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(L-R) Elizabeth Sutphen as Anna Morichilli, Luca Pisaroni as young Lorenzo Da Ponte and Rihab Chaieb as Nancy Da Ponte.
(L-R) Elizabeth Sutphen as Anna Morichilli, Luca Pisaroni as young Lorenzo Da Ponte and Rihab Chaieb as Nancy Da Ponte.
Photo by Lynn Lane

The Phoenix Isn't Quite the World Premiere We'd Hoped For But the Cascade of Voices is Exceptional

I'm not the first opera critic to trash a world premiere – look at the beating critics gave to perennials Butterfly, Traviata, Tannhauser – so in years to come this review may be cited as staid, stupid, and close-minded. Yet I think I'm still correct in my first impression of Tarik O'Regan (music) and John Caird's (libretto) The Phoenix at Houston Grand Opera.

This opera-within-an-opera, based on the life of Mozart's famed librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte (Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutti), is static, dull, and terribly uninspiring. It drains all the excitement out of Da Ponte's life, and, believe me, he had one exciting adventure after another in his 89 years.

The opera skips through the highlights like some MGM bio-pic from the early '40s, all gloss but no depth.

Ordained Catholic priest and later poet, he was banished from Venice because of his dissolute life that included a mistress and at least two illegitimate children. Fleeing to Dresden then Vienna, he finagled a post as librettist with the Burgtheater, although he had never written a play before. This position led to court composer Salieri, which led to meeting Mozart and their subsequent three operatic masterpieces.

When the Austrian emperor died, so did Da Ponte's cushy job. Off to Paris with a letter of recommendation to Marie Antoinette, he and his current mistress Nancy Grahl were forced by the dire historical events in France to detour rapidly to London, where he wrote librettos, tried his hand at grocer and professor of Italian.

Mounting debts sent him to America in 1805, where he remained for the rest of his life, becoming a citizen in 1828 at the age of 79. His indefatigable industry, like his new-found country, kept the debtors at bay for a while, as he plied his trade as bookseller, whiskey maker, Italian teacher at Columbia College, finishing school teacher, and producer of Italian operas.

In 1833, he miraculously acquired the funds to build the first theater to be used exclusively for opera, the Italian Opera House, in lower Manhattan. Like all his previous business ventures, this went bust after three years. He wrote three memoirs of his life, fantastically embellished, and lived with his son until he died in 1838. For his incessant promotion of all things Italian in his new homeland, his greatest glory lay in the past in Europe, those exceptional five years with Mozart.

Caird's libretto rushes through Da Ponte's life like a pageant, setting it as his son Enzo's opera. We watch backstage during the beginning of the dress rehearsal, until the turntable reveals the front of the stage where the story continues. Da Ponte watches, then becomes his own character. In the early scenes, the son plays his father.

This backstager would work quite well if the opera itself weren't such a trudge. There's no sweep, no melody, no grand arc. At least it's not dissonant, the bane of modern opera, but it's not exactly tonal either. There's no distinct voice to it. We never hear O'Regan. We hear snippets, fragments, short scenes. Throughout, we're buffeted by dialogue in both Italian and English, neither of which is distinct. Thank goodness for surtitles.

Wondrously orchestrated, O'Regan's score meanders but never finds a place to call home. Very conversational, it's a lot of antique recitative while we wait for arias that never appear. The choral passages are exceptionally fragrant, O'Regan's specialty, and we long for any scene with lots of people.

The production, like any HGO show, is sumptuous and colorfully evocative, set in motion by master director Caird (Les Miserables, Nicholas Nickleby); set and costume designer David Farley; and Michael James Clark's handsome lighting.

The cast is exemplary, with the added frisson of legendary superstar baritone Thomas Hampson as Da Ponte. Who wouldn't want him in their world premiere? He has a rogue's presence, a pro's assurance, and that molten voice that caresses and etches space. You immediately know you're in the presence of someone special. It doesn't really matter that his character is written entirely in bullet points, Hampson brings all his years of experience to the fore. He makes Da Ponte infinitely more interesting, more real, than either O'Regan or Caird.

Bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni, as young Da Ponte, then later as son Enzo, matches old pro Hampson with startling confidence. He, too, has presence to spare and a deep voice larded with significance. He adds layers to what's missing in the score. Young mezzo Rihab Chaieb, in her HGO debut, is a delightful surprise in her triple role as Nancy, 19th-century superstar soprano Maria Malibran, and fiery Mozart. Nancy's “Lullaby” to her children felled by disease is achingly poignant. Chaieb supplies vibrant life and emotional connection to characters who're etched in sketches.

Maestro Patrick Summers brings his utmost passion to the score. He will not be deterred. This is HGO's 66th world premiere – that's got to be some world record, isn't it? – and he conducts O'Regan with passion, power, and innate affinity. He shows off the inherent beauties throughout and makes the most out of this most fragmented score – there's a fleeting bit of sea-washed Britten in Da Ponte's arrival scene in Philadelphia.

We cherish HGO for its unceasing commissions of world premieres. But I fear the bland Phoenix will not rise again. This is no Butterfly.

The Phoenix continues through May 10 at 7:30 p.m. Fridays, Saturday and Tuesday; and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Wortham Center, 500 Texas. For information, call 713-228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org. Sung in English and Italian with  projected English translation. $20-$245.

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