Figaro al Fresco

At 6:30 on Friday evening, much of the audience for The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart's most popular opera, was arriving outside Wortham Center. They toted their fold-up aluminum lawn chairs, their Igloo coolers, their Batman blankets. They wore Bermudas and gimme caps, cutoffs and Nikes. Some weren't even a year old yet, but for once at the opera, no one scowled at the children.

These charmingly diverse audience members were pioneers of a sort: They were only the third audience ever in the United States to view an opera simulcast on a huge outdoor movie screen. Inside the Wortham, well-heeled patrons enjoyed the live performance in considerably cushier surroundings. But outside, on the Wortham's enormous patio, the performance had its own charms -- including, of course, free admission.

Houston Grand Opera is very proud that it has staged all three of these indoor/outdoor performances in the States. The first, Cinderella, was a huge success in 1995. But HGO waited two more years before they tried another Plazacast with Hansel and Gretel. Unfortunately, freezing drizzle got the better of that audience.

But last Friday, Mother Nature cooperated fully. At 6:30 p.m., the sky was already glowing pink and the temperature had simmered down to a tolerable eightysomething. Downtown traffic had calmed to an occasional screech of tires, and police mounted on tall brown horses clopped slowly by.

By seven, the plaza was filling up. Half the audience had brought their own chairs, food, beer and wine; a whole other group staked out space in the bleachers HGO had assembled for the event.

At one booth, you could get a smoked turkey leg or sliced brisket cut by Lee Sanders, the block man at Harlan's Bayou Blues. T.J. Jackson, the assistant manager, says he's not much of an opera fan: "It sounds like people arguing, to me." But he has no such reservations about his product. The meat at Harlan's, he brags, is "so tender you can eat it with no teeth."

The opera starts, and down front, a little girl in a red and black polka-dotted skirt breaks into a short, spontaneous dance. The music is lovely.

And, so far away from the audience that only the hungry can hear, Lee hollers, "Come on down. Cold, cold beer!"

Cinda Ward, who owns the Palace Restaurant and who's running her own booth next door, walks up and looks at Lee. "Are you the screamer?" she demands. When he says yes, she orders some barbecue and takes it to the woman working in her own booth.

Cinda doesn't mind that she can't hear the opera so well; she's already seen a dress rehearsal. But she loves the idea of Plazacast. "I told them they should do this for every opera."

In fact, everyone seems to think HGO should do this for every opera. Even T.J., who'd rather be listening to Lil KeKe or the Botany Boys, thinks the idea of Plazacast is "great."

Just as satisfied is Avery Mickens, who's brought his three children, including ninemonth-old Kaitlyn, to celebrate 15-year-old Christopher's birthday. And Johanna Graupe, an Austrian who sings in the chorus of the Vienna State Opera. "The singers are pretty good," she says at intermission. What about the Plazacast? "In Vienna, we do this every year at New Year's Eve, in spring one or two times and fall one or two times. They come with blankets and umbrellas and raincoats. Hot tea, they sell hot tea with rum and spices. People won't really see the last part of the play because of the rum."

But this Houston audience pays rapt attention. The Marriage of Figaro is a wonderful story, with biting social commentary that's also very funny. The married Count Almaviva wants to bed his wife's servant Susanna. But Susanna's in love with Figaro. And so they and the rest of the household, including the countess, devise a plan to thwart the count. HGO's production is mesmerizing.

And though the big screen can't match the grandness of the enormous stage inside, the outdoor audience got to see the singers close up. The lovely Nicole Heaston created a Susanna who is smart and devilishly tricky; Dean Peterson's Figaro had a sexy, easygoing charm. These two performers were matched by American soprano Pamela Armstrong, whose sweetly heart-sore countess works to win back her man. Count Almaviva, the confused and struggling ruler, was played with terrific humor by French baritone Jean-Luc Chaignaud. Add to this tale an adolescent boy, Cherubino (played by mezzo-soprano Beth Clayton), who runs through the story chasing every woman he lays eyes on, and a woman who first tries to force Figaro to marry her, only to discover that Figaro is in fact her long-lost son, and you've got a mix that everyone stayed awake to watch, even as the moon rose full up in the sky.

Well, almost everyone. After the cast ran out and graciously bowed to the outdoor audience, the thousand or so people headed toward their cars. I spotted the child in the red and black polka-dotted skirt who'd danced to the overture. She was stretched out on a blanket, fast asleep.

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