Capsule Stage Reviews: November 6, 2014

Così fan tutte If you want to know all about sex, why read Masters and Johnson when you can go to the opera and hear Mozart. What better primer than Così fan tutte (1790), the third collaboration between Mozart and urbane librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. The masterpieces Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni preceded this classic. The title loosely translates as "All women are like this," and if you change tutte's "e" to an "i," you get "all men are like this." That would be just as appropriate, for the opera skewers the male point of view with an equally jaundiced eye. Suffice it to say, the battle of the sexes has been raging long before and far after this work from the late 18th century, but there hasn't been anything new. It's comforting to know that some things remain the same. In this bittersweet opera buffa, woman's faithfulness is tested, but so is man's. On a bet, disguised as exotic "Albanians" with mustaches "like plumes of love," two best friends, Guglielmo and Ferrando (baritone Jacques Imbrailo and tenor Norman Reinhardt), do their best to seduce each other's fiancée, the sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi (sopranos Melody Moore and Rachel Willis-Sorensen). To their horror and with blows to their vanity, they succeed — spectacularly so in under 24 hours — but they get as much heartache as they give, and then realize that women are no more suited to a pedestal than men. Everyone's only human; accept the faults and go on. Don't worry, be happy. This refreshingly modern view from Da Ponte is catnip for Mozart, who sets the fable to some of his most sublime melodies, both comic and dramatic. Most definitely a court composition, Così is refined, stylized and heightened by artifice. In structure the very picture of balance and control, its parts contrast and compare: two guys, two sisters, the roué, the flip servant. As the opera takes place in Naples, the musical atmosphere is filled with lilting breezes and sunshine. Mozart uses a lot of woodwinds and triple rhythms to achieve this effect, unique among his operas in its expressively liquid tone. The overture bubbles with gaiety, a taste of the farce to come. Although there are coloratura outbursts from stoic Fiordiligi, whose aria "Like a rock" ("Come stoglia") has been a showpiece of technique and vocal prowess ever since the opera's Vienna premiere, and a grand, old-fashioned throwback "How will I live now that he's gone" number for the more pliant Dorabella, the opera is awash with ensemble singing: duets, trios, sextets. This is an opera about conspiracies and masquerades, so it's only logical that the co-conspirators sing together whenever possible. The sisters prop each other up when their defenses are under assault from the guys, while the guys boast of their soon-to-be success or mock each other's apparent lack of testosterone in the art of seduction when the women don't fall as fast as they should. Of course, there's the saucy maid, Despina (soprano Nuccia Focile), the wisest of them all, who doesn't see what the women are fussing about since there are so many men in the world from whom to choose. The whirligig plot is set in motion by crafty philosopher Don Alfonso (bass-baritone Alessandro Corbelli), who's fed up with the men's starry-eyed, naive view of how pure their women are. He's been around the piazza too many times to fall for that line. The bet is on. Houston Grand Opera uses the sparse and clean Goran Jarvefelt production that was commissioned for the company's triple Mozart/Da Ponte celebration, which debuted in 1988 with Don Giovanni. Resembling an antique Baroque stage, the unit set with its receding perspective is ultra chic in its clutter-free look. The scenes are re-dressed by stagehands in livery. A harpsichord with painted lid remains stage-left throughout, in homage to Herr Mozart. Carl-Friedrich Oberle's rich period costumes add eye-catching luxury. The cast is elegant, too. Vibrant and spry, with luxurious voices that wrap Mozart in velvet, they throw themselves into this divine, stylized comedy of manners. With her droll characterization, Moore is a particular standout as the first sister to succumb. Neglected for more than a century, Mozart's most sophisticated opera is wry indeed, as it winks at these unfaithful lovers with timeless appeal and forgiveness. We wink right back. Così fan tutte. November 8, 13 and 15. Houston Grand Opera at Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737, — DLG

