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Capsule Reviews

Our critics weigh in on local theater

La Cenerentola The lightning of inspiration that struck Gioacchino Rossini for his greatest works (Barber of Seville, Italian Girl in Algiers, Tancredi, William Tell, Stabat Mater) missed the prolific composer when he dashed off his version of the fairy tale "Cinderella" in 1817. This "dramatic comedy," replete with his patented opera buffa patter songs (those florid, gymnastic feats of vocal coloratura for all principals) and a bright, easy manner of execution, just doesn't have his complete heart in it. Houston Grand Opera, though, has resupplied all the magic and fun with its phenomenally inventive staging and exemplary cast. The staging, from Comediants, the Spanish avant-garde theater group, has a colorful comic-book style, with Mondrian-like bold, geometric patterns of color and light, and an effervescent sense of delight in the wonders of stagecraft. The audience-friendly sextet of mice who double as stagehands and sympathetic pals to the downtrodden Cinderella character, Angelina, stop the show with their sublime antics. The cast sing like gods, especially mezzo Joyce DiDonato, the former HGO studio artist who has triumphed throughout the international opera circuit in this most demanding role. Luscious of voice, with a pyrotechnic technique for days, she sings the hell out of it. Joyce DiDonato, the world is your oyster. A complete musical artist is so rare that it takes only one hand to count them all -- here's the opportunity to experience the real thing. Through February 11. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-OPERA.

L'Elisir d'Amore Gaetano Donizetti's bright, charm-filled 1832 opera L'Elisir d'Amore("The Love Potion") suffuses the tiny stage at Opera in the Heights with the radiant warmth of the Italian countryside in the summer. With multiple thanks to the vibrant young cast and the import of Italian director Isadora Bucciarelli, who keeps everyone on track, this production is the most completely satisfying of OH's in many a season. Country bumpkin Nemorino (tenor Benjamin Bunsold) loves rich Adina (soprano Dalma Boronkai Rodriguez), who loves him too, but won't show it, playing hard to get and flirting with Sgt. Belcore (baritone Marcos Antonio Sola), who's just marched into town. When traveling snake-oil salesman Dr. Dulcamara (bass Jorge Ocasio) wows the rustics with fake magic potions and elixirs, Nemorino spends all his cash to buy a bottle, thinking this will make Adina fall in love with him. All it does is get him drunk and temporarily chases Adina into Belcore's egotistic arms. Naturally, this being the epitome of romantic light comedy, complications ensue, but the happy ending is always in sight. Donizetti supplies sparkling musical beams of sunlight, spinning gold from this simple, enchanting tale. The young cast delivers everything that Donizetti requires -- especially Rodriguez, with her supple and sure coloratura, and Bunsold, with his comedic, ardently sung puppy dog attitude. Conductor William Weibel lends sprightly glee, while director Bucciarelli keeps the action light, frothy and truthful. Thoroughly enjoyable, this operatic gem will keep us warm and toasty during our all-too-brief winter. Through February 3. 1703 Heights Blvd., 713-861-5303.

Faust Houston Grand Opera amply fills the Wortham with Faust, Charles Gounod's 1859 operatic adaptation of Goethe's mammoth drama about doddering alchemist Faust selling his soul to the devil for a chance at youth and love. In Francesca Zambello's intentionally old-fashioned staging, Faust's soaring lyricism and grand opera passions are intact (except for the "Walpurgis Night" bacchanal, which, at 25 minutes, has been excised). International superstar bass Samuel Ramey, who for decades has owned the copyright to all satanic roles in the repertory, has no peer here. While his powerful voice isn't as nimble as it once was, he nonetheless dominated the stage with effortless panache, dramatic insight and joy of performing. This devil is a charmer. Georgian soprano Tamar Iveri is blessed by a singularly beautiful, velvety voice and the dramatic instincts of Bernhardt. She breezed through Marguerite's famous "Jewel Song" with youthful exuberance and later, when the opera turned somber after her seduction and abandonment by Faust, indelibly impressed as the mad murderess who is granted divine salvation. Tenor William Burden is a most winsome young Faust. Celluloid handsome, he's a looker in tights, and his bright, clear tone easily navigated his signature aria, "Salut! Demeure." He just needs a bit more oomph in his characterization to avoid getting upstaged by the dry ice, the rambunctious children and that crafty old devil in the pantaloons. Through February 3. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-OPERA.

Moon for the Misbegotten Dissolute, drunk and dying, Jim Tyrone (James Black) lies asleep with his head against the ample breasts of earthy Josie Hogan (Annalee Jefferies). She cradles the spent, passed-out man in her arms on the back steps of the hardscrabble Hogan farmhouse. All is quiet as the dawn light filters over the Alley stage, rendered in its pastel glory by lighting wizard Jennifer Tipton. This still-life from Eugene O'Neill's magnificent Moon for the Misbegotten -- one of the great stage images -- is but one further instance of O'Neill's mastery of theatrical structure, form and mise en scène. Seared by his despicable memories of being unable to grieve for his dead mother and his profligate, meaningless life, Jim has asked for and been granted forgiveness by the only woman he truly loves -- tough, swaggering earth-mother Josie. With her reputation as the town slut rendered fiction by her own moonlight confession, she mothers Jim in her arms, realizing that he has never had love to give anyone. Inside, he's already dead. Moon was O'Neill's last completed play, finished in 1943 before his ongoing, debilitating illness stopped his ability to write. The dialogue is scrubbed clean, then forged into simple, plain speak that frequently soars into magisterial flights of poetry. Alley veteran Black plays Jim with his patented intensity, but there's a slight hollowness to his characterization that he can't shake. O'Neill throws the play to Josie, and Jefferies runs with the torch as if leading a celebration. There's drama in Black, but there's poetry in Jefferies. Through February 4. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.

Morning's at Seven Paul Osborn's 1939 play is set in a small town where the characters live within walking distance of each other. Four sisters and their husbands, sons and new niece-in-law make small talk with and about each other, and that takes up the bulk of the action. When the play is done well, these characters embrace a universal humanity, much like those in Thornton Wilder's Our Town. But the deft touch required to bring this lovely valentine to life has mostly eluded this revival at Playhouse 1960, where the gentle subtext of resignation and paths not followed has either been forgotten or never considered. Only two of the characters, scheming Cora (Cora Byers), who wants to move into a new house on the corner to be rid of her live-in sister Aaronetta, and emancipated Esther (Tess Wells), who defies her snob of a husband (a fine Jack Dunlop) to spend time with her family (whom he describes with relish as "morons"), make an impression as real-life portrayals. Besides these two, only Dunlop and Janice Keyes, as eternally optimistic Myrtle, seem to have read the play. The others fumble for their characters without supplying any inner life at all, reading their lines as if still at the point of an early run-through. There's not much thought given to the physical production, either. The lighting doesn't delineate morning from evening, and the dining-room chairs set out in the backyard are unexplained, as is the hideous makeup on husband Theodore, whose "old age" looks like he's been attacked by wayward grease pencils out for revenge. Through February 17. 6814 Gant, 281-58-STAGE.

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