Before the bomb: Sarah (Cheryl Barker) and Bendrix 
    (Teddy Tahu Rhodes).
Before the bomb: Sarah (Cheryl Barker) and Bendrix (Teddy Tahu Rhodes).
Brett Coomer

Hanky Panky

Houston Grand Opera's 29th world premiere, The End of the Affair, has a lot in common with both The Passion of the Christ and Lethal Weapon: It's all about God, and you get to see a naked butt. And as it turns out, New Zealand-born baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes, the charming pilot in last year's darling premiere of The Little Prince, has a rockin' bod.

Despite dreary weather and the smaller confines of the Cullen Theater, audience members were wildly enthusiastic about composer Jake Heggie's sophomore opera. His first offering, Dead Man Walking, which premiered in 2000, proved that American, modern-day opera is still worth seeing. This second attempt, based on the three-hanky Graham Greene novel of the same name, made for a moving and visually stimulating two and a half hours. It isn't a masterpiece, but it's a tearjerker worthy of the ticket price.

At times, Heggie's music evokes the war-torn 1940s. Other times, it aspires toward operatic arias, but it's actually most memorable in its movie-esque segues, evoking Ennio Morricone at his epic best. The opera's libretto, scripted by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Heather McDonald, is well crafted. Set in England during World War II, it tells the story of, well, the end of an affair between two lovers.


The End of the Affair

Wortham Theater Center's Cullen Theater, 550 Prairie

Through March 21; tickets are sold out, but call 713-228-OPERA or check the box office for standby tickets. $34 to $84.

Real-life husband and wife Cheryl Barker and Peter Coleman-Wright portray the confused Sarah and her cuckolded hubby, Henry. The Australian duo is lovely, but it's Rhodes's portrayal of Sarah's angry, jealous, jilted paramour Maurice Bendrix that's phenomenal. Considering his enchanting turn as The Little Prince's wrecked pilot, here he shows an amazing depth and a darker side. And it doesn't hurt that the first thing we see is his naked butt.

Nudity aside, the lovers' musical tryst is soaring -- until it's interrupted by a bombing attack, executed in well-done special effects. Bendrix leaves the lovers' room to investigate and returns to find Sarah hysterical. She leaves, never to be with him again. It isn't until the end of Act I that we see the scene replayed through Bendrix's reading of Sarah's purloined diary. That's when we realize that he could have been killed in the attack, and that Sarah, believing him dead, begged God to save him. In return, she promised to give him up and return to her husband.

From an eye-candy standpoint, there's no faulting this production. Michael McGarty has made use of his Broadway skills with moving sets that feature daunting cathedrals, street scenes and the stunning stained-glass backdrop that's so central to the story line. And Donald Holder -- fresh from Hugh Jackman's Broadway incursion in The Boy from Oz -- finds just the right lighting for the rainy London streets, the blitzkrieg and the holy cathedral.

Jess Goldstein has an unparalleled eye for 1940s fashion. The characters' costumes look like those material-conserving, almost militaristic suits and dresses that were so prevalent during the era and are still a staple in English vintage shops. Even his shoes could be Delmar knockoffs. One of the best lines of the opera is the lost lover telling Sarah's mother, "Those are dangerous shoes, Mrs. Bertram." But the costumes, which are wildly authentic period-wise, aren't show stealers: They blend seamlessly in both tone and texture with the somber sets.

Barker isn't always in enthralling voice, but she has an enchanting duet with the private eye Bendrix hires to tail her (American baritone Robert Orth, who has a nice dramatic feel about him), in which they lament the war's effects on innocence, asking, "Why does the world take that away?"

Act II is all about Bendrix trying to get Sarah back, her husband Henry trying to keep her, the detective finding her kindness appealing and an anti-religious zealot falling in love with her. Meanwhile, she's fighting her own battle with God. In a climactic church scene, Sarah tries to pray while the forms of the men each plead to her, the layered quartet of their voices rising in a stunning sequence. Musically and visually, it's a breathtaking scene. But alas, it's all too taxing, and Sarah, who had a nagging little cough in Act I, weakens as a light snow falls upon her. The audience barely has time to dab their eyes before the final scene when, in a booming voice, Bendrix curses God in the church. Sarah's ethereal form appears to him, and they sing as she shows him that love never dies.

As the disfigured anti-god Richard Smythe, tenor Joseph Evans is very good, and American mezzo-soprano Katherine Ciesinski provides a little comic relief as Sarah's flashy mother. Leonard Foglia does an excellent job of directing, as does the indomitable Patrick Summers of conducting. Sometimes The End of the Affair seems to move a little slowly, and the musical score doesn't always keep up interest, but by and large, it's a beautiful, stimulating work.


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