Smashing Third Act: Rigoletto at HGO
Photo by Lynn Lane


Verdi’s Rigoletto is built to be great. Love, revenge, and murder supported by an expert score that anticipates every nuance on stage makes this opera not only beloved, but practically fool-proof. Houston Grand Opera’s Rigoletto, a co-production with The Dallas Opera, leans on the inherent strength of this opera a bit too much. While the singing and set elicited a shrug, a breathtaking third act finally showed HGO’s talent for Verdi.

As if in a whirlwind of genius, Verdi wrote this opera in forty days. Knowing how successful it was going to be, he even withheld the famous “La Donna e Mobile” aria until right before the performance so that it wouldn’t get leaked. And, as he predicted, it blew his audience away at the 1851 premiere in Venice.

The plot is timeless: A barefaced womanizer, the Duke of Mantua runs through as many women in a day as most people do cups of coffee. One woman, after being tossed out by the Duke, dies of shame, and her father flies in a rage to confront the Duke. He is, instead, greeted by the teasing Rigoletto, and the father hurls a curse on his head. The curse works through the second act, and at the close, Rigoletto is holding the dead body of his own daughter—a scene that rarely fails to evoke sensational agony.

Whether due to the cold snap or the quick casting change, the singing was average. Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny, in the title role of Rigoletto, struggled a bit to project. As Kurwenal in Tristan and Isolde last season his voice was an absolute force, but as Rigoletto, his voice and acting came off as stuck. Due to personal reasons, Elizabeth Zharoff was replaced by Uliana Alexyuk as the angelic Gilda. Alexyuk captured the purity of Gilda well—a soprano with a unique bell-like quality—but apart from some supreme high notes, her notes were often flat and her acting without animation.

The exception was Stephen Costello, who ruled brazenly as the Duke of Mantua with a tenor voice of steel. Normally, when a handsome but unprincipled Duke tries the pick-up line “Love brings us closer to angels,” it’s going to end with a drink in his face. Not so with Costello’s voice, which has a golden timbre hard to resist.

The set was underwhelming. An accordion frame-work of squares set the stage. A two-story box rolled in from one side in the second act as Rigoletto’s apartment and from the opposite side in Act Three as the assassin Sparafucile’s shack. The lighting shifted from dim blues, yellows, and reds unremarkably. The most stunning visual effect came in the first few minutes when, during the overture, a shockingly red box opened up in the middle of the stage where Rigoletto was leering at himself in a giant mirror. It set the whole mood of the opera—a violent glimpse of inner consciousness that comes to fruition, finally, in Rigoletto’s closing lines “weeping my life’s blood behind the jester’s mask.”

The last scenes, set off by ominous chimes, revitalized this opera. Conductor Patrick Summers consistently proved his expertise throughout, but here especially, when the emotional mood is already so delicate but charged. When Rigoletto dragged the body bag across the stage, still ignorant his daughter had taken the place of the Duke inside, the chorus hummed that chromatic line so eerily alongside the strings in the same melodic arc that I actually shivered. Whether it was Verdi’s initial genius or the work of this production, the third act—exceptional, despairing, ethereal—was absolutely smashing.

You can catch Houston Grand Opera’s production of Rigoletto January 24 – February 9. For tickets and more info, check out their website.

HGO’s Aida: Exquisite Singing, Geometric Dying

Verdi built balance into Aida. The four-act plot balances with the steady musical structure; exoticism miraculously balances with the universal trope of love. Houston Grand Opera celebrates Verdi’s bicentennial this year, opening its 2013-2014 season with Verdi’s beloved opera. Stunning singing battling against an overpowering set, though, proved that great parts do not always make a synchronized whole.

Aida –a co-production with English National Opera, San Francisco Opera, and Norwegian National Opera–begins HGO’s 59th season that remembers not only Verdi’s bicentennial, but also Wagner’s.  Das Rheingold, the first installment of the Ring Cycle, closes out the season that promises some rewarding Weinberg and Sondheim in between. Strauss’ Die Fledermaus follows most closely, opening October 25.

The triumph of this production was Soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska who makes her HGO debut in the role of Aida. “O patria mia,” her big aria in Act III, inspired an enthusiastic chorus of bravos from the audience. In the aria, Aida laments the loss of her country and contemplates death in the Nile. It ranges from powerfully loud notes to whisper soft phrases—both difficult extremes to successfully pull off. Not only is it technically impressive, but the aria is built to be emotionally fraught. Although the key is F major, Verdi’s orchestration creates a “false tonic” of A minor. The height of the vocal line is a high C. Monastyrska’s vocal instrument proved its versatility here. Hers is a voice with breadth. She can achieve emotional intensity in any range, at any dynamic; that said, Monastyrska won me over (and, it seemed the whole house), when her voice was at its softest.

Joining Monastyrska in vocal excellence was Tenor Riccardo Massi as the dreamy Radames and Mezzo-Soprano Dolora Zajick as the jealous Amneris. Massi is a rare combination of voice and looks—both supremely perfect for the role of the Egyptian champion who inspired two princesses to fall madly in love with him. The timbre of his tenor voice is far from thin—a tricky thing to achieve when the score insists on such high notes. Consistently, Massi’s swarthy voice reached the height of scales easily. Zajick, in the role of Amneris, realized the complex character of a woman who inspires both sneering and sympathy. The ending relies on Amneris, the grieving lover outside the tomb, to bring closure to a tragic double-death. Equipped with a full mezzo instrument, Zajick brought the curtain down with class.

