Houston Grand Opera
by François Nouvion
Knjaz Igor (2001), Carmen (2000), Nabucco (2000), Aida (13 November 1999), Aida (5 November 1999), La traviata (1999), Der fliegende Holländer (1998), Madama Butterfly (1998), Macbeth (1997)
Originally, The demon should have been produced, but the producer (Francesca Zambello) apparently decided that this work had too many dramaturgical problems, so she decided to put on Prince Igor! This is quite surprising, as Prince Igor, being unfinished when Borodin died, has a lot of the same supposed problems as Rubinstein's Demon. Not least, Prince Igor lacks a convincing ending. It was decided for no good reason to set the piece during Nikolai's time for the Russian side of the story. The Polovtsians were Georgians! A bullet kills Galitskij, a new twist I have never seen before. The sets for the last act look like they are coming directly from Planet of the Apes. The piece ends by a chorus of desolation, instead of the upbeat chorus as it is in the standard version of the work.
The best voices were the ones of Mzia Nioradze, as Konchakovna (a true warm, wonderful and deep steady sound), and Vladimir Ognovenko (an excellent Galitskij) among the principals. Zvetlina Vassileva (Jaroslavna) sounded pinched during her farewell to Igor, but she was better in the following scenes with her brother and the boyars. In the last act, her lament was excellent. Sergei Leiferkus was adequate as Igor. Vladimir Vaneev (Konchak) did not sound like a Russian bass. His tone was light. Vsevolod Grivnov (Vladimir) was adequate for this small part. Some of the best characterizations and vocal performances came from Scott Scully (Jeroshka), Joshua Winograde (Skula) and James Holloway (Ovlur). I regretted that due to the new end, the parts of both Jeroshka and Skula were cut in the last act. The conductor was Alexander Anissimov. He provided strong support, but why did he accept the strange ideas of the producer?
This production is shared by Michigan Opera Theater and Opera Pacific. The whole thing was modern, but without going over the top. The production did not produce any negative comments. Like a good production should do, it did not get very much noticed, we just listened to the music. The best singer was by far the José, Luis Lima. Lima displayed a strong voice, good acting, and delivered the goods at the right moment. The Carmen, Béatrice Uria-Monzon, was adequate. She went through the motions without generating any particular fire, and in the last final she let Lima down by being very passive. The Escamillo, Mark S. Doss, sounded very uncomfortable at the top and bottom of his range. The Micaela, Adina Nitescu, had a nice small sound. The conductor, Alain Lombard, provided a sound accompaniment, but I felt he lacked fire in the overture. Everybody took a solo curtain, except for Lima & Uria-Monzon who appeared together, I wonder why?
This production, borrowed from Chicago, is by Elijah Moshinsky, with sets by Yeargan, costumes by Greenwood and is locally directed by Steingraber. A drop cloth with Hebrew lettering dominates the evening, and unless you understand Hebrew, you have no clue to their meaning. The Jews are given a black color while the Babylonians are mostly clad in red. The costumes are of different styles. Nothing was really disturbing; in spite of wishing that the action should have taken place at the correct historical time. The singing was dominated as expected by Maria Guleghina with her huge voice with a powerful top. She acted and characterized well. Sergei Leiferkus was so-so during the first two scenes. He improved markedly during the second half of the opera. He was moving during the prison scene. Leiferkus is lacking a powerful and dominating high register. This restriction inhibits him to be a Verdi baritone of the first rank. Samuel Ramey has now a noticeable wobble. He was only successful in the preghiera. He is no longer a dominating figure. The comprimari Phyllis Pancella (Fenena) and Rafael Rojas were very discreet to say the least. Oren Gradus as the high priest was satisfying, while Tiffany Jackson displayed a very powerful voice in the small part of Anna, too bad the part is so short. Besides Guleghina, the best singing came from the chorus, under the leadership of Richard Bado. It delivered a very strong performance. The overture under Patrick Summers was weak and under-powered, making the orchestra soundi like a second rate band. Things improved slightly during the evening. On a return visit on May 14, things were still the same, Guleghina and the chorus on top.
The second cast provided a much better Aida in Isabelle Kabatu, a Belgian soprano. She has the right voice for the role. She displayed power and sensitivity. Too bad that the new Radames, Patrick Denniston, did not possess a Radames voice. His portrayal lacked power and excitement. He had problems with the B flat. Catherine Keen, as Amneris, gave a good interpretation, but did not have the power of Diadkova. Eric Owens was a good Ramfis, while Oren Gradus repeated his reliable King. Mark S. Doss was a strong Amonasro. The chorus was still excellent, while Richard Bado, the chorus master, efficiently replaced Abbado.
