The Coronation of Poppea Composer Claudio Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea is a doozy of a tale and one hell of an opera. It's also one of Houston Grand Opera's most elegant productions to date -- a bacchanal for the eyes and heaven for the ears. If you're going to update an early-Baroque opera set in ancient Rome and drop the togas, this is the way to do it. This staging plops Nero's reign squarely into Fascist Italy at the time of Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist and Vittorio de Sica's The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. The movie references aren't random. By setting Poppea during the reign of Mussolini, Italy's modern Caesar, director Graham Vick and crew evoke the ultimate fantasy world of celluloid gods and goddesses. Like all Baroque operas, Poppea is a convoluted mix of illicit passion, disguises, godly interferences and emotions run wild. The scheming she-wolf Poppea, who desires power more than love, entices married Nero into her bed. Everyone who gets in their way dies or is banished, and Poppea marries Nero and is crowned empress. HGO's publicity department speaks the truth: This is a "dream team" of singing actors; top to bottom, the best-cast production in recent memory. Tenor William Burden (Nero), baritone Nathan Gunn (Ottone), mezzo Susan Graham (Poppea), mezzo Frederica von Stade (Ottavia), bass Raymond Aceto (Seneca), soprano Heidi Stober (Drusilla) and tenor Norman Reinhardt (Nero's gay tryst, Lucano) lushly glide through Monteverdi's lilting but demanding vocal line like gondolas across the Grand Canal. With absolute polish and emotional truth, the early Baroque curlicues and wafting melodies sound fresh and new. Are you listening, contemporary opera composers? Through May 12. Wortham Theater Center, 510 Texas, 713-228-OPERA.
The Long Christmas Ride Home As much admiration as both Bobbindoctrin Puppet Theatre and Unhinged Productions inspire through their exemplary work in staging the unusual (BPT) and the gay (UP), Paula Vogel's newest work, which she calls an "adult puppet play," is an uneasy collaboration. This is not the fault of the two fine theater companies. The blame rests squarely with Vogel. Lauded for her black comedy about pedophilia, How I Learned to Drive, Vogel has returned to portray another screamingly dysfunctional family. There's adultery (from Dad, Alan Hall), frigid emotionless distance (from Mom, Sara Gaston) and three messed-up, whiny kids in the backseat of the rusty family car on their way to Grandma's house for a Christmas from hell. Carsick Stephen (Kyle Green) fantasizes about boys; Rebecca (Patricia Duran) fantasizes about hot Catholic boys; little Claire (Melissa Winter) is the golden girl who wants to know "what do we believe." The work moves back and forth in poetic time shifts and ultrapoetic stage language as secrets are revealed and the family spirals out of control. Now, the problem is, why are the kids but not the parents enacted as Bunraku-type puppets? It mucks up much more than it clarifies. Stephen grows up gay and then dies from AIDS before we get to really know him. Rebecca grows up pregnant and with boyfriend problems, and little golden Claire grows up lesbian, stalking her girlfriend's latest tryst. We don't get to know them, either. Stephen's ghost comes back into his sisters' lives to save them from themselves. With an onstage sitar player and Japanese shoji screens influencing the set design, it's very Eastern mystic. The acting is thoroughly lovely, as are Justin Dunford's puppet designs, but a little less philosophy and more dramaturgy might work wonders. Through May 14. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.