La Traviata, Julius Caesar HOUSTON
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In Review > North America

La Traviata, Julius Caesar  

Houston Grand Opera

In Review HGO Traviata hdl 118
Albina Shagimuratova, Violetta in HGO’s Traviata
© Lynn Lane

ON OCTOBER 20, against the long odds imposed by the floods of Hurricane Harvey, Houston Grand Opera opened its season with a strong Traviata that centered on Albina Shagimuratova’s compelling, virtuoso performance. Her Violetta offered the characteristics of the Shagimuratova style long familiar to Houston audiences—diaphanous, pianissimo high notes; slow, out-of-nowhere crescendos; and effortlessly sustained, passion-laden fortissimos. But beyond those vocal gifts, Shagimuratova brought a keen sense of dramatic pacing to the role, lingering extra-long at a significant moment or, for example, spreading out the repeats of Alfredo’s “croce e delizia,” when Violetta sings them reminiscently at the end of Act I. Shagimuratova captured the dramatic color—the Verdian tinta—of the consumptive Violetta, sometimes singing with airy delicacy, breathless desperation or deathly-cold surrender.

Shagimuratova’s performance was, by itself, worth the price of admission, but there were strengths throughout the cast. In his HGO debut, baritone George Petean (Giorgio Germont) shifted easily between sympathetic tenderness and authoritarian solidity, and he demonstrated a remarkable upper range that included a stunning high B-flat at the end of “No, non udrai rimproveri.” Zoie Reams’s rich mezzo-soprano and unruffled grace made for a distinctively poised Flora Bervoix, and Yelena Dyachek’s warm, supple soprano underscored Annina’s empathetic character. After a little trouble with pitch early on, tenor Dimitri Pittas, the Alfredo, delivered the crisp sound and soaring high notes of a convincingly impetuous youth, although he never quite matched Shagimuratova’s power and projection when they sang together.

Some of this may have been a matter of the performing space—the George R. Brown Convention Center, an enormous exhibition hall in downtown Houston. The space was partitioned with curtains to create a large auditorium and a stage with the orchestra behind it, an arrangement that tended to swallow the notes of the singers when they turned away from the audience. The distant position of the orchestra brought the soloists closer to the audience and created a more intimate, vivid performance, but it also caused some raggedness in the choruses, notwithstanding the HGO Orchestra’s fine playing under the baton of Eun Sun Kim.

Whatever the effect on the performers of HGO’s temporary venue—officially named “Resilience Theater”—it didn’t detract from the quality of this Traviata, a coproduction of HGO, Lyric Opera of Chicago and Canadian Opera Company. Much of the visual impact of the staging was a matter of Cait O’Connor’s evocative costumes, whose themed party-attire (Rococo in Act I; Spanish Gypsy in Act II) captured the aristocratic self-indulgence and degeneracy of Violetta’s Parisian milieu. Marcus Doshi’s lighting design set the mood expertly, whether in the sunny brilliance of Violetta’s country home, the velvet-red richness of Flora’s household, or the dismal grey of Violetta’s bedroom. 

Arin Arbus’s sensitive stage direction threw the dramatic conflicts of the individual characters into relief against these backdrops. A great deal of meaning was packed into the standoff at Flora’s party in Act II simply through the contrast of Violetta’s worried, pleading looks and Alfredo’s smoldering indignation and accumulating rage. Abundant pain and dismay broke loose during Alfredo’s violent repeated hurling of banknotes at Violetta; he had enough of them in substantial wads to make four lashing throws! Such were the bracing drama and gripping performances that the audience could almost forget that it was sitting in the same convention center that had housed more than 10,000 hurricane refugees just weeks before.

In Review HGO Cesare hdl 118 
Stober and Costanzo, Cleopatra and Caesar in Houston
© Lynn Lane

HOUSTON GRAND OPERA'S next presentation in the Resilience Theatre, the October 27 performance of Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto (sung in Italian but billed as Julius Caesar), combined standout singing and snappy stage direction with a clever-but-nonsensical conception of the drama as a 1930s Hollywood movie in the making. The result, in this first Houston revival of the 2003 HGO production by James Robinson, yielded some great moments marred by distracting storytelling, as well as several strong performances. 