This production was originally seen when the Wortham Center opened in 1987. The production, set and costume design by Pier Luigi Pizzi were extremely appropriate and never distracted from the singing, which is in itself a prerequisite for a good production. The best singing, among the principals, came from Amneris and Amonasro. Larrissa Diadkova had the necessary voice for the size of the house. She was both powerful and dramatically up to the role. The same thing can be said of Gregg Baker as Amonasro, excellent in the sortita and the Nile scene duet. Walter Fraccaro was supposed to have been Radames. I heard him on a video from an Aida in Madrid (he was not very impressive). He had to withdraw and was replaced by Stephen O'Mara, who was commuting between Houston and Germany during the performance run. O'Mara is a lyrical tenor and obviously does not have the right type of voice to sing the part. However, he was decent and did not distract in any way. Marquita Lister, as Aida, was never dominating. O patria mia was completely undersung. I do not believe that it is wise for her to sing such a role. She managed to get through the performance. The two basses Oren Gradus (Re) and Daniel Sumegi (Ramfis) were good. The chorus was outstanding, while Roberto Abbado provided an excellent orchestral support. In short, it was a better night than usual at HGO.
In the Zest Magazine, part of the Sunday edition of the Houston Chronicle, the local critique Charles Ward introducing the forthcoming production of La Traviata stated that the new musical Director Patrick Summers was reintroducing the concept of a prompter. It is about time that it was done. Unfortunately this was the only good thing I can say about that production.
Due to a business trip, I missed the premiere and was able to catch one of the last performances with the premiere cast. When I entered the auditorium I was greeted by a yellow drop curtain with large floral prints. This made quite a nice impression. However, one had to change his positive opinion very quickly. The first act scenery was dominated by a cyclorama with ugly abstract paintings with very unpleasant colors. The chorus looked very ghastly, like they were attending a funeral. Gastone was made up as a gay punk with red hair, and cavorting with Alfredo to the obvious discomfort of Alfredo, and playing the piano in a most ridiculous way during the brindisi. The second act had a variation of the cyclorama with nice looking floral prints. Alfredo and Violetta were laying on a bed at the beginning of the second act. The rest of the furniture looked pretty awful. The party at Flora Bervoix's was an S & M affair, with Flora as a dominatrix. The party guests were sitting or standing on red rolling beds. The men wore cow skull headdresses, while Violetta and Douphol entered the room on a white bed! Again we had the cyclorama with abstract paintings. For the last act the room was a tuberculosis ward, I have to assume, with a row of red beds. Again the boring cyclorama was there. Violetta does not physically die on stage!!
On the musical side, things were pretty crappy. The atmosphere created by the staging and scenery did not predispose the singers to display great emotions. The Violetta, Patricia Racette, was pretty cold and unmoving. She attempted a high note in Sempre libera, and she should not have. The Alfredo, tenorino Ramón Vargas, was nondescript. He attempted O mio rimorso without a interpolated high note and the piece fell flat on its face. The Germont, Vasily Gerello, was made to act like a ruffian, which he is not, by the producer. He was never moving or vocally particularly strong. Di provenza went for nothing. His final note at Flora's party was drowned out by the orchestra. The other singers did not bring anything positive to the performance. The conductor Patrick Summers just moved things along. It was a pretty dispiriting evening.
David Gockley in his brochure promised us AN EPIC PRODUCTION, a feast for the eyes, ears and intellect created by Julie Taymor. I managed to catch the first performance, the day before my departure on a trip. It proved to be Gockley's usual fiasco pompously advertised in his usual style. Just reading the cast information in the program was the forewarning of bad things to come. The first two cast members, listed by order of appearance, were a Young Girl, and an Old Man, plus there was the mention of a choreographer and a flying sailor. As we know, those were indeed Wagner intentions! As expected, the producer could not leave the power of Wagner's music alone. There had to be a pantomime for the Young Girl and the Old Man. As far as I understood, the Young Girl was Senta, and the Old Man the Dutchman in retirement. While the Young Girl danced around in a meaningless way, the Old Man entered carrying a suitcase, walking around the stage rather aimlessly. From time to time, we saw him trying unsuccessfully to catch a moving chair, probably to retire in peace. During that masquerade, the orchestral playing was rather subdued and unwagnerian, we missed the powerful effect of that wonderful piece of music. The curtain went up, or tried to, showing a quite impressive representation of Daland's ship. However the moving structure of the ship was possibly uncomfortable for the singers and the chorus. When the curtain went up the first time, only half of the stage was exposed, both Daland and the Steuermann had to come in front of the ship to sing, since the Steuermann could not be seen as he was relegated to the top of the ship. Anyway, the curtain was brought down, and the first act started from the top when the technical problems were solved, increasing the length of the evening by 20 minutes. Things were pretty normal until the arrival of the Holländer's ship. The ship was a silly looking canoe carried by dancers, making no effect as it is made by the music. The dancers turned the canoe vertically, revealing the Holländer strapped to the bottom of his vessel. He was released from his chains, so that he could move around. The whole effect was absolutely ridiculous. While the set in Daland's house was not too bad in spite of a modern photograph of the Holländer, the final act was another brilliant idea of the producer. While we had a sort of ballet, Senta swears her loyalty to the Holländer, and walks off the stage. The Holländer, strapped again to his canoe, is raised while the Young Girl is brought down from the upper part of the stage to meet him in eternity, another effect that did not match the power of the music.
