Kitsch of Death

The Houston Grand Opera obviously likes composer Robert Moran. Two years ago the company launched his one-act Beauty-and-the-Beast opera Desert of Roses, and now they've premiered his new effort, The Dracula Diary. Considering as well such other recent HGO novelties as Where's Dick? and Frida, I wonder whether the company's tradition of championing good contemporary musical theater -- which in years past has brought us works by Leonard Bernstein, Michael Tippett, Carlisle Floyd and Meredith Monk -- has devolved into a taste for operatic kitsch.

Commissioned by RCA for release as a CD, the one-act Dracula Diary was given its world premiere by HGO with a two-performance run March 18-20; the opera dutifully clocked in at 70 minutes on the nose -- a very sluggish 70 minutes. With libretto by James Skofield, the opera's story -- a mishmash of Tales of Hoffmann, Pagliacci, Sweeney Todd and Phantom of the Opera -- teeters between the banal and the inscrutable. The work unfolds as a movie-style flashback: the protagonist, the Impresario, returns to church after an absence of many years and confesses his tale.

That tale takes us back to early 18th-century Italy, as the Impresario hears a beautiful young soprano in a convent. He christens her "Angela" and decides to make her a great diva. In a voice lesson with a foppish singing master, Angela shows growing signs of a prima donna-ish temperament and, once acclaimed, she flirts with her leading man, the Tenor. As the Impresario undergoes medical treatment (despite intermittent attempts at humor throughout, the leeches here got virtually the evening's only laugh), Angela and the Tenor enjoy a rendezvous in her dressing room.

The despondent and jealous Impresario seeks the advice of Zorina, a kind of sorceress gypsy (though this production has her looking very much like the urban homeless) who ominously presents him with the diary of Dracula. After reading it, the Impresario goes to the opera and drives a stake though the Tenor's heart (an impulse, I'm sure, with which many operagoers can sympathize).

The action then jumps to contemporary times. Angela, dressed in tight black leather, is now a fashion model at a photo shoot; her foppish music master has become a cocaine-snorting photographer. The Impresario, still in 18th-century dress, rushes in to admit his murder. Angela just laughs, her jollity reinforced by the arrival of the Tenor, who's still wearing his 18th-century clothes as well. His shirt, to be sure, is blood-stained, but he looks none the worse for wear. The horrified Impresario rushes off stage.

That brings us back to the confessional. A priest absolves the Impresario, who hands over Dracula's diary. The background turns blood-red. Angela, the Tenor and assorted extras emerge to perform a triumphant Black Mass. A huge cutout cross falls on the prostrate Impresario as the curtain falls.

Given the subject matter, Moran's score is curiously honey-coated. He dips into a few interesting wells -- including Monteverdi and Stravinsky -- but comes up with pretty tepid tea, like Andrew Lloyd Webber without the tunes. Indeed, there are no memorable melodies, though the Impresario's "Doctor, I love her" at least begins like one.

Moran's basic technique is the passacaglia, the repeated chord progression. The passacaglia is a legitimate operatic technique -- certainly Monteverdi, Purcell and Berg made it work for them -- but Moran's lack of modulatory excitement, contrapuntal interest or dynamic and rhythmic contrast vitiates all sustained dramatic movement. Instead, the opera has something of the static endlessness of that favorite nuptial passacaglia, Pachelbel's Canon.

The production itself was first-rate. James Maddalena, the only member of the six-person cast not from the Houston Opera Studio, was the strongly voiced Impresario. As Angela, Laura Knoop, seen to good advantage earlier this season in Kurt Weill's Street Scene, had more opportunities here to display her wonderfully elastic range. Raymond Very looked and sounded appropriately virile as the Tenor, and Jill Grove showed great flexibility in tackling a number of parts, including Mother Superior and Zorina. James Scott Sikon and Michael Chioldi rounded out the fine cast.

The production also benefited from the direction of Ross Perry. The set and costume designs of Constantinos Kritikos and the lighting of Noele Stollmack were highly imaginative, more fantasy than historical re-creation. In the striking dressing room scene, Angela, wearing a gold lame decollete gown with a velvet neck band, stands surrounded by extras dressed in the style of the commedia dell'arte, holding lit candelabras. The chaise lounge here was more Jetsons than Chippendale.

Ward Holmquist led the small, capable pit band, which consisted of flute, violin, three synthesizers and percussion. The orchestration itself lacked atmosphere, and various effects, like the ticking of clocks, provided the evening's most evocative sounds.


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