HOUSTON: Die Entführung aus dem Serail
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Die Entführung aus dem Serail

HOUSTON
Houston Symphony
1/23/15

Under the innovative leadership of a new conductor, Andrés Orozco-Estrada, and eager to build its audience, the Houston Symphony took on Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail in what was, technically, a concert performance, but a surprisingly dramatic one that was done with enough blocking, gesturing and creative license with the narrative to blur the distinction between staged and unstaged opera (seen Jan. 23). A comic Singspiel might not seem a likely choice for this creatively more-than-concert performance, but Orozco-Estrada, working in collaboration with director Lloyd Wood and dramaturg Gretl Satorius, eliminated a good portion of the spoken dialog and replaced it with Orozco-Estrada's entertaining ad-lib narrations of events and interactions with both onstage characters and the audience. For anyone expecting a decorous performance in the manner of a Handel oratorio (singers standing with partbooks in front of the orchestra), this was a lively and unpredictable improvement. With Orozco-Estrada cast as narrator, the production suited both the perky comedy of the Abduction and the capabilities and venue of the Houston Orchestra in its concert hall.

As overseen by Wood, the principals and chorus (from the University of Houston, Moores School of Music) moved about on risers behind and flanking the orchestra, but arranged in a broad T-shape so that they could move, upstage, from side to side. In especially poignant moments, the main characters came downstage toward the conductor's podium. Among those characters, that of Pasha Selim, performed by Jim Johnson, was exceptional not only as a speaking-only role (that much is original to the work), but also for speaking only in English (the singers sang in German while surtitles were shown). There is a centuries-old tradition of speaking one language and singing another in opera performances, and a bilingual performance seemed natural in this case, because Orozco-Estrada's narration was also in English. By contrast, the idea of putting a costume only on Selim stuck out as unnatural, not only for the visual juxtaposition of, say, Osmin in concert dress and Selim in costume, but also because the costume itself made him a dead-ringer for Jesus in a passion play, rather than the oriental potentate that he is.

The youthful singing cast featured mostly debut performances with the Houston Symphony, except for Lauren Snouffer (Konstanze), who has also previously sung with the Houston Grand Opera. Snouffer's performance was the musical highlight with her warm soprano sound and fluid but remarkably clear passagework. Abigail Dueppen, as the determined Blonde, was, by contrast, a brighter-sounding soprano whose best moments featured her sweet upper range. Tenors Paul Appleby and Rafael Moras were well cast in their respective roles: Appleby's rich, sustaining resonance exemplified the heroic lover, Belmonte; Moras's incisive and energetic singing captured the comic action of the trusty servant, Pedrillo. Bass Aaron Sorensen had the right comic stage persona for the blundering Osmin, but while he could reach the lowest notes of the part, he didn't quite have the power to project them across the orchestra. The problem, however, wasn't as much Sorensen as it was the orchestra and the positioning of the singers: to one degree or another, all of them sounded distant, placed, as they were, behind the orchestra. The Houston Symphony, if a little too present, featured clean and richly nuanced playing under Orozco-Estrada's poised and expressive directing. Indeed, Houston audiences might not have previously thought of the concert hall as an attractive venue for opera performances, but after seeing this performance, they may now think differently. spacer 

GREGORY BARNETT

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