Capsule Stage Reviews: Madame Butterfly, Peter Grimes, Richard III, Vanities

Madame Butterfly Is there any opera entrance more musically ravishing than the bridal procession of Butterfly? A 15-year-old geisha, she's been "sold" by marriage broker Goro to American naval lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, who's on a tour of duty in Nagasaki. Impatient, he has no intention of fully accepting Butterfly as his wife, and the ceremony's only a formality to get her into bed. Accompanied by her girlfriends as they walk up the hill to the couple's future house overlooking the harbor, Miss Butterfly is besotted with love and joy, singing that she's "the happiest girl in the whole world." Houston Grand Opera maestro Patrick Summers augments the shimmering radiance in Puccini's lush, exotic scene, while soprano Ana Maria Martinez, making her role debut as Cio-Cio-San, sounds fresh and ethereal as her silken voice sails over the orchestra, as if some fragrant breeze has ruffled the cherry blossoms. Although she lacks the full spinto power Butterfly needs for the later tragic scenes — for most of the opera, she stands near the footlights so her voice can adequately project — Martinez strikes a lovely figure in a kimono, and she's a convincing actress as the girl who must grow up much too fast. While not abundant, her voice is immensely pleasing and terrifically sensual. Making his HGO debut as cad Pinkerton, tenor Joseph Calleja never quite comes into his own or shows any real passion. He never falters — he hits all those treacherous high notes — but he never fully excites, either. Levi Hernandez as wise but useless Consul Sharpless, Lucy Schaufer as Butterfly's unfailing maid Suzuki, and Rodell Rosel as the opportunistic Goro come off best. After so much hype, the much vaunted Tony Award-winning team of director Michael Grandage, set and costume designer Christopher Oram and lighting designer Neil Austin — who all won 2010 accolades for John Logan's Red on Broadway — gives us a Butterfly with an empty, ho-hum, minimalist look. There's a sweeping walkway, with some decorative pine tree cutouts for Act I and gray, misty side panels for Act II, as well as a useless turntable and a shoji screen that characters keep sliding open and closed. The staging doesn't do the beloved work justice, a tragedy in itself. Still, if you haven't seen it, go. Through November 7. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. 713-228-6737. — DLG

Peter Grimes You can smell the sea in Benjamin Britten's first international opera hit (1945). It's as much a part of the drama as any character, and the tone poems that begin each scene are masterpieces of the orchestral repertoire, catching the indifferent sea at dawn, in raging storm, at twilight, in deep fog. Maestro Patrick Summers imbues each with potent majesty and drama. The moods match what's happening onstage to outsider Grimes — except in this production shanghaied from Australia and directed by Neil Armfield. Here, instead of the mighty sea of our imagination made visible by Britten's evocative aural painting, we have to endure the sight of choristers setting up chairs and tables for the subsequent scene. This ineffectual staging takes place inside what looks like a drab middle school auditorium, with a stage at one end and lots of doors on each side. It's a far cry from an English fishing village, and the place neither enlightens nor deepens Montagu Slater's impressionistic libretto. This busy interruption to Britten's glorious music is an outright affront and terribly disrespectful. But try telling that to an opera director. If you want to hear this opera with these particular singers — and you should — you've got to grit your teeth and close your eyes, for there isn't a better Grimes around these days than Anthony Dean Griffey. With his blond wispy hair, baby face and extra-large size, he has our attention and sympathy from his entrance. His Grimes is an overgrown child, and his traumatic outbursts and sadistic treatment of his boy apprentices, while never condoned, are somewhat ameliorated because he seems like he's still one of them. But he's definitely an outsider among this hardworking, hard-drinking Deadliest Catch-type community. The townsfolk are wonderfully limned: gruff but sympathetic Balstrode (Christopher Purves); opportunistic madam and worldly pub keeper Auntie (Meredith Arwady); aloof but observant Ned Keene (Liam Bonner). Pathetically in love with Grimes, local teacher Ellen Orford (Katie Van Kooten) enables him to hire another apprentice after the mysterious death of the first. She shares Grimes's dream of a safe, middleclass existence, but is powerless to help him attain it. Grimes may be a lost soul on land, but he sails mightily in Britten's salty masterpiece. Through November 12. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737.  — DLG