The musical side did not redeem the whole thing. The only singer with a voice capable of somehow filling the hall was Franz Grundheber as the Holländer. He would have been more impressive in a real opera house. The Senta of Sue Patchell was undernourished in the ballad, never really catching fire and quite weak in the final. I have heard better performances from Silja and Hilde Zadek (when she was over 50), both bringing magnetism and fire to the part. Daland was Gabor Andrassy, a bass at the end of his career, no bottom, no top and a wobble on long sustained phrases, certainly no Gottlob Frick. The tenor voice of Raymond Very (Steuermann) was too small, while Patrick Denniston's tenor voice was whiny. Dietfried Bernet was the conductor. In short a very depressing evening.
I missed the opening of Madama Butterfly on January 23rd as I was in Japan at that time. I also missed the first cast with Paula Delligatti (Butterfly), Paul Charles Clarke (Pinkerton), Frank Hernandez (Sharpless), Jill Grove (Suzuki) and Vjekoslav Šutej (conductor). I had a chance to hear that first cast later on, but in view of the dismal impression made by the second cast, I decided against it. The name of Francesca Zambello as the director made me suspicious of what to expect, remembering all the extravagances of her productions (starting with Fidelio in 1984 in Houston). It looked quite traditional, except that no action took place in the house rented by Pinkerton. It was replaced by scenes at the American consulate in Nagasaki. According to Zambello, it was so because of the literary sources used by Puccini. Unfortunately, she was supposed to produce Puccini's opera, not his literary sources. This made quite a mockery of the text, probably not too important here in view of the lack of operatic sophistication of the locals, who found, thanks to the surtitles, the opera again quite funny. One particularly ridiculous stage business was the entrance of the bonze. It looked very unnatural to see him standing on a pedestal that had to be pushed on stage, and off again by Pinkerton after the bonze had cursed Butterfly.
Worst was the singing: Susan Bullock (Cio-Cio-San) revealed a mature physique coupled with an over-the-hill voice. According to the British magazine Opera, always prone to overpraise British singers, she was a good Butterfly, but that must have been more than ten years ago. Vladimir Grishko, described in the program as a principal tenor at the Kirov, had no voice and no top. The climax of the act one duet was particularly painful. As usual with such a Pinkerton, Grishko did his best job during act two. Christopher Robertson, as Sharpless, was very, very discreet, while Stephanie Novacek was quite good as Suzuki. But when does a Suzuki save the show? The whole thing was conducted by Christopher Larkin.
To promote their new production of Macbeth, Houston Grand Opera mailed
flyers displaying extreme poor taste. On the first page, they showed the
picture of a deranged and cheap looking red haired woman displaying the
silly caption "Dominant Scottish female seeks willing partner for
ultimate power trip. Inquiries kept confidential." Inside the
brochure, the text read among other things "...The lust for power is a
fatal disease. ...HGO's all new production stars extraordinary soprano
Catherina Mafiltano as Lady Macbeth...". Not a kind statement for
the baritone since he has the leading role. This was followed by
radio advertising following the same format with some of the text
read by the syrupy voice of David Gockley, the general manager of the
company. Gockley described the new production by Davis
Alden as courageous, a statement that does not cast a positive shadow
on things to come. Why is a production courageous? In the program
notes, Alden stated that he had embraced Verdi's advice to his
librettist to do something different!! He further stated that his
staging will be traditional because he had too much respect for Verdi
and that conventional productions of this opera are a betrayal of the
exploratory spirit of the piece. He saw the focus of the piece in the
dysfunctional relationship between Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and the
witches!!?? After this gibberish what did we get?
As for the singers, Sergei Lefeirkus had a good reliable voice, he projected well and proved to be a reliable Macbeth. Catherine Malfitano as Lady Macbeth sang reliably with some strain at the top and the high D flat was not quite there. In the comprimario parts Daniel Sumegi as Banquo did very well, while Rafael Rojas, very discreet and not powerful enough in the scene of the discovery of Duncan's murder, delivered "Ah la paterna mano" as reliably as a first rank comprimario would do in this not very difficult aria. Chad Shelton as Malcolm did what was expected for that role. Simone Young conducting was reliable, if not very fiery.