Soprano Albina Shagimuratova sang her heart and lungs out.
Soprano Albina Shagimuratova sang her heart and lungs out.
Photo by Lynn Lane

It's a Swing and a Miss for HGO's Production of La Traviata, Alas

The happiest I felt all evening at Houston Grand Opera's resurrected season was after the show.

As the audience filed out of the George R. Brown Convention Center, now re-purposed as an impromptu opera house after Hurricane Harvey's devastation of home base Wortham Theater Center, an usher gleefully announced that the Astros had won game six of the AL division, tying the series with those damn Yankees. This was the high I had been waiting for all evening. I wish the elation had happened during any moment during Verdi's radiant La Traviata, but, sadly, it was not to be.

HGO's Resilience Theater, partitioned and curtained out of GRB's cavernous third floor, is hardly an ideal theater space, but kudos must be given to everyone on the artistic and executive staff who have managed to fashion any season at all after the wrath of Harvey. The audience, tiered on bleachers and arrayed on the floor in the front rows, is elongated, as if in Cinemascope. If you're not dead center, sight lines can be fairly hideous. To be perfectly honest, my tickets were “duplicates,” meaning someone else also had the same seats. The ushers, trying their best to maneuver the patrons in this untried space, had to reassign me elsewhere. I ended up off to the side, with a superb view of the wings. Whatever action happened stage left remained a mystery. But I don't think I missed anything. What I saw was enough.

I am well aware that HGO had to scramble to find a venue and then design a reasonable facsimile of a theater along with all the accouterments: dressing rooms, seating for hundreds, enough lounges and lobbies, rest rooms and bars. They've done a remarkable job. With girders high above, like the inside of a zeppelin, and sumptuous black curtains to wall off the diverse spaces, Resilience Theater may not look permanent, but it has a wondrous feeling of spontaneity, not a quality often associated with grand opera.

The place was packed for opening night, whether augmented by “papering” I don't know, but at least GRB's east-side location didn't deter the regulars. Opera in Houston, even in truncated form, is alive and well, and that's worthy of a sustained “bravo!”

The one problem, and it's probably impossible to fix in such a gargantuan space no matter how partitioned, is the orchestra's placement far upstage in back of the singers. The stage is highly raked to accommodate the eye level of the bleacher seats, but putting the orchestra behind the stage – and below the edge of the rake – muffles the sound. The immediacy of the music is instantly lost.

A huge cyclorama arcs around the back of the orchestra like a gigantic shower curtain (I assume it will be used in future production for scenic projections, for you certainly can't have sets between orchestra and stage), but the sound is, nevertheless, distant and diffuse, immediately wafting up and away into those industrial girders. The music's oomph is gone. So, too, its drama.

But this is all still experimental for HGO, and for us, too, so perhaps a feasible solution will be found. If not, we will have to make do until the Wortham reopens. Rising this far out of the flood and proceeding with any season at all is happy news in itself.

But this production of Traviata, a triple venture from HGO, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Canadian Opera Company, is not happy news. I feel like someone who's just kicked a puppy, but HGO's production of the world's most produced opera is the driest, most dispirited, and emotionally distant of any Traviata I can remember.

The life's been sucked out of Verdi's triangular morality tale of society prostitute Violetta, her wayward lover Alfredo, and bourgeois Germont, Alfredo's father who convinces “the lady of the camellias” to give up her lover to avoid family scandal. Hypocrisy – and a fatal illness – doom Violetta. Love does not save the day. Timely and still relevant, Verdi's sublime music is the magnificent glue that holds Dumas' story together.

HGO star alumna and house favorite, soprano Albina Shagimuratova, has the vocal chops for this most demanding role, tossing off Act I's coloratura ode to joy, the “Sempre libera” with effortless aplomb, and dying in breathless legato for her Act III demise, but as an actress she's nowhere to be seen. A tad matronly and a bit stiff, she's unconvincing as courtesan, lover or consumptive.

She's too controlled, too concerned about floating flawless tone, too constrained to let it all out and become joy unbounded. She's on autopilot. Her Alfredo, tenor Dimitri Pittas, has more life, a sturdy middle range, but a strained top. At times, in Marcus Doshi's haphazard lighting design – more footlights than the Cotton Blossom – he looks like a young Montgomery Clift, which makes him seem easy prey for cougar Shagimuratova. Baritone George Petean lacks heft for protean Germont; but his “Di Provenza,” a lilting lullaby to remind Alfredo of his loving family home in Provence, was full of grace and feeling, a bright spot in a dull evening.

Everything's slightly off. When the singers turn away from the audience, their voices go pianissimo. Perhaps it's the massive hall's acoustics, but Maestro Eun Sun Kim gives Verdi no lift, propulsion, or flavor. The music drags.

Speaking of which, what are we to make of the male dancer wearing that outrageous plastic bosom? It's shocking all right, but for all the wrong reasons, although the parade-float skeletal bulls are an unexpected treat.

Arin Arbus is listed as director, but what is she directing? This looks like a rehearsal. When Alfredo rushes in to tell Violetta that his father has forgiven them, Arbus has tenor Pittas walk calmly into the room. He's supposed to be deliriously happy, not meandering down a country lane. It's these awkward little moments that make hash of Traviata's inherent drama and universal appeal.

One of music's greatest achievements, La Traviata (1853) has profound power to move us. HGO's production barely moves us at all. Go 'Stros!

La Traviata continues at5 2 p.m. October 22; 7:30 p.m. October 28, November 1, 3, 7, and 11; 2 p.m. November 5. (Mane Galoyan, Yongzhao Yu and Sol Jin perform the roles of Violetta, Alfredo and Germont on November 5 matinee, 7, and 11.) Resilience Theater, George R. Brown Convention Center, 1001 Avenida de las Americas. For information, call 713-228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org. $18 to $269.50.

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