Richard III Shakespeare's first great success contains his first great character. The playwright wastes no time on reflection as he gets to the end of his long-running War of the Roses saga, and director Jack Young, with this vivid telling from the University of Houston School of Theatre & Dance, obliges the Bard with nonstop action. This is straightforward narrative, sharp as a knife edge, as the deformed, unloved Duke of Gloucester, described by various characters as a spider or toad, warns us (from the very first scene) of his nefarious intentions to be king. Simply stated, he will kill anyone who stands in his way. The remainder of the play is our witnessing of his will as the bodies pile up, until Richmond — a forebear of Elizabeth I, therefore a most worthy Tudor ancestor — stops the slaughter and slays the villain. But until then, what a villain! There's no one like him to be found anywhere in drama, and not many like him since. He takes such glee in his malevolence that he can woo a widow who spits in his face, turning on the charm until he beats her down. He schemes and uses other people's vanities to destroy them. He's fascinating. And so human. Stefan Espinosa gives Richard a rock star's glam twinkle, as light on his feet as an amoral Astaire. He cajoles with evil conviction and can smoothly lard a victim with oily flattery so they become ripe for roasting. Espinosa's adversaries, no match as characters, match him as actors, and they all give notable, revealing performances. Amelia Hammond as Elizabeth, who sees her two sons and heirs to the throne viciously assassinated on Richard's orders, gives this clever queen a regal bearing that suits her. Her battle of wits against Richard as he maneuvers to marry her surviving daughter is one of this play's most lively scenes. Dylan Paul, as confederate  Buckingham, is full of traitorous, manly bluster; Melissa Graves, as duped Anne, is righteous fury turned defeated resignation; Lauren Ballard, as prophetic old Queen Margaret, isn't nearly old enough to spout such curses, but she spouts them convincingly; Bobby Labartino, as hired killer Tyrrell, would be a proud addition to any godfather's goon squad. The production pays its respects to pop iconography (video screens on the parapets) while using telling medieval touches (costumes and gothic arches) to remind us where we are. Through November 7. Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, Entrance #16 off Cullen Blvd., 713-743-2929. — DLG

Vanities When Jack Heifner's serio-comedy reigned off-Broadway from 1976-79, sisterhood was at its zenith. His three-woman show gave a distinctive voice to female baby boomers. The work, now playing at Theatre Southwest, follows lifelong friends Mary (Chelsea Curto), Joanne (Monica Lynn Passley) and Kathy (Kelly Walker) through high school, college and adult life. Friends forever, at least at the start as eager cheerleaders, the three share dreams and hopes until their life choices pull them apart. Mary the rebel can't wait to leave town; Joanne the conformist agonizes about not being popular; and Kathy the leader begins to show cracks in her A-type facade. The end of college brings a freewheeling trip to Europe for Mary, marriage plans for Joanne and an uninspiring teaching job for Kathy. In adulthood, Mary is sophisticated and bitchy as only a liberated New York porn-art gallery owner can be (and having an affair with Joanne's husband), Joanne is as happy-wappy as ever with her Stepford life in the suburbs, and Kathy, unsatisfied with herself and terribly lost, is being kept by a married man (Heifner insinuates that the sugar daddy is also Joanne's husband). They haven't seen each other in years, so why Kathy feels compelled to orchestrate this reunion is a mystery that's not answered. Laced with alcohol and years of regret and buried jealousy, the three estranged friends turn bitter and sour, as does the play after such an open-hearted beginning. Director Lisa Schofield sneaks in the tension and dark clouds until they're inevitable, which allows the three good actors plenty of room to explore and discover telling bits of business that go deeper than Heifner's surface observations. A wonderful touch is keeping the actors visible at their vanity tables throughout the intermissions, as they preen, study, daydream and don their characters, putting on wigs and costumes. Through November 13. 8944-A Clarkcrest, 713-661-9505. — DLG


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