Capsule Stage Reviews: Aida, Blithe Spirit, The Crucible, Death and the Maiden, Die Fledermaus, Venus in Fur, Veronica's Room, Blood Wedding

 Aida Filled with DeMille spectacle, scene-chewing passion and sublime music, Giuseppe Verdi's Aida (1871), one of grand opera's grandest, evokes the moonlit Nile, sumptuous palaces, gloomy temple sanctums, a split-level set that reveals claustrophobia below and splendor above (Verdi's own design), and, most famous of all, a majestic triumphal scene that trumps any parade by Barnum & Bailey. You can almost see the poster: "a cast of thousands!" Aida also covers all the emotions — jealousy, hubris, revenge, patriotism, love, all in capital letters. It is Verdi's masterpiece (if you could choose one among so many). Houston Grand Opera reprises the lame Zandra Rhodes production from 2006/7 with its cartoon sets and costumes straight out of a Maria Montez Republic B-picture. Pushed to the front of the stage, the action is flat and lifeless as a bas relief, although the Lion King-like elephant is imaginative, if derivative, and the lapis-colored stage "legs" that open and close to form pyramid shapes emit a nice Egyptian vibe. The whole thing needs more sand, more grit. The flatness infects the cast, except for internationally acclaimed, volcanic-voiced American mezzo Dolora Zajick, the foremost interpreter of Amneris, the Egyptian princess racked by jealousy. She could sing this role in her sleep. Her commanding voice is one of the wonders of the world, rich and plummy through all ranges, yet she can float a pianissimo with seductive softness. The other sides of the operatic love triangle, enslaved Ethiopian princess Aida (Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastryska) and Radames (Italian tenor Riccardo Massi), the enemy Egyptian commander with whom she's in love, are on shakier ground. This couple is wooden as a mummy case. Maestro Antonino Fogliani elicits ringing fanfares and ethereal melody out of HGO's orchestra. The chorus is best of all, whispering priestly invocations with deep-dish mystery or declaiming in triumph while the faux elephant lumbers on. November 1, 3 and 9. Houston Grand Opera, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737. — DLG

Blithe Spirit Noël Coward's clever Blithe Spirit (1941) is all wisp, seeing as how one of the four principal characters is a ghost and another will soon become one. Mystery writer Charles (Steven Fenley) needs research for his next book and asks local psychic Madame Arcati (Marcy Bannor) to perform a séance. Neither he nor current wife Ruth (Lisa Thomas-Morrison) believe in such mumbo-jumbo, but they humor the odd old lady, until she goes into her trance and conjures Charles's first wife, Elvira (Lauren Dolk). Of course, only Charles can see her. Need I add that comic complications ensue, since henpecked Charles is now besieged by two competing harpies: Ruth thinks he's delusional, while Elvira attempts to seduce him back into her ectoplasmic arms. Texas Rep's production is a delight from the first glance of the Alley-esque, detailed and cozy Kent country home designed by Trey Otis to the delightfully appropriate musical numbers, played during the scene changes, from English dance band master Ray Noble. The ensemble does a spirited turn at keeping Coward bouncy and full of wicked glee. During one of their frequent arguments, Elvira describes Charles as having "seedy gravitas" and looking like a "wounded puppy." As deliciously portrayed by the exceptional Mr. Fenley, this is Charles to a T, a Saint Bernard in tuxedo. Exasperated at being told he's drunk by no-nonsense Ruth, Fenley blusters magnificently, yet turns all soft and mushy when seduced by Elvira. Looking like a specter of Carole Lombard at her prime, Dolk, a siren on a mission, absolutely beguiles as she swirls through the house creating mayhem. Driven to distraction by Charles's constant protestations of sanity, Thomas-Morrison is a revelation as cold, rational Ruth. When Charles suggests that maybe Elvira should stay around — considering Arcati doesn't really know how to exorcize her — Ruth explodes in perfectly contained ire, played by Thomas-Morrison with wonderful nuance. She's so convincing as this privileged lady of the manor, I think I saw steam pour out of her ears. Coward's delightful comedy, nimbly directed by Scott Carr, may not make you believe in spirits, but you'll wonder afterward what you'd do if an ex-lover came back into your life. That's a haunting thought. Through November 10. Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline, 281-583-7573. — DLG

The Crucible The Houston Family Arts Center tackles Arthur Miller's masterpiece The Crucible, in which Miller re-creates the Salem witch trials of 1692 and 1693, when mass hysteria led toward the imprisonment and execution of innocent citizens. Bryan Reilly plays John Proctor, and finds his humanity, honesty and caring. Katrina Ellsworth plays his wife Elizabeth, capturing her steely determination yet letting us see her love for John. Children and young women have been dancing in the woods, perhaps naked, and one child is in bed, stricken. Investigations focus on the possibility of witchcraft, and Abigail Williams (the excellent Kristen Raney) claims to have seen the devil, spearheading an investigation, as she accuses others. The narrative moves to the home of John Proctor, then to a judicial hearing room and finally to the Salem jail. There is a cast of 20, and Miller has etched each character with skill and detail. The wittiest role is that of Giles Corey, a successful farmer amusingly down-to-earth, deftly portrayed by Gene Griesbach. Entering late is Deputy-Governor Danforth, played by Jeff Brown in a commanding performance that lights up the stage. Olivia Clayton is distinctive as Mary Warren, torn between truth and survival, and J. Blanchard as the Rev. John Hale, whose faith and self-respect are undone by unfolding events. Through November 10. Houston Family Arts Center, 10760 Grant Rd., 281-685-6374. — JJT

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