It takes nearly an hour and a half before Mark Adamo's Lysistrata, in its world premiere at Houston Grand Opera, finally catches fire. Before that, there's been plenty of heavy breathing in an effort to ignite whatever faint embers smolder among the opera's dry, brittle passages. Everyone involved -- on stage and off -- tries to keep our interest, but ultimately they're defeated by the music.
The moment that roused the woman in front of me from her slumber and stopped the man across the aisle from perusing his program finally occurs in Act II, Scene 3. Submitting to her mounting, frustrated passion, Lysia (Emily Pulley) secretly plans to reconcile with her lover Nico (Chad Shelton), the Athenian general. In so doing, she betrays her female comrades, who have barricaded themselves in the Acropolis and -- most important -- forsworn sex until the men stop their incessant warring. This most clever strategy had been Lysia's idea, and her selfish scheme for a little nookie is the antithesis of everything she stands for.
It's during Lysia's most hypocritical moment that the women exalt and bless their leader as "bringer of peace," renaming her "Lysistrata" as they crown her, invoking their dead sons and lovers lost in the war. The women emerge from their voluntary confinement in sacred procession. The octet begins as a powerful threnody to the dead, then morphs into a beguiling chorale, accompanied by a shimmering orchestration of whispering strings. The music is mysterious and beautiful, full of quiet passion and hymnlike reverie. Unlike anything else in the meandering score, it wakens us from our lethargy and makes us want to listen.
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A bit later, Lysia's final aria, "I Am Not My Own," a languid variation on her Act I furioso against Nico, who'd rather make war not love, ramps up the energy and propels the opera to its conclusion. Lysia has lost her lover to her newfound conscience. Again, with right-on orchestration, strings and saxophone mirror her resignation with sexy blues. Would that the rest of Lysistrata had such aural glory.
Adamo's free adaptation of Aristophanes's classic below-the-belt sex comedy suffers the fate of most contemporary operas: There's no pleasure in hearing it. Jagged and spiky, it keeps us at a distance. Melody seems anathema. For a story that deals with the basest of instincts, where's the sex in the music? It meanders, wallowing in a polytonality that doesn't stir us. There's no expanse, no rhapsody. It's a chore to listen to, and it doesn't reverberate, vanishing instantly from our heads. Lysistrata commits music's most unpardonable sin: It's forgettable.
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There are glints of gold, however, even if they're nonmusical. Adamo's libretto, though it often overstrains for a Sondheim-esque internal rhyme, is witty and literate, both an update and a recension of Aristophanes's original. Ancient stereotypes come alive in surprising new ways: Lysia concocts her "total, utter sanction on sex" not out of true conviction, but pique at lover Nico. The production is sumptuous and rich, directed with a sure, steady hand by Michael Kahn. The handsome revolving unit set by Derek McLane is a stunner. It does triple duty as a massive columned entrance portico, Lysia's DeMille-inspired boudoir and the gold-encrusted Treasury -- all in pleasing, ancient hues of vivid red, gold and blue. Murell Horton's costumes are cleverly anachronistic, especially liberated Lysia's animal-print pantsuit with metal shoulder pads. And Mark Doubleday's lighting bathes these ancients in museum-quality illumination.
The prosthetic phalluses that sprout under the horny soldiers' chitons are funny the first time they're revealed behind the shields, but then the poor singers have to walk around the entire second act strapped into them, by which time the protuberances have overstayed their ability to shock or amuse. It's one of the ancient Greek comedy conventions that doesn't translate, especially when the extreme X-rated bawdiness of the original is toned down for more serious purposes, as it is in Adamo's battle-of-the-sexes libretto.
Soprano Emily Pulley makes a voluptuous Lysia, both tigress and politico, but at times the high-lying vocals turn her edgy. Perhaps world-premiere nerves got the better of her. Tenor Chad Shelton sings ardently as Nico and looks convincing as a warrior -- Adamo's vocal gymnastics don't faze him. Equally at ease with this jumpy score is baritone Joshua Hopkins, who splendidly performs Kinesias, the soldier all heartsick for mezzo Laquita Mitchell's Myrrhine. And who wouldn't be? She sings her seduction scene to the bursting-for-love soldier with cream and heat, getting us all purring. Mezzo Myrna Paris conquers with a tragicomic Tugboat Annie performance as Kleonike, the leader of the protesting distaffs.
Aristophanes's Lysistrata -- one of the oldest comedies extant -- has been a hit since its premiere in 410 BC. We needn't consult the Oracle at Delphi to realize that Mark Adamo's overlong, strident opera doesn't have that masterpiece's staying power.