deon van der Walt's mellifluous Ottavio. Gilles Cachemaille's energetic Leporello was a perfect foil to Allen's brilliantly acted and vitally sung Giovanni. Karita Mattila's sumptuous soprano encompassed Donna Anna's treacherous music with ease. Fleming proved to be a Mozartean worthy of any international stage, capping her Donna Elvira with an astonishing performance of the aria "Mi T

radi," and stopping the show in "Nozze" with her magnificent reading of "Dove Sono."

The other impressive unifying factor was conductor Christoph Eschenbach, the Houston Symphony's immensely popular new music director. His conducting was at all times alert, thrillingly dramatic, and fleetly provocative, despite an occasional aside to a too-slow tempo.

HGO general director David Gockley, approaching his 20th season, can be proud of this Mozart festival. It is opera of the very highest order, and serves to remind all opera lovers that excellence on an international scale is not limited to the East Coast or overseas, and that Houston now ranks as one of the country's finest operatic cities.

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