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Houston Grand Opera opened its 65th season with a gently updated bread-and-butter opera (Verdi's Rigoletto) and a brilliantly stylized staging of a Handel oratorio (Saul).

A co-production with Adanta Opera and Dallas Opera, Verdi's warhorse (seen Oct. 20th) was set in the 1920/30s but still had a Renaissance look and feel. Costume designer Jessica Jahn put court jester Rjgoletto in whiteface and a garishly coloured clown suit, dressed the coquettes in Act Is party scene as flapper-era floozies, made Sparafucile look like a carny, and gave the entire male chorus white tie and tails. Going back centuries, Erhard Rom's set featured Corinthian columns, a balcony worthy of Romeo and Juliet, and a giant mural of a slice of Annibale Carracci's fresco "The Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne." With lighting by Robert Wierzel, director Tomer Zvulun and movement director Melissa Noble emphasized vitality and detailed physical movements.

Replacing an ill Brian Mulligan in his last-minute HGO debut, Michael Mayes made a lively and vocally powerful jester, but the role's many tender lyrical pages were oversung. Similarly, Arturo Chacon-Cruz sang the Duke with plenty of ring and panache but little dynamic variety. However, as Gilda, Mane Galoyan supplied many mezza voce shadings and floated some lovely pianissimi, while also unleashing a full, strong, diamond-bright lyric soprano in the turbulent last-act trio.

Mezzo-soprano Zoie Reams was a vocally ripe Maddalena, David Shipley boomed balefully as Sparafucile, and HGO Studio artist Nicholas Newton likewise produced a hearty bass as Monterone.

Canadian conductor Jordan de Souza, First Kapellmeister at Komische Oper Berlin (KOB), made a strong HGO debut, leading with invigorating urgency while also allowing lyrical phrases plenty of elasticity and giving his singers license to linger showily on high notes.

On Oct. 25th, HGO gave the American premiere of Glyndebourne Festival's brilliant 2015 production of Handel's Saul, which proved to be a mesmerizing theatrical experience.

The staging by KOB artistic director Barrie Kosky, recreated here by Donna Stirrup, overflows with intricate movement for everyone involved. In Otto Pichler's original choreography, recreated by Merry Holden, six dancers execute every kind of dance style from ballet to Rockette high kicks. The production opens lavishly, but Katrin Lea Tag's set and costumes and Joachim Klein's lighting gradually unleash the darker side of this biblical story of love, hate, jealousy, rage, and madness. The curtain rises on the chorus--a major player in Handel oratorios--richly clad in 18thcentury clothes and wigs, and perched atop a huge banquet table bountifully laden with fruits and roasted game (Part II is similarly striking, with a stage-filling field of burning candles). The Israelites are celebrating David's slaying of the Philistine giant Goliath, whose head lies on the sharply raked stage that's ankle deep in black volcanic earth.

Increasingly erratic and unhinged, Saul is so angrily envious of David's acclaim that he orders his son Jonathan to kill Israel's saviour. When in Part II the demented Saul strips to boxer shorts and runs laps on the bare stage, the chorus also wears underwear. When he sits on the ground to call up the Witch of Endor for a vision of the fixture, her head appears through a trap door located between his legs like a baby being born. Joining him above ground, she proves to be a hag with shriveled, pendulous breasts that Saul suckles for comfort. After a deadly battle with the now Goliath-less Philistines, Saul and Jonathan and their severed heads lie on the ground while the chorus praises David, their new king.

Last seen here in 2017 as Alberich in Wagners Gotterdtimmerung and the nonsinging Pasha Selim in Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio, baritone Christopher Purves gave a magnificent performance as Saul. His amazingly physical acting and highly expressive singing were riveting. Fellow cast member from the 2015 Glyndebourne staging, Paul Appleby, brought a clear tenor and troubled characterization to the emotionally conflicted Jonathan. Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen deployed a sweet, full countertenor and a noble demeanor as David, and tenors Chad Shelton and Keith Jameson sang strongly as, respectively, the Witch of Endor and Abner, and the High Priest, Doeg, and an Amalekite (Abner, Saul's commander-in-chief, is here a kind of sinister, slithery Puck with fingers as clawlike as Nosferatu's).

Saul's haughty daughter Merab despises David for his lowly origins while sister Michal loves him for his virtue. Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman sang the latter with a ripe but still brilliant soprano, and broke into a flailing happy dance when ordered to wed David. Pureumjo endowed Merab with sun-bright soprano tone and, like Chuchman, shaped slow arias meltingly.

HGO artistic and music director Patrick Summers conducted with spirit and eloquence, and the all-important chorus sang with polished precision and performed their complicated movements crisply.

Caption: Michael Mayes in the title role of Houston Grand Opera's Rigoletto
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Author:Albright, William
Publication:Opera Canada
Article Type:Opera review
Geographic Code:1U7TX
Date:Dec 22, 2019
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