Mere weeks before Aida premiered in Cairo, Egypt on December 24, 1871, Verdi found himself at the first Italian production of Wagner’s Lohengrin in Bologna. While he enjoyed the prelude, musicologist Julian Budden writes that Verdi found much of it excessive from the slow-paced dialogue to the sustained pedal points. He was understandably upset when critics compared his operas to Wagner’s. After Aida’s premiere, one critic wrote “to deny that Verdi has been influenced by Richard Wagner is like denying light to the sun.” Verdi obsessively set to manage subsequent productions, making sure the instruments and sets adhered to his original directions—surely misinterpretation was the reason he had egregiously been compared to Wagner.

Yet, Wagner’s influence persists in HGO’s production. Given how much Verdi worried about the set, I imagine he would have balked at what Set and Costume Designer Zandra Rhodes conceived for this production. Rhodes captured an unfortunate side of Wagner’s totalizing theory for opera in the set: an obsessive affinity for triangles, hieroglyphics a four-year-old might have drawn, and creations pulled straight from Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!. I couldn’t look away, but I wanted to. The pyramid-like triangles persisted as though someone were afraid the audience might forget the opera was set in Egypt. This continued through to the end when a series of triangles forming the tomb actually closed in to signal suffocation for Radames and Aida, who weren’t the only ones feeling like Desdemona in a geometric death. The color palette could have been brilliant—a bright blue, gold, and orange appeared like sigh of relief in a simple gradient screen in the last act (see photograph below by Lynn Lane). Though the backdrop was framed by those pesky triangles, it hinted at what this set could have achieved. With such strong singers and Verdi’s masterly score, this production didn’t need flashy sets.

Abounding in symmetry, Aida balances on a delicate operatic scale. The phrases are even eight and sixteen bar passages without much leeway; the libretto of Aida’s striking Act III aria is two-fold, breaking with the traditional couplet writing and instead returning in rounds to “O patria mia.” A critic who saw the original Cairo production wrote “No one who concerns himself seriously with art has failed to notice in Aida a strange duality.” It is, then, incredible to overturn this inherent balance. Aida’s renown relies on its magnificent music. A pity this production’s overworked sets tip the scale to outweigh Verdi’s brilliant composition.

Houston Grand Opera’s Aida runs Oct 18 – Nov 9. For tickets and more information, visit its website here.

Photograph by Lynn Lane
My favorite triangle, though there were many. Photo by Lynn Lane.


Make Way for the Orchestra! La Traviata at Opera in the Heights

Behind every great opera is a superb orchestra. Wagner envisioned a totalizing opera space in which the audience couldn’t see the mechanisms behind the art and hid the orchestra away in a pit. And in most opera houses, the orchestra remains concealed in some dark, (sometimes unsavory) underground space. But at Opera in the Heights, the orchestra resides in plain view right off the side of the stage. Beyond the pleasure of being able to see the timpanist swing wonderful round strokes, this arrangement also highlights one of Oh!’s greatest strengths in Verdi’s La Traviata: a superb orchestra.

La Traviata marks the beginning of an ambitious season for Oh! with two Donizetti operas—Don Pasquale and Lucia di Lammermoor—and the great Mozart opera Don Giovanni. With Artistic Director Enrique Carreón-Robledo at the helm, it promises to be a musical delight. His effusive enthusiasm came across in the quality of the orchestra. It leaned into emotional passages and tore through fast arias unlike any previous Oh! production I’ve heard.

As brilliantly as the orchestra sparkled in this production, though, Soprano Julia Ebner, singing the part of Violetta in the Emerald Cast, would have charmed and inspired even if she had been entirely alone on stage. Ebner made her Oh! debut last season as Juliette in Romeo et Juliette, and she is a welcomed return in this part. The great test for any soprano in this role is “Sempre libera” at the close of Act One. After a round of serious singing, Ebner floated over the vocal hurdles with true agility. On top of being technically impressive, Ebner captured the tragedy in Violetta’s character beautifully, directing lyrical lines instinctively with nimble dynamic control.

First performed in Venice in 1853, La Traviata has become an opera staple—hugely popular and lavishly performed. Its frequent performances don’t seem excessive, though, in large part because of the prepossessing music. Opera scholar George Martin remarks part of why La Traviata’s popularity outdoes  Aida, La Bohème or Carmen is because it calls for a smaller cast and orchestra and is best heard in a smaller opera house. Oh! captures an intimacy that a larger opera house would swallow.

Oh!’s orchestra masters the music and does so in the uniquely intimate space of their hall—it’s a win-win for this Verdi opera.  With only four first violinists, it is difficult to manage clear rising scales and match high pitches, especially when passages are paralleled in octaves by the second violins and flutes. But last night’s musicians, led by concertmaster John Cramer, made this feat look easy. The clarinet solo in Act Two was exquisite and full of the overwhelming emotion vivid throughout the libretto and score, adding, almost inconceivably, to Violetta’s heartbreaking plea “Love me as much as I love you!” The finale in Act Two—a rousing number with a full stage of remorse, lament, love, and duels—came together seamlessly because of the solid orchestral foundation lining up all the independent parts.

Stage Director Lynda McKnight chose to set this production in present-day Paris. The stage was a modern silver and white, the costumes were replete with an “I heart Paris” T-shirt and Converse shoes, and the pajamas Violetta died in were a simple cream set you might find at Target. Without the period-piece guise, the music was ever more highlighted as timeless. The violin solo in Violetta’s last living moments seemed to weep—and the audience could look over and see the bow strokes as if the violin, too, were another voice in the opera.

Verdi’s La Traviata runs until Oct 13 with Donizetti’s Don Pasquale on its heels opening November 15. For more info, check out Opera in the Heights’ website.