Capsule Reviews

Boris Godunov To open its 51st season, Houston Grand Opera has picked a royal winner, Modest Mussorgsky's masterpiece Boris Godunov. Watching Stein Winge's dusted-off, minimalist production, we get to luxuriate in the composer's powerfully raw, original 1869 version as superstar bass Samuel Ramey commands the stage. The combo is unbeatable. Based on Pushkin's unwieldy, 24-scene historical play from 1831, the opera is a taut, psychological portrait of this troubled 16th-century czar. The score conjures folk songs, liturgical chants, everyday speech and even the great pealing bells of Uspensky Cathedral. As the story goes, Boris has become czar after having murdered the young rightful heir, Dmitry. Although he attempts to rule wisely, Boris is blamed by the people for the famine ravaging the country. On a second rebellion-stirring front, the young monk Grigory, suffocating under monastic life, sets himself up as Dmitry come back to life. But it's Boris's inner turmoil -- the guilt that gnaws at him for the murder -- that is his undoing. Ramey is pure magnificence in the role of Boris. The part calls for him to be cunning, fatherly, sympathetic, regal, treacherous and mad, all in an evening. Ramey reveals all the beauties in Mussorgsky's score with a freshness, vitality and power that have made him the leading bass of his generation. Bass Raymond Aceto, as the old monk Pimen who unwittingly gives Grigory the idea to overthrow Boris, is next in line for accolades. His smooth, textured, velvet voice and acting chops perfectly capture the wise -- and later wily -- character. And as a collective, HGO's chorus, under Richard Bado, and the orchestra, under maestro Tugan Sokhiev, sing and play Mussorgsky's stirring music with appropriate pomp, reverence and nuance. Through November 5. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737.

The Marriage of Figaro Mozart's sublime operatic comedy of manners from 1786 is a masterpiece. It has everything: radiant melody, sparkling libretto, emotional depth, laugh-out-loud situations, truthful characters and a profound sense of life lived to the fullest. Mozart's work is complete unto itself, incandescent and infused with sunshine. The 30-year-old musical genius added dazzling new textures to librettist Lorenzo da Ponte's loving adaptation of Beaumarchais's scandalously sexy play, elevating it to the highest realms of art. At the time, the idea that servants (soon-to-be-married Figaro and Susanna) get the better of their betters (the randy Count Almaviva) was not looked upon with much favor in the privileged courts of Europe. The play was banned and censored, and for the opera to be performed, Mozart and da Ponte had to promise not to offend Austria's Joseph II. At its premiere, Figaro was too spicy a dish for Vienna's tastes, and it wasn't until it caused a sensation in Prague seven months later that the opera turned into a classic. Although Houston Grand Opera's production, last seen in the '97 season, is played a bit too coarsely for da Ponte's rapier wit, it has the advantage of a superlative young cast that makes the most out of Mozart. Oren Gradus (Figaro), Isabel Bayrakdarian (Susanna), Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Count Almaviva) and Ana Maria Martinez (Countess Almaviva) infuse their characters with a natural believability while singing up a storm; they play off one another like a fine-tuned world-class quartet. Maestro Patrick Summers adds the HGO orchestra's lush singing voice to those on stage and plays the fortepiano in the recitatives with refined expressiveness. This production is just about as good as it gets. Through November 12. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-OPERA.

The Mousetrap This mother of all murder mystery plays, written by Dame Agatha Christie, the mother of all murder mystery writers, opened in London in November 1952, where it's still running. Needless to say, it's the longest-running play in the history of mankind. Whether it deserves such legendary longevity is questionable at best, since Christie was a much better novelist than playwright. This stage classic creaks a bit more than most other 53-year-old works, but the smooth production at A.D. Players keeps the unnecessary exposition, class commentary and clunky dramatics well oiled, quieting the noisy mechanics. Under Marion Arthur Kirby's thoughtful direction, the sprightly cast believes what it's doing, which goes a long way in making the audience itself believe in this old chestnut. Five guests arrive at a young couple's secluded hotel, as does a police sergeant on skis who's chasing a murderer among them. A snowstorm rages (although we never see any snow falling outside the large French doors), the telephone lines have been severed, there are back staircases galore, and we wait for the murderer to strike again if the policeman can't figure out whodunit in time. Of course, everyone has a secret that may link him or her to the past murder, which makes everyone a prime suspect or the next victim. This play has enough red herrings for a Russian fish market, and the ending is a classic among its kind. If you like murder mysteries, this Christie's for you. Through November 6. 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721.

Silence Moira Buffini's prize-winning deep-dish comedy teeters wildly in tone: rollicking sex farce one minute, serious polemic the next. But while it might not be completely successful as either romp or tract, the play has enough goodies to make it worthwhile. In her clever anachronistic pastiche, which takes place amid the fragrant muck of the Dark Ages, Buffini holds a mirror to today's gender politics, social commentary and religious questioning, then casts its reflections back to 1000 AD. The French princess Ymma, headstrong and haughty, is forced to marry Silence, the boy king of Cumbria, by decree from England's King Ethelred. Ymma is enraged but cannot forestall the inevitable. But in bed, the pair discovers jointly that Silence is a maiden, raised to think she's a man. To keep their kingdom and their heads, they decide that silence is the best policy and escape to the protection of Cumbria. Act II comprises their journey northward, when everyone's cloud of silence must be dispersed for each to find happiness and fulfillment. The cast is excellent. Elena Coates makes a delectable fire-breathing princess. When she discovers a kindred spirit in Silence (an ardent, boyish Kelley Stolte), her stony facade transforms into warm curves and languid poses. In his excellent characterization of King Ethelred, Rutherford Cravens goes from petulant buffoon hiding under the bed linens to ruthless savage. David Wald (Roger, the priest) is the cosmic comic foil; he can't quite get a handle on the fact that he's not supposed to have impure thoughts. Josh Morrison (Eadric) is a man's man of a soldier, who, in a New Age sort of way, thinks he's clairvoyant. Elizabeth Byrd (Agnes, the maid) puts up with Ymma's harping with Thelma Ritter attitude, which she applies with finesse and crack timing. Under Rob Bundy's smooth direction, you forget the play's faults and enjoy the show. Through November 6. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover
Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer