By William Albright
HOUSTON – If Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749‒1838) ever heard the old saying “Let the cobbler stick to his last,” his long and eventful life flouted its folk wisdom. In his almost 90 turbulent years, he wrote more than two dozen librettos for 11 composers, his texts for Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte guaranteeing his immortality. But the converted-as-a-boy Jew was also a Catholic priest (whose breaking of his vows of celibacy involved several mistresses and resultant illegitimate children); a teacher of Latin, Italian, and French; 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 Ponte’s personal and professional exploits and vicissitudes as a champion of freedom and the arts, as well as his efforts to rebound from setbacks and failures, are surveyed in The Phoenix, which Houston Grand Opera commissioned and made its 66th world premiere on April 26 in Wortham Theater Center’s Brown Theater. Fittingly, it runs in repertory with Don Giovanni.
Workshopped here for a week last August, The Phoenix was composed by Tarik O’Regan, British-born but now an American citizen. (His a cappella choral work Mass Observation was performed earlier in April by the Houston Chamber Choir.) The librettist/director was John Caird, who directed and wrote the libretto for André Previn’s Brief Encounter (HGO world premiere in 2009) and is internationally famous for his stagings of Les Misérables and Nicholas Nickleby.
An opera-within-an-opera, the three-hour opus opens in 1832 Manhattan with the dress rehearsal of The Phoenix by Da Ponte’s son Enzo (short for Lorenzo Jr.). Dotted with recitatives both secco and accompagnato, 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 is a towering wooden scaffolding augmented by a desk, a bed, a coffin, and other objects. It rotates, so that we are looking into the 1832 theater’s backstage area one moment, out into its auditorium the next. The 1832 cast, handsomely outfitted by Farley with powdered wigs and colorful costumes, also includes legendary 19th-century diva Maria Malibran, tenor Michael Kelly (here named Patrick in honor of HGO artistic and music director Patrick Summers), and two of Da Ponte’s nieces.
O’Regan says his chief musical influences are Renaissance vocal writing, minimalist music, 1950s and ’60s jazz, the music of North Africa (his mother was Algerian, and in early childhood he lived in Algeria and Morocco), and that of British rock bands of the 1960s and ’70s. I detected little influence of North African and vintage rock music in O’Regan’s luminously orchestrated score, but its rhythmic complexity may be traceable to his love of jazz. The richness and beauty of the opera’s choral writing is certainly an homage to the Renaissance music he performed as an Oxford and Cambridge student chorister, and ensemble singing constitutes the best thing in this sometimes draggy work, the profusion of historical detail and minor characters diluting the dramatic focus and slowing the pace. Conductor and fortepianist Summers led the proceedings fastidiously.
Solo highlights include heartfelt arias by Da Ponte’s wife, Nancy. (Casanova, no less, advises the serial womanizer to marry, and he proves a loving husband for years.) One is a paean to the couple’s idyllic country home in Pennsylvania, and the other laments the deaths of two of their four children and a grandson. The opera ends with Malibran declaring Enzo the true Phoenix and prophesying that he will rise from his father’s ashes.
Caird’s staging was predictably fluid and picturesque, but the swaths of Italian in his complex libretto were not exactly boons to audience comprehension and drew focus from the action to the supertitles. There are lots of inside-baseball jokes (opera needs tunes, divas are monsters, is the chorus singing in tune today?), and one of them (nobody cares about baritones) tweaks the stars of The Phoenix.
HGO first-timer Thomas Hampson brought his light but still surprisingly high-decibel baritone and skill at characterization to the role of old Da Ponte, and Hampson’s real-life son-in-law Luca Pisaroni deployed a sturdy bass-baritone and assured acting as Enzo and the young Da Ponte. Chad Shelton applied a clarion tenor to Patrick Kelly and five other characters, while mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb made a solid company debut by singing luxuriously as Malibran, a sassy Mozart, and a melancholy Nancy Da Ponte. 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 is a freelance writer in Houston who has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, American Record Guide, Opera, The Opera Quarterly, and other publications.