Capsule Stage Reviews: February 5, 2015

La Clemenza di Tito Mozart's penultimate opera is music fit for a king, certainly appropriate since it was commissioned to celebrate the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II's coronation as King of Bohemia in September 1791. The celebrations were hastily planned, leaving only about two months to ready Prague for the royal treatment. An opera seria was required, but when approached to compose it on such short notice, imperial kapellmeister Salieri turned down the offer. The producer of the festivities knew only one composer in Vienna who could do justice to such a quick project, Herr Mozart. Working from an already written libretto by the grand master of opera seria, Pietro Metastasio, Mozart and his adapter, Mazzola, quickly churned out an opera worthy of honoring the "enlightened emperor." The opera found early favor, but got swamped by his other masterworks that swept the international scene. Almost two centuries would pass before the intrinsic beauties of the score were fully appreciated. In Opera in the Heights' production of this Mozart rarity, interim music director Eiki Isomura led a thrilling performance. The OH orchestra sounded splendid. Two and a half hours, which includes intermission, flew by as we were presented with a modern-dress rendition, plain, simple, elegant, of this old tale made totally fresh by Mozart's evanescent imagination. Emperor Tito (tenor Zach Avery) is the sweetest man in Rome, beloved and honored by his citizens for his truthfulness and unimpeachable sense of justice. But when he chooses a wife, he rebuffs his predecessor's daughter, vain and ambitious Vitellia (soprano Celeste Fraser). She goes ballistic and wants blood — his. Seducing Tito's best friend, Sesto (mezzo Vera Savage), Vitellia convinces the hapless man to assassinate Tito. There's a subplot about adviser Annio (mezzo Jennifer Crippen) and his love, Servilia (soprano Theadora Cottarel), a bump in the plot that inspires Mozart to pen some ravishing love duets and good-bye arias but is basically filler. Publio (bass baritone Justin Hopkins), head of the Praetorian Guard, is there whenever someone needs to be arrested. The emerald cast is one finely tuned ensemble. Tito's a rather thankless role, too good to be true, but Act II has him questioning loyalty and tormented by betrayal in some of the most transparent continuo sections alternating with full orchestra. (Throughout, the harpsichord playing by Catherine Schaefer was always elegant.) Avery's crisp tenor shone best when his character had something juicy to sing. Vitellia is certainly akin to Magic Flute's Queen of the Night, just not as floridly virtuosic. But she's someone new to opera, a force to be reckoned with: elemental, powerful, dangerous. Vitellia breathes fire into the opera. Her "Non più di fiori" ("No more wedding wreaths for me") augmented by sweet clarinet (thanks to Maiko Sasaki) stands alone as a concert aria, as this wicked woman debates her fate, almost going mad with indecision. Should she confess and end her happiness, or let Sesto be killed for her sin? Frasar commands a large voice that rides over the orchestra during her fiery outbursts, and she made a perfect vamp, teasing poor Sesto in lacy black lingerie. Crippen and Cottarel were lovingly matched in ardor and warmth, and Hopkins's Publio held our attention with impeccable phrasing and honeyed tone. But this was Savage's show. What a subtle powerhouse she is. As misguided Sesto, a pant's role originally sung by castrato, she's tall and blond and makes a very handsome man in black suit and tie. When director Keturah Stickman has her strip to her BVDs to keep Vitellia satisfied, the startling effect, somewhat ill-conceived, still manages to make dramatic sense since Savage plays it so well and looks the part. And her singing is a dream: supple and powerful, with a deep velvet shimmer. Designed by Jeremiah Minh Grünblatt, the entire set is plastered with newspaper pages, like decoupage gone wild. The look's supposed to suggest political relevancy, I guess. It just looks like newspaper glued all over the set. But the updating, using Secret Service men and a chorus in black suits, works a lot better at getting this idea across. Although I miss maestro Enrique Carreón-Robledo's fire and passion in the pit and wish he were still leading OH, I will show clemency. Thank Mozart and some really fine interpreters for this stay of judgment. February 1, 5 and 7. The ruby cast performs February 6 and 8 and includes Eric Barry (Tito), Deborah Domanski (Sesto), Mary-Hollis Hundley (Vitellia) and Claire Shackleton (Annio). 1703 Heights Boulevard, 713-861-5303. — DLG

Cloud Tectonics Magic realism is a genre that takes time to get used to. Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges (Fictions and A Universal History of Infamy), Colombian Nobel-prize winner Gabriel García Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude, Death in the Time of Cholera) and even our own Toni Morrison (Beloved) are subtle practitioners of the art. Playwright José Rivera is not so subtle. In Mildred's Umbrella's uneven production of his Cloud Tectonics (1995), we are beaten about the head. What should be ethereal and mysterious morphs into annoyance and unintentional humor. The most intriguing bit is the beginning. It's night in Los Angeles, and our heroine, Celestina Del Sol (Patricia Duran), thumbs for a ride during the "storm of the century." Cold and wary, she munches on soggy crackers as car lights sweep over her very pregnant figure and pass her by. We soon discover that she is very much out of time. She is picked up by Anibal De La Luna (Greg Dean), a baggage handler at LAX. We learn that Anibal loves L.A. for the "women falling out of the skies," for the disasters waiting to happen. Celestina is searching for the man who got her pregnant back in Montauk, Long Island. She was accosted by the last man who picked her up, but she doesn't want to call the police or go to the hospital. This good Samaritan offers her shelter for the night. "I'm not going anywhere," she says ominously (and will say repeatedly throughout this one-acter); "I've lost track of time." We're in magic-realism land with a vengeance. The characters' names are weighty enough: Luna, Sol, Celestina. We get it twice the first time. Celestina hits Anibal with a stunner: She's 54 years old and has been pregnant for two years. He impetuously kisses her, then apologizes. Suddenly, Anibal's macho brother Nelson (Darnea Olson), on army leave, arrives to see his brother after six years. Without provocation or character preparation, he swears eternal love to Celestina. Then he's off, back to his base. Wait for me, he pleads to Celestina. After a bit of body rub and kissing of toes, Anibal and Celestina climb the ladder to the loft bedroom. Before anything happens, who returns, without mustache and using a cane, but Nelson, out of the army and anxious to resume his paternal duties. Time has passed, but it hasn't; it's now and the future. Director Jennifer Decker, Mildred's Umbrella's artistic director, has a fine eye for atmosphere — those opening scenes set the mood in bold strokes — and keeps Rivera's heavy-handedness a bit on the light side, which is a good thing. Through February 7. Studio 101, 1824 Spring, 832-463-0409, — DLG

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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
Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman