Capsule Stage Reviews: Don Giovanni, Knock Me a Kiss, The Lion in Winter, Macbeth

Don Giovanni Houston Grand Opera shoots off fireworks in a return of the classically elegant Gören Järvefelt production of Mozart and da Ponte's masterpiece Don Giovanni (1787). With a cast of young, energetic and beautifully voiced singers who know their way around the stage as well as they do through this difficult but masterful score, Mozart sparkles and elevates as intended. Mozart called Giovanni an opera buffa, and da Ponte labeled it "comic drama," and there's certainly lots of ironic fun in it, among the wailings and revenge so gloriously sung by the women seduced by this unrepentant profligate. Not least, of course, is the Don himself. Unlike Donna Elvira, who's conflicted in her love/hate toward her defiler, we, seduced by Mozart's music and da Ponte's wicked wit, are utterly charmed by this cad. He's one of opera's thoroughly bad boys, and we can't help ourselves in admiring his audacity, depravity and chutzpah. Austrian baritone Adrian Eröd, lithe and agile, sings a superb Giovanni, rich with tone and utterly believable in unmatched debauchery. He makes an effortless seducer, playful and terribly dangerous. Bass baritone Kyle Ketelsen, as buffo servant Leporello, matches him, a spot-on second banana. He whizzes through the tongue-twisting presto passages with alarming ease. American soprano Rachel Willis-Sörensen, a former HGO studio artist, as the perpetual griever Donna Anna, amazes with a powerhouse voice that rings with both velvet smoothness and steely strength. Russian soprano Veronika Dzhioeva, turns the pathetic Donna Elvira into a nearly sympathetic role by the virtue of her dark and dreamy voice. Abandoned by the Don, she trails after him, first seeking revenge, then flipping into acceptance. She wants this cad back. Her voice says it all. Tenor Joel Prieto, as puppy dog Don Ottavio, glides through his two demanding arias with amazing breath control and sweet, sweet tone. His plangent singing conveys innocence and a young man's ardor. Zesty peasants Zerlina and Masetto, foils for the Don, are portrayed with earthy fire by Swedish soprano Malin Christensson and American bass baritone Michael Sumuel. American bass Morris Robinson, appearing concurrently as stoic Joe in Showboat, is terrifyingly commanding as the living statue of the Commendatore. He booms out his pronouncements of doom with thunderous clarity and chilling finality. HGO supplies the vocal fireworks in a surfeit of riches, supplemented by the exemplary conducting of legendary Trevor Pinnock, one of music's leading authorities on early music. He keeps this work flowing with grace and power, letting it breathe where necessary or pant with abandon when appropriate. Mozart's musical last days of sexual outlaw Don Giovanni is a pinnacle of operatic art. Come to think about it, it's the pinnacle of any art. HGO does it proud. Through February 10. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737. — DLG

Knock Me a Kiss The social apex of the Harlem Renaissance was the marriage in 1928 of the poet Countee Cullen to Yolande Du Bois, daughter of famed educator W.E.B. Du Bois, and it forms the basis for this family drama. The Du Bois family is beautifully etched by playwright Charles Smith — the patriarch is played by Wayne DeHart in a subtle personification that captures quiet authority and a courtly demeanor that treasures civility. Yolande is played by Michelle Elaine, and her grace, beauty, poise and emotional range are captivating. Nina, the wife of Dr. Du Bois and the mother of Yolande, is played by Detria Ward, so gifted an actress that every gesture becomes interesting. They inhabit a charmed world, financially secure yet curiously formal. In contrast, bandleader Jimmy Lunceford is brash, irreverent and sensual, with a swagger in his walk and a song on his lips — no wonder Yolande is drawn to him, as is Yolande's friend Lenora. Jason E. Carmichael plays Jimmy brilliantly, creating a complex character with rough charm and an appealing energy. As Lenora, An'tick Von Morphxing brings comic timing and a gutsy, full-blown personality to a role demanding it. Playwright Smith is masterful but somehow fails with Countee Cullen — we never see Cullen's power as a poet, just a deceiver and a weakling. Mirron Willis plays Cullen; Willis is an experienced Shakespearean actor, but doesn't find the inner authority. The play is rich in humor and filled with grace, beauty and poetry everywhere — except for the poet. The comedic drama is wonderfully directed by Chuck Smith; the pace and timing are exemplary. The superb acting, gripping story, wonderful comic moments and the vigor of authenticity make this must-see theater. Through February 24 at The Ensemble Theatre,3535 Main, 713-520-0055. — JJT

