Opera in the Heights begins its 20th anniversary season with a new conductor. Read my conversation with Eiki Isomura at Houstonia Magazine.
A year in review: Read my report on the (soap) Opera in the Heights at Houstonia Magazine.
“I must win the loyalty of my people through love,” sings the beneficent Tito in Act Two of Mozart’s rarely performed opera La Clemenza di Tito. Opera in the Heights bravely took on this neglected late opera and performed it with heart, reminding me that it had been one of Mozart’s most popular operas until about 1830, and perhaps it should be again.
It is another rarity when a sovereign rewards honesty with amnesty, even when a subject confesses to plotting his assassination. And as such, La Clemenza is a plot that relies on the ensemble numbers that are so celebrated in Mozart’s other operas. Watching the Emerald cast—a passionate collection of talented young singers—it was clear they had taken great care of the trios, the quartets, and the chorus numbers.
The early chorus march “Serbate, o dei custodi” led by tenor Zach Averyt in the role of Tito, was full and lively. The fiery trio “Vengo! Aspettate!” between Justin Hopkins, Jennifer Crippen, and Celeste Fraser (which comes when Publio and Annio tell a shocked Vitellia that Tito wants her as a consort) rang together with attention to the harmonic subtleties while also communicating Vitellia’s veiled despair.
Hopkins, a bass-baritone whose full, light timbre as Leporello stole the show in OH’s production of Don Giovanni last season, was a stand out again. Making her OH debut as Sesto, mezzo soprano Vera Savage left an impression vocally and otherwise. The victim of Vittellia’s seduction, Sesto is a desperate man. Sure, we’ve seen trouser roles before—when a female singer dons the character of a man—but have we seen a woman in a trouser role slowly strip off her suit and tie in an act of frustrated passion to stand confidently in only underwear? Savage pulled it off with panache.
Stage director Keturah Stickann has done exceptional work with the Lambert Hall stage. The blocking was smart, never feeling overcrowded, and the window cut-out at center stage proved a visual treat. The stage, papered from floor to ceiling with newspapers and charcoal pitchforks, bespoke a timely present-day obsession with gossip and misconceptions. The costumes designed by Dena Scheh—sharp suits set against decadent gowns—were tasteful and divinely popped against the newspaper background.
The orchestra, under the new direction of interim conductor Eiki Isomura, was reliably solid. Even so, there were a handful of unfortunate moments when the singers lagged behind the orchestra. Isomura notes in the program that initially he felt intimidated by La Clemenza. While he seems in many ways to have conquered this (a triumphant downbeat to the overture surely testified as such), overall he directed with a slight awkwardness, as though he were still getting to know the score and his musicians.
It’s not often that opera celebrates the deep virtues of forgiveness, generosity, and love, where the opera ends with a chorus of loyal subjects asking the gods to grant their sovereign a long life. More regularly, audiences are confronted with prolonged death, lingering deceptions, and questionable moral codes that no doubt delight us (Don Giovanni, for example), but are nevertheless commonplace in the genre. Here, we are left with a uniquely comforitng blanket absolution thanks to the zeal of OH’s cast and the warm familiarity of Lambert Hall.
In a press release yesterday Opera in the Heights announced Eiki Isomura would be taking over as interim conductor effective immediately, replacing Enrique Carreón-Robledo.
It’s surprising news, to say the least, given the accolades that Carreón-Robledo has received as OH’s artistic director. At least from an outsider’s perspective, Carreón-Robledo was the strongest part of OH, as his most recent, stunning production of Hänsel and Gretel attests. Of course, appearances aren’t always what they seem, I suppose. But in this case it seems unlikely. Carreón-Robledo is the most enthusiastic, passionate conductor I’ve seen, and I will miss him.
Let’s hope this “new artistic direction” actually has some substance. It’s hard to imagine the company without their intrepid leader.
Just because a story is about children doesn’t mean it’s only for kids. Opera in the Heights’ production of the Engelbert Humperdinck’s 1893 Hänsel and Gretel (with libretto aptly written by his sister, Adelheid Wette) is a marvel. With singing this good, Hänsel and Gretel is no trifle.
No doubt this opera was a success because of many talented people, but Artistic Director and conductor Enrique Carreón-Robledo has truly outdone himself here, particularly with the score. It’s supposed to be for a much larger orchestra, and the parts are difficult. But the sound was full and vibrant. More than once I watched the violinists’ fingers scatter across the fingerboard to pull off Engelbert’s perilous arpeggios with total adeptness. And my hat goes off to cellist H. P. Scott Card who played some astoundingly graceful solos with genuine poise.
And where to begin with the Emerald Cast’s singers—all of whom were excellent? Singing the plucky part of Hänsel, Hilary Ginther proved a gifted mezzo-soprano with a knack for comedy. Her voice, even in the cross-gender role of a young boy, has an impressively pure timbre—accurate and daring and exciting to listen to. Soprano Katie Dixon as Gretel complemented Ginther with a certain sweetness that I expect blossoms into something quite rich and golden when in a more serious, adult role. As the parents Gertrud and Peter, soprano Cassandra Black and baritone Brian Schircliffe exemplified an ideal combination of light humor and profound talent. As the only male voice against a cast of women, Schircliffe’s hearty baritone particularly soared over the stage.
Perhaps most memorable was Jenni Bank, the hunch-backed villain Knusperhexe who flew in on a broom in the third act and made this opera her own. She might have been baked into gingerbread cookies, but her voice is what I’m still marveling over. With a complex mezzo-soprano timbre, flush with color but technically exact, it was a surprise that Bank could also cackle and crackle her evil spells “Hocus pocus!”
Stage Director Mary Birnbaum, finally, was a real catch for this production. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen from OH before. The set, by Robert Roldan and Joshua Slisz, was bare but tasteful. Wispy pines, accompanied by an ethereal mist, set the magical mood of the fairytale. Walls rolled around cleverly to turn the forest into a charming gingerbread house. And the period-piece lederhosen costumes, by Dena Scheh, were right on the mark.
Introducing the opera, Executive Director Allison Hartzell said, “This children’s chorus will knock your socks off!” and she wasn’t kidding. The seventeen-strong choir from HITS Theatre strolled out and delivered beautiful singing. And they were visually delightful to boot, not only because of their gingerbread outfits, but also because of some smart blocking.
I admit that I was surprised by this performance. It’s utterly fantastic. There are only two more shows—one tonight and one Sunday afternoon. Go see it.
For tickets and other info, visit Opera in the Heights’ website.
Opera in the Heights opens its 2014-2015 season with a popular classic that Houston Grand Opera did just last year. Read my review at Houstonia.