Commissioned by HGOco, the community outreach arm of Houston Grand Opera formed to get new, diverse audiences into the seats, The Bricklayer tackles the ghastly, repressive Islamic Republic of Iran. The world premiere at Wortham Theater Center, HGO's impressive No. 46, composed by on-the-rise Gregory Spears and written by Iranian exile and Houston transplant Farnoosh Moshiri, and based upon her short story about her family's American displacement, modestly succeeds in spite of itself.
Righteous moral outrage, even when deserved and prayed for as it is against Iran's current regime, is not enough to build an opera on. If you want inspiration, ask Verdi, the most political of all opera composers. He gives us drama, tension, confrontation, swirled throughout with plenty of family conflict, placed in a political context that, however remote from his own 19th-century world -- ancient Egypt, Renaissance Venice, the debauched court of Mantua -- mirrors the contemporary and smacks us awake.
The one-act Bricklayer takes us away from the drama and puts us at a safe distance from the horror. The brevity of the opera doesn't help, for none of its characters are deeply defined, which leaves them far more rootless than they already are. Naturally, we sympathize with their plight, but we have to take a whole lot of motivation on faith.
Bita (soprano Christina Boosahda) has escaped from Tehran years earlier and has settled into an American life with her young daughter Shahrzad (Grace Muir, who shares the role with Sophie Rei Qano). Her parents have finally gotten out of the country, and Bita awaits their arrival as the opera opens. (Simply designed by Laura Fine Hawkes, wooden packing crates are ingeniously transformed before each short scene. The tulips springing out of trunks might be rethought, though. Once we've seen them in the opened suitcases, we get it.)
While Bita's mother (mezzo Eve Gigliotti) is full of despair and foreboding, it's her father (tenor Jon Kolbet) who has drastically changed. Disoriented and disheveled, he limps into Bita's arms, falling against her. He wears an eye patch, and mutters "home, home, home." His mind clears when he sees the Bricklayer (tenor Bray Wilkins), a phantom who represents the soul of the sturdy, hardworking people of Iran. Bita's brother has been tortured and killed in Tehran, singing loudly with the others by the infamous Wall of the Almighty before being executed. The disasters the father has witnessed have taken their toll, but Bita's unfailing optimism and Shahrzad's innocence -- along with Houston's crack medical care, he gets a new eye -- ultimately save his family and his sanity.
This is all sketchy and written in overwrought, if sincere, dialogue, but the enterprise is truly saved by Spears's inventive, precise and colorful music. He knows how to score for chamber orchestra, and the work is replete with "Persian" influences, from the filigreed vocal lines with their distinctive keening warble to the Bricklayer's signature sound of the "ney," that smoky, unearthly-sounding flute. Constantly varied and rich in texture (amazingly, he uses only flute, harp, cello, clarinet and violin to accomplish so much), the music is rhythmically complex yet easily accessible, no mean feat these days for modern opera. The quieter passages have a gossamer transparency that strikes the ear as almost neo-Romantic in sweep and emotional power. Spears is definitely a composer to watch.
Lovingly handled by maestro David Hanlon, who draws out all of the music's colors, the ensemble cast is impressive. You can hear Bita's heartfelt wish that everything will turn out all right in their new country in Boosahda's voice; Muir throws and sings a convincing tantrum when she doesn't understand what's ailing Granddad; Gigliotti has a rich mezzo and makes the most of a very thin part (Mom gets lost in Dad's story); Kolbet is utterly sympathetic as a man who has lived through the worst that humanity can throw at him; and Wilkins shines, vocally and with stage presence, as the Everyman bricklayer, whose pronouncements of past events ring out with the power of a Bach chorale.
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The opera was complemented by a fitting closer after intermission, the jazzy but classically infused combo Tehranosaurus from Austin, greeted by the audience with appreciative whoops and yells like rock stars. (What a superb name for a group inspired by Iranian music.) They did not disappoint. They informed, too. Dazzling on the setar, Persia's answer to the long-necked lute, leader and vocalist Fared Shafinury plucked, picked and caressed through improvs and played off and against his equally amazing confederates, Kamran Thunder on the ney and Ali Tarkesh on the serving plate-size daf, a drum-cum-tambourine. Their three selections, with a New-Age-y intro by Shafinury -- "We're all brothers; it doesn't matter what language we speak, this is music" -- whizzed through an elemental class in Iranian music filtered through jazz-like riffs and intonations. Hints of Indian chromaticism, Mediterranean joie de vivre and dark Russian rhythms meld into something old, very old, in classic Iranian music. It's hypnotic and mind-opening, sensuous and tantalizing. Like smoke from a hookah, it creates a thousand pictures.
Earnest and extremely well-intentioned, Moshiri's thin Bricklayer needs to fill in the blanks to truly move us. Spears's atmospheric, physical Bricklayer can't do it alone. He's not Verdi, yet.
There are three more performances of this world-premiere opera: 8 p.m., Friday, March 18, at the Arab American Cultural & Community Center, 10555 Stancliff Rd.; 4 p.m., Sunday, March 18, at the Nowruz Festival at Discovery Green, 1500 McKinney; and 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 20, at Baker Ripley Neighborhood Center, 6500 Rookin St. Tickets for all performances are free. For information, call 713-546-0230 or visit www.HGOco.org.