Otello Giuseppe Verdi certainly knew how to start an opera. A tumultuous, dissonant chord blasts forth fortissimo, followed by rushing strings and woodwinds. It's a cacophony of nature, as the curtain rises on an aural storm that can only be called Shakespearean — elemental and terrifying. Arrayed on the Cyprian wharf, the entire chorus prays for victory in the ongoing naval battle against the Turks while this ferocious storm adds unexpected dread. Through the mists, Otello's ship appears. In perhaps the most stirring entrance in opera, the commanding figure of the Moor appears on the foredeck. "Esultate!" he exclaims in triumph. "Rejoice, the Muslim foes are defeated. The glory is ours!" As if a prelude to the rawness yet to come, the thunderstorm and jubilation begin the opera on a high that never deflates. With a libretto superbly adapted from Shakespeare's tragedy by Arrigo Boito (an avant-garde writer and composer who scored a minor theatrical success in 1875 with his revised Mefistofele; wrote Ponchielli's La Gioconda; and would later give Verdi his final masterpiece, Falstaff), Verdi climbed to heights even he might never have anticipated. These two were in perfect sync. Otello (1887) flows like a torrent. In Houston Grand Opera's co-production, with former stops in Los Angeles, Parma and Monte Carlo, Verdi's penultimate work is given a minimalist, abstract wash under director John Cox's thoughtful eye. With its unit set designed by Johan Engels (whose The Passenger from last season was a visual highlight), Renaissance splendor is eschewed for a skewed unit set. Carved into a scimitar, the wooden stage floor seems to be compressed at both ends, bent into this bowl shape. Simple and geometric with three boxes used for entrances and exits, it's bedecked with a grassy plot for the garden scene, a single chair for the council chamber and a platform bed for the murderous conclusion. But it's a treacherous playing area, steep and mountainous. The tables in the drinking scene tilt precariously, and the goblets probably need Velcro to keep from toppling onto the floor. At best, the design doesn't distract, and Act I, with the specter of the approaching ship and falling, billowy curtains, conveys the most drama. Engels's costumes, especially for the chorus, are less apt. The men in their Aran Island wool sweaters and watchcaps cry Peter Grimes, not 16th-century Cyprus. Probably other than Siegfried, Otello is the most demanding dramatic tenor role in opera, fraught with treacherous declamation, some of it high up in the register, blasted forth against a huge orchestra. The lyrical passages, too, are set high and breathless. One has to be both warrior prince and warrior lover. Although I praised O'Neill when he sang an impassioned Florestan in Fidelio at HGO in 2011, Verdi's impassioned Moor doesn't suit him, at least not yet. His voice sounds pinched and nasal. He hits the highs, but not without effort. The strain shows as he paws the ground in anticipation, planting his feet on the curved floor to gird for the big moment. The majesty of the role eludes him. There's a rough grandeur to his Moor, but there's so much left unplumbed. If white-hot passion was absent, soprano Ailyn Perez supplied it in spades as Desdemona. What a honey of a voice — warm, vibrant, a velvet sheen. A beauty onstage, she conquered, soaring in the love duet, later defiantly protesting her innocence or tenderly saying her prayers in the plangent "Ave Maria," knowing full well what is about to happen. We eagerly await her next appearance here in Houston, hopefully soon. Her young career, ascendant, will be fun to watch. Baritone Marco Vratogna was a well-oiled Iago, slippery and smoothly evil. His voice didn't always carry over the orchestra's maelstrom, but the full portrait of his character always came through with telling body language and debauched stage presence. His famous "Credo," in which Iago lays out his hatred of mankind and the hollowness of heaven, was a chilling testament under Vratogna. You could smell the disgust as he spat out his condemnation. Maestro Patrick Summers showcased all the blood, thunder and rapture in Verdi's most sublime score. He's in love with this music, and we hear his passion for it. Otello is a masterpiece. When it premiered at La Scala to delirious approval, Verdi was 73 years old. There is nothing old in this opera at all. Full of life in all its glories and horrors, man at best and worst, this singular opera gets younger at each hearing. November 7. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-228-6737. — DLG

The Tempest Shakespeare's final play that he wrote solo (he would go on to collaborate with protégé John Fletcher on All Is True, Cardenio and The Two Noble Kinsmen), The Tempest shows off the master playwright in full authoritative control. An intriguing tale of magic, potency and forgiveness, this is light entertainment, but full fathoms deep. On an uncharted isle, Prospero (John Kaiser), the deposed Duke of Milan, rules by sorcery. Not that there are many to command: teenage virginal daughter Miranda (Helen Rios), the love of his life; Ariel (Mai Le), a spirit of air and fire who now serves faithfully in hopes of being granted her freedom; and half-beast Caliban (Kurt Bilanoski), slave to Prospero, who desperately wants to rule the island himself. The old wizard raises up a tempest that wrecks the ship of Alonso (David Chapin), the King of Naples, which carries Prospero's hated brother Antonio (Wayne White), who many years ago usurped the duke with the help of the King. Crafty Prospero has lured them to his magic island to restore his throne. On board is the King's son Ferdinand (Kaleb Babb), for whom Prospero has plans. Below deck, lowlifes Trinculo (Michael Raabe) and Stephano (Elyse Rachal) add comic relief, while courtiers Gonzalo (Casey Coale), the Duke's trusty old retainer, and snarky Sebastian (Neil Courington), brother of Alonso, add sparks of their own. Prospero directs the action, hoping the outcome will be as he predicts. Thwarted murder plots, young budding romance and "spirits to enforce" are all part of the intriguing mix, which never veers too close to unhappiness without a spry wink from the playwright. Shadows disperse with a wave of a hand. Perhaps drawing inspiration from Ariel's "I have made you mad," director/scenic designer L. Robert Westeen has set his production for Company OnStage in a mental hospital with patients, doctors and visitors already onstage when we enter the theater. It's a harsh reality that bookends the work's entrancing magic. While this Marat/Sade-esque take on The Tempest doesn't irreparably rend the play's gossamer, it doesn't illuminate it either. It's a director's concept, not the Bard's, although the hospital-green walls, in fact, bespeak the sea, with which this play is replete; and those gauzy privacy curtains are put to good use in scene changes and reveals. Once the play begins, Shakespeare takes over anyway, and the madhouse idea is left by the wayside. If you've never seen this play live, Company OnStage's uneven production can't sink the unsinkable. Kaiser and Bilanoski see to that; Shakespeare does the rest. Through November 8. Company OnStage, 536 Westbury, 713-726-1219. — 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