The Lion in Winter King Henry II of England is celebrating Christmas and is joined by his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, by the visiting King of France and by Henry's three sons, each scheming to succeed him on the throne. The play begins simply with 50-year-old Henry and his mistress, Alais, 23, but as Eleanor enters, we are swept into a vortex of deceit, lies, double-dealing, knives drawn and sheathed, and vanquished protagonists seizing new stratagems to reverse defeat. Heady indeed, and a delight for the ear and for the eye, for the actors come alive with excitement. The intellectual duel between Henry and Eleanor is the heart of the play, and Steven Fenley as Henry reveals a forceful personality, a blustering authority, and a love for Alais and for his youngest son, John. Pamela Vogel plays Eleanor with vivacious energy, a quicksilver mind and great emotional depth. Matt Hune plays John in a compelling portrait, adding shadings of charm and appeal. Matt Lents plays young King Philip and is superb in his climactic scene with Henry. Seán Patrick Judge plays Richard, the tested and brave warrior, and brings a stalwart presence and commanding voice. Joshua Estrada plays Geoffrey, the middle son, coping well with an underwritten role. As Alais, Caroline Menefee has the youthful beauty required and a gradually stiffening spine. The striking set is by Trey Otis, the magnificent costumes are by Adam Alonso and the admirable lighting design is by Eric Marsh. Director Julia Traber has created a powerful ensemble of complex and fascinating individuals. Clicking on all cylinders and with a driving force and sharp wit, this is a dynamite production — see it to savor how good theater can be. Through February 17. Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline Rd., 281-583-7573. — JJT

Macbeth Giuseppe Verdi's adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy of ambition and blood lust is his first true masterpiece. Innovative in scoring and psychologically apt, with a literate and faithful libretto by Francesco Piavi, Macbeth was so new in its sound, its structure, its novel handling of operatic conventions and its rightness to the Bard that, while it was a success, it was never an audience favorite. It took 100 years for the work to be recognized as the touchstone of Italian opera. Opera in the Heights presents a chillingly sung production of the "Scottish play." Director Lynda McKnight gives it a Mad Max look, setting all the revenge and killing against an apocalyptic background of battlefield encampment that does Verdi little harm. In her leather, Lady Macbeth morphs into a dominatrix Brünnhilde, adding a provocative layer of kink to the dysfunctional couple. The witches are as "weird" as Shakespeare describes, dressed in stylish '60s couture with Haight-Ashbury wigs in kaleidoscopic Day-Glo. During the cauldron scene, the witches inject the king with bubbling green elixir, which sends him hallucinating. The lighting goes all trippy, and TV screens around the stage broadcast the parade of haunted kings. The singing is impressive down the line, with the chorus shining in the famous "Patria oppressa," in which the Scots lament the sad state of their country. Argentinean baritone Gustavo Ahualli, as Macbeth, has one hell of a beautiful Verdian voice, full, rich and ripe with machismo. His characterization, however, doesn't match his plangent voice. There's no chemistry with his gorgon wife, and for Shakespeare's grisly tale to really work, these two have got to be partners in crime, equals in evil. Soprano Rosa D'Imperio, as Lady Macbeth, has a name that says it all. She has a steamroller of a voice, big and lush. She practically let off a sonic boom during her opening aria. "I will inflame your cold heart," she boasts in a showstopping burst of vocal gymnastics. D'Imperio blew the roof off Lambert Hall, and then wisely toned everything down afterward. Bass Aaron Sonensen delivered Banco's deep-dish forebodings with consummate control, as did tenor Jason Wickson as Macduff, whose family is murdered on orders from Macbeth in his unstoppable quest for power. Wickson possesses resonant, full-out bel canto style. Verdi amplifies Shakespeare with volcanic fury and unrelenting wickedness. The sublime poetry is there, too — it's all in the music. Don't let this exciting production pass you by. Through February 10. (Ruby cast: Feb 2, 7 and 9; Emerald cast: February 1, 8 and 10.) 1703 Heights Blvd., 713-861-5303. — DLG


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