Relish the Clemency in OH’s La Clemenza

 

Celeste Fraser as Vitelia and Zach Averyt as Tito. Deji Osinulu Photography

“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.

Fisk and Phan at the Menil

Eliot Fisk. Courtesy Da Camera

 

Two phenomenal artists are coming together on Tuesday night in a concert filled with Britten and Dowland song cycles. Nicholas Phan, a spectacular tenor, is no stranger  to Houston. From 2002-2005, Phan was a Houston Grand Opera Studio Artist. After his appearance here in January, he will return to close HGO’s season in the role of Tobias Ragg from Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.

He is joined by Eliot Fisk, a musician who has long been a hero of mine and who is widely considered to be the best classical guitarist in the world. I had a brilliant time speaking to them both and not nearly enough space to do them justice. Read my preview of Tuesday’s concert at Houstonia Magazine.

Their concert is Tuesday, January 27 at 7:30pm in the Menil Collection. For tickets and more info, visit Da Camera of Houston.

 

Goodbye Enrique

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.

 

Sequence of Sounds: Brandon Bell at Rice University

 

How does sequence affect sound? I wondered this last night watching Brandon Bell move quietly from playing a wine glass with a bow to wringing wet washcloths out on his knees. His dynamic recital in the Hirsch Orchestra Rehearsal Hall, “Plugged In: New Music for Solo Percussion and Electronics,” began with a bell, ended with a flame, and made aural chronology an introspective experience.

Bell is the Malcolm W. Perkins Teaching Fellow at the Rice University Shepherd School of Music, and innovation seems to attach naturally to his work. Last September, for example, he organized the Houston premiere of John Luther Adams’ 2009 “Inuksuit” at the James Turrell Skyspace. Adams, who won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for the mysterious and epic “Become Ocean,” is rising quickly in the ranks of great American composers, although his work is rarely heard in Houston.

Unwinding sounds, Bell programmed a concert of four premieres. The first, “[relictumne sum]” is a new piece by Ian Power, commissioned by Bell with the support of a Presser Graduate Music Award from Rice. A memorable piece of music will ask provoking questions. [relictumne sum] began with a repeated ringing sound, shifted to a bowed wine glass, and culminated with washcloths and water dripping musically off of Bell’s fingers. It’s an understatement to say the piece was refreshingly evocative. It was followed by Andrea Mazzariello’s “Forms of Practice,” which spiraled rhythm to finally groove into a common time signature.

The icy music of Matthew Burtner, “The Sonic Physiography of a Time-Stretched Glacier,” was stunningly beautiful. Electronic sounds of running water complemented shuddering pulsations from a golden vibraphone, inspiring mercurial visions of liquid. Bell is a serious performer who commits fully without any trace of pretentiousness. In concert, he gives the impression of respecting each sound individually, as if they have come to a peaceful understanding. As he slid a bow against a vibraphone key to end the piece, it was like watching two friends embrace.

Moving from ice to fire, the final piece on the program, “500 Great Things About Wichita,” was described in the program by its composer, Chapman Welch, in the form of a haiku:

ritual click bait

sparks on electric jelly

inside crab orchards

Bell started this piece by slapping his hands against his chest. The stark contrast between electronic sound blaring and the sound of the human body added incredible intention to the aural progression throughout the concert. This piece ended, dramatically, with striking flame from a Zippo lighter. “Sparks on electric jelly / inside crab orchards” lined up with the flickering purple glow. With such attention to the chain of musical sounds—increasingly new and surprisingly radiant—I can’t wait to hear what Bell does next.

Christmas Lists

HGO premieres A Christmas Carol with music by Iain Bell and libretto by Simon Callow. It is the worst kind of bad–a boring bad. Read my review at Houstonia Magazine.

In happier holiday news, read my Top 5 classical and opera picks of 2014, also at Houstonia. Cheers to a merry 2015!

A Little Schumann with Your Beethoven?

A pizzicato—the string vibrating against the fingerboard, sound reverberating against the air for a tiny moment—opened all three pieces on the program last night at Jones Hall. Concluding Houston Symphony’s “Three Weeks of Beethoven,” the First and Fourth symphonies were staple gems. But Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor, sandwiched in between and performed by Brinton Averil Smith, was the surprise highlight.

After Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Franz Schubert lamented, “Who would be able to do anything after Beethoven?” and with good reason. Beethoven’s work is masterful, insightful, and more radical than many audiences realize. The First Symphony was first performed at the turn of the century in 1800, and its attaches to more formal traditions of the eighteenth-century while edging toward Romantic ideals.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada opened the Adagio molto—Allegro con brio deliberately. The delicate lyrical passing from first violins to second, from flutes to cellos, was jerky when it should have been glassy, which could have been covered more seamlessly with a faster tempo. Orozco-Estrada bounced on his knees to start the Andante cantabile con moto—a movement that calls for even more intricate lyrical weaving and overlay between sections. It’s a fragile yet sparkling machine, but this performance lacked the spark. The opening timpani boom was an invigorating turn in the third movement, and with hardly a breath in between, Orozco-Estrada headed into the fourth. He’s a fun conductor to watch. When he released the violins into the Allegro with a pop of his hand, I heard several people chuckle around me. With so much energy radiating from his every gesture, it didn’t make sense that the orchestra’s sound didn’t match in vigor.

As charismatic as Orozco-Estrada is, he knows not to steal the show when there’s a soloist. Swaying and hugging his cello, Brinton Averil Smith brought poignancy to Schumann’s Concerto. He pulled a dark, amber sound from the C-string, rounding it out with a warm vibrato—Smith knows how to draw a phrase and gently free it. In moments of passion, Smith bit the string with his bow, cutting the deeper notes into clean slices of sound. The highlight was the duet between Smith and the first cellist, Anthony Kitai. Smith is usually in that position as Houston Symphony’s principle, and the camaraderie between the instruments spoke a certain familiarity that might be missed with a visiting soloist. The lines folded over each other beautifully.

The gradual opening to Beethoven’s Fourth can sizzle with anticipation. Last night, it met the air cumbersomely in the form of a flat flute. But by the Allegro vivace, it was rousing and lively. It’s hard not to feel sorry for the Fourth Symphony, which is so overshadowed by the Third and the Fifth. How can something come after the majestic Eroica or preface even the iconic four-note phrase of the Fifth? Orozco-Estrada gave the Fourth its own character. The Allegro ma non troppo took off at a wild speed, gathering momentum right up until the last note when Orozco-Estrada held on to the podium support with one hand while cutting the air with the other.

Houston Symphony has done some incredible things with great, big works like Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand, and most recently Mozart’s Requiem. Beethoven’s Symphonies are a natural fit for its skill set, and so I was disappointed that the orchestra started off sounding almost bored. By the end, though, this concert was exciting. Who knew that a little romance from Schumann could galvanize the mighty Beethoven?

OH’s Hänsel and Gretel will Knock Your Socks Off

Katie Dixon (Gretel), Jenni Bank (The Witch) and Hilary Ginther (Hansel). Deji Osinulu Photography

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.