With wavy, platinum-blonde hair à la Jean Harlow, Heidi Stober’s Cleopatra had the look of a silver-screen siren, and her flowing, warm soprano demonstrated the young Egyptian queen’s beguiling power. There are several shades to this complex role—teasing, seductive, languishing, triumphant—and Stober’s sensitive performance captured Cleopatra’s dramatic evolution from brat of a sister to scheming seductress to passionate heroine. Caesar is a more straightforward character, and Anthony Roth Costanzo, in his HGO debut, exuded the vigor and confidence of a conquering hero—one who might (and does) gamely leap down from the tank he rides in on. Costanzo’s singing exhibited a clear, projecting tone, amazing passagework and complete ease with the highest notes of his range. He had powerful low notes, too, but these paradoxically emphasized a weak spot in his low-to-middle range, the only defect in an otherwise outstanding performance.

Veteran countertenor David Daniels, who sang the title role in the first HGO Caesars in 2003, returned to the show as Tolomeo. Daniels still offers consistently smooth and vibrant tone throughout his range, but his characterization of Cleopatra’s scheming brother, complete with hobbyhorse prop, was infused with too much spoiled-brat comedy and too little mercurial menace to make his Tolomeo an effective villain. Stephanie Blythe’s deep, focused mezzo-soprano gave her grieving Cornelia crucial dramatic intensity. Mezzo Megan Mikailovna Samarin, as Cornelia’s vengeance-seeking son, Sesto, exuded youthful, even intemperate determination with her energetic stage presence and bright, lustrous voice. Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, in his first season as an HGO Studio artist, sang the unambiguously comic role of Nireno, Cleopatra’s confidante, with the proper playful spirit.

Recasting the opera’s plot as a 1930s movie being filmed—and making the singers characters in the movie—provides enticing visuals; the set was designed by Christine Jones as a backlot soundstage, and the period costumes were by James Schuette. But the concept pushed this heroic opera too far toward farce. The poignancy of “Alma del gran Pompeo,” “Son nata a lagrimar,” “Se pietà” and “Piangerò la sorte mia” should leave no doubt about the weighty drama that runs through Julius Caesar. The skulking stagehands positioning 1930s-style spotlights and the winking girl in maid’s uniform snapping a clapperboard at the start of scenes were too-clever distractions, more deflating than funny.

The production is at its best when it takes the plot more seriously: Cleopatra’s “V’adoro, pupille” is seduction done right, with its Busby Berkeley-inspired arrangements of male dancers with top hats and canes. The love-struck joy in Cesare’s pastoral, birdsong-filled aria, “Se in fiorito prato,” is likewise illuminated in a brilliant pas de deux—literally—between Costanzo’s Cesare and a fluidly balletic Denise Tarrant as onstage solo (and virtuoso) violin. The biggest applause of the night, however, came during Cesare’s “Va tacito,” which featured the superb French-horn playing of Spencer Park. This especially popular aria within an especially popular Handel opera is heard often, but I’ve never experienced such overflowing yet elegant embellishments as those played by Park and sung by Costanzo in their da capo improvisatory duel, all of which did justice to the aria’s dead serious metaphor of the hunt.

In spite of the production concept, this Caesar had moments of great theater, an especially impressive feat in the drab and cavernous performing space of the George R. Brown Convention Center. And the company is valiantly working out the kinks of its temporary home: the HGO Orchestra, directed by Patrick Summers, though still located behind the singers, was in a better position—closer in and off to one side—so that its sound was more present and better integrated with the singing in this second opera of the season than it was in the first; the singing too was clearer and better projected. This was opera during a time of recovery—and all the more courageous for it.  —Gregory Barnett 

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