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Houston Grand Opera.

Composers Mozart and Salieri are the subject of Rimsky-Korsakov's opera of that name, but Mozart librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte gets one all to himself in Tarik O'Regan and John Caird's The Phoenix. Commissioned by Houston Grand Opera, it became the company's 66th world premiere on Apr. 26th.

Da Ponte is best-known for his libretti for Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cost fan tutte. But those landmarks are just a few of his accomplishments. In his almost 90 turbulent years, he wrote more than two dozen librettos for 11 composers and was a flagrantly non-celibate Catholic priest following his boyhood conversion from Judaism, a poet in Latin and Italian, a schoolmaster, a translator of other writers' librettos, a grocer, a carter and shopkeeper, a gin distiller, a bookseller, a professor of Italian language and literature, a prolific memoirist, and an opera impresario.

All of Da Pontes personal and professional successes and his efforts to rebound from setbacks and failures are surveyed in The Phoenix, workshopped here for a week in August and fittingly running in repertory with Don Giovanni.

The Phoenix was composed by the 41-year-old O'Regan, British-born but now an American citizen. The librettist/ director is Edmonton-born English theatre man John Caird, 70, who directed and wrote the libretto for Andre Previn's Brief Encounter (HGO world premiere in 2009). The team's three-hour opus--an opera-within-an-opera--opens in 1832 Manhattan with the dress rehearsal of' The Phoenix' by Da Ponte's son Enzo (short for Lorenzo Jr.). The fictitious work is a fundraiser; Da Ponte Senior wants to build the first Italian opera house in America, where he lived the last 33 years of his life.

With lighting by Michael James Clark, the set by David Farley features towering wooden scaffolding that rotates for a view of the 1832 theatre's backstage one moment, and its auditorium the next. Sporting Farley's colourful costumes and powdered wigs, the self-contained opera s 1832 cast stars legendary 19th-century diva Maria Malibran.

Internationally famous for his mountings of Les Mismbles and Nicholas Nickleby, Caird supplied a predictably fluid and picturesque staging. Fastidiously conducted by HGO Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers, O'Regan's score boasts luminous orchestration, rhythmic vitality, and some gorgeous slow moments, most notably in the choral passages. But the profusion of historical detail and minor characters (most members of the 2019 cast sing multiple roles) slows the three-hour work's pace.

HGO first-timer Thomas Hampson's light but still surprisingly high-volume baritone and skill at characterization enhanced the role of old Lorenzo Da Ponte. His real-life son-in-law Luca Pisaroni deployed a sturdy bass-baritone and assured acting as Enzo and the young Da Ponte.

As Malibran, a sassy Mozart, and Da Pontes wife Nancy,Tunisian-born Canadian mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb made a solid company debut with her luxurious singing of two gorgeous arias: a hymn to the couple's idyllic country home in Pennsylvania and a lament for the deaths of two of their four children and a grandson.

Chad Shelton applied a clarion tenor to six characters, including Da Ponte friends Casanova and "A Visit from St. Nicholas/'Twas the Night Before Christmas" author Clement Clarke Moore. Also effective in multiple roles were sopranos Lauren Snouffer and Elizabeth Sutphen.

The Phoenix has its longueurs despite a fascinating score, but a vivid staging and a strong cast of singing actors have given this particular bird a deluxe maiden flight.--William Albright
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Title Annotation:HOUSTON
Author:Albright, William
Publication:Opera Canada
Article Type:Opera review
Date:Jun 22, 2019
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