Capsule Stage Reviews: The Elixir of Love, Lohengrin, Mary Poppins

The Elixir of Love It takes over an hour and a half before the magic potion finally takes effect at Houston Grand Opera and Gaetano Donizetti's sparkling opera starts to fizz. We have to wait until nearly the end of the opera for director Annabel Arden to stop being obtrusive and allow the principal characters, Adina and Nemorino, to sing their two arias without distraction and unnecessary directorial comment. Pining away for Adina (soprano Ekaterina Siurina), who's been playing hard to get, Nemorino (tenor John Osborn) thinks he has a chance with her because he's seen a tiny tear fall from her eyes, as he plaintively sings the world-famous tenor aria "Una Furtiva Lagrima." It's a lovely, singular moment, all too rare in this badly thought-out production. After Nemorino finishes his aria, Adina relents and sings of her heartfelt feelings for him. She has bought back his enlistment papers so he can stay in the village among those who love him. "Prendi," she says simply; "take back" the papers. The scene is the heart of the opera, and the work comes alive simply through the beautiful melody and its dulcet singing. But Arden doesn't trust the opera to sing for itself, and keeps intruding everywhere. She douses Felice Romani's soufflé-light plot under thick interpretive goo that takes the fun right out of it, even adding an unnecessary mime role. Arden allows this most sunny of operas to be played against a somber black wall where not even the sky can intrude; may she stay far away from HGO in the future. Through November 9. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. 713-228-6737. — DLG

Lohengrin The magic inherent in Richard Wagner's first international hit, Lohengrin (1850), is apparent at Houston Grand Opera. Under the assured baton of maestro Patrick Summers, the ethereal, earthly and demonic glories that this work revels in are newly revealed. The familiar motifs and signature tunes, like the "Bridal Chorus" or the "Approach of the Swan," sound fresh and revived. This is Summers's first foray into Wagner's rich territory, and he's born for it — we eagerly await his next venture. The cast is impeccable in this medieval, pagan fable about what is good, a tale of a damsel in distress rescued by her dream lover. Although Simon O'Neill doesn't possess the plumiest tenor, his reedy, nasal quality bespeaks Lohengrin's celestial heritage and duty, and he sails through the difficult role without a sweat. With her thick and creamy soprano, Adrianne Pieczonka makes an ideal Elsa, the ultimate damsel in distress who dreams of a champion to rescue her but must not ask his name — guess what she does? The evil duo of Telramund and wife Ortrud could not be better sung than by Richard Paul Fink and Christine Goerke, who stops the show with her demonic credo, wherein she summons the old gods to destroy the saintly Lohengrin and bedevil the innocent Elsa. The flaw in all this aural gold is the eyesore of a co-production with Grand Théâtre de Genève, which sets this most mystical of operas in what looks like Mussolini's state library. (In Wagner's original design, Lohengrin is so pure, he arrives accompanied by a swan. Needless to say, the swan doesn't appear in this production.) The soldiers of Brabant carry Uzis, while the ladies wear '30s dresses with peasant-like headscarves. While battling the forces of pagan idolatry, Italian neo-fascism is awfully passé, don't you think? Fortunately, the beauties of the score will not be marred by the silly look. Thank you, maestro. Through November 15. Wortham Theater, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737. — DLG

Mary Poppins Long before spry chimney sweep Bert (a sprightly Gavin Lee) tap-dances upside down around the proscenium, we've been absolutely bewitched by this fantastically theatrical production from the Disney juggernaut (Beauty and the Beast, Lion King, Little Mermaid, Tarzan), presented by Broadway Across America. The world's most famous "practically perfect" nanny (a radiantly prim Ashley Brown) gets a show she can be bloody proud of. There is wizardry in spades on view, thanks to the amazingly fluid direction and choreographed staging by co-directors Richard Eyre and Matthew Bourne, abetted by the dazzling animated sets and costumes by Bob Crowley. Even the songs newly added to the production, written by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, sound as if they've recently been found in the trunk of movie composers the Sherman Brothers. They all have the right flair and English-music-hall tone. The audience wants to relive the Disney movie and, quite simply, will not be disappointed in this transfer to live action. To be fair, one might miss the original's dancing penguins and runaway carousel horses, but there's so much here that's clever and spellbinding all on its own terms that a lack of a few cinematic special effects will not dampen anyone's enthusiasm. In all likelihood, you'll be thoroughly amazed at how much of the movie's flavor comes across. I don't think Miss Poppins would object to a healthy pruning, though. We know how much she likes things "spick and span," and a few of the littlest audience members might still be awake at the end if some of "Daddy's banking problems" were trimmed. But by all means, everyone should stay awake for Mary's spectacular goodbye — a jaw-dropping finale like none other. This is a jolly good show. Through November 8. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 800-982-2787. — DLG


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