Verdi And Handel, With Fresh Twists, Spark Opera Stage

A new staging of ‘Rigoletto,’ updated to the early twentieth century, stars Michael Mayes as Rigoletto and Arturo Chácon Cruz as the Duke of Mantua, at right. (Photos by Lynn Lane, courtesy of Houston Grand Opera)

By William Albright

HOUSTON –Houston Grand Opera opened its 65th season with youthful zip thanks to innovative new productions of a bread-and-butter opera (Verdi’s Rigoletto) and a staged version of a Handel oratorio (Saul).

Seen Oct. 20 in Wortham Theater Center’s Brown Theater, the co-production with The Atlanta Opera and the Dallas Opera of the Verdi warhorse put a fresh spin on the work by setting it in the 1920s or ’30s while also maintaining some of the story’s Renaissance look and feel. Costume designer Jessica Jahn put court jester Rigoletto in whiteface and a garishly colored clown suit, dressed the coquettes in the first-act party scene like flapper-era floozies, gave Sparafucile a carny look, and dressed the entire male chorus in 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.

Director Tomer Zvulun,  abetted by Robert Wierzel’s lighting and movement director Melissa Noble, provided a staging brimming with energy and physical detail. Rigoletto’s legs and hands are never still, and his supposedly daughter-protecting maid never stops dithering and cadging money from the lecherous Duke of Mantua.

Distraught father and daughter: Michael Mayes and  Mané Galoyan.

Making a last-minute Houston opera debut replacing the ill Brian Mulligan, Michael Mayes was a nimble and potent jester, but tempering his huge voice with some softness would have made the role’s many tenderly lyrical pages more moving. The same could be said of Arturo Chácon-Cruz’s Duke. He sang with plenty of ring and panache but little dynamic variety. Mané Galoyan’s Gilda, however, demonstrated the expressive value of mezza voce shadings. Her full, strong, diamond-bright lyric soprano could turn a little hard on top, and she smoothed out the coloratura flights and filigree in “Caro nome” a bit, but she floated some lovely pianissimos and commanded all the power needed to drive home the last-act trio.

Mezzo-soprano Zoie Reams was a vocally ripe Maddalena, and David Shipley boomed balefully as  assassin for hire Sparafucile. Also making his company debut, Houston Grand Opera Studio artist Nicholas Newton likewise produced a hearty bass as Monterone, who in this production is repeatedly stabbed and even shot in the head in the first act but returns as a bloodied spirit to inflame Rigoletto’s desire for revenge.

Company newcomer Jordan de Souza, principal conductor of the Komische Oper Berlin, led with invigorating urgency while also allowing lyrical phrases plenty of elasticity and giving his singers license to linger showily on high notes.

Barrie Kosky’s 2015 staging of ‘Saul,’ premiered at Glyndebourne, received its North American premiere at the Houston Grand Opera with Donna Stirrup as revival director.

George Frideric Handel wrote 42 operas. So why since the 1950s have opera companies and star directors such as Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars been tempted to look to his more than two dozen oratorios for works to stage? The wealth of sublime music, of course, and opportunities to dramatize the history and situations they deal in. Perhaps the starriest example was Covent Garden’s 1958 mounting of Samson starring opera legends Joan Sutherland and Jon Vickers (he also sang the title role in Dallas in 1976).

Arguably the greatest of Handel’s oratorios is Saul, a complex biblical tale of love, hate, jealousy, rage, and madness with text by Charles Jennens, librettist for Messiah and Belshazzar. Handel scholar Winton Dean called it “one of the supreme masterpieces of dramatic art, comparable with the Oresteia and King Lear,” while Handel biographer Jonathan Keates said Saul was “epic in design, opulent in orchestration, and the composer’s most monumental creation.” On October 25 in Brown Theater, Houston Grand Opera gave the American premiere of the brilliant production created in 2015 for Britain’s Glyndebourne Festival Opera, and it was a mesmerizing theatrical experience.

Barrie Kosky’s staging, recreated here by Donna Stirrup, overflows with so much intricate movement that Broadway’s exuberantly micromanaged Hamilton production looks improvised by comparison. In Otto Pichler’s original choreography, here recreated by Merry Holden, six dancers execute every kind of dance style from ballet to Rockette high kicks.

The second part of the ‘Saul’ opens in a field of burning candles as Saul’s bitter daugher Merab (Pureum Jo) reflects on David’s acclaim. The sets are by Katrin Lea Tag.

The production opens lavishly, but Katrin Lea Tag’s set and costumes and Joachim Klein’s lighting quickly turn spare. The curtain rises on the chorus, a major player in Handel oratorios, richly clad in 18th-century clothes and wigs and perched atop a huge banquet table laden with fruits and roasted game. (Part Two opens in similarly striking fashion, 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 raked stage that’s ankle deep in black volcanic earth.

Apropos Winton Dean’s comparison of the work to Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, King Saul becomes increasingly erratic and unhinged. He is so angrily envious of David’s acclaim that he orders his son Jonathan to kill Israel’s savior. When in Part Two Saul strips to boxer shorts on the equivalent of Lear’s blasted heath, the chorus also wears underwear. When he sits on the ground to call up the Witch of Endor for a vision of the future, through a trap door her head appears 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.

Patrick Summers, music director of Houston Grand Opera, conducted with spirit and eloquence. The “Dead March” for Saul and Jonathan is the most famous passage in the work. Featuring trombones and quiet tread-like thumps on a kettledrum, it has been part of many important state funeralsincluding those for Winston Churchill and George Washington. It was played with apt and touching solemnity. 

Christopher Purves, magnificent as Saul in his madness.

Christopher Purves, last seen here in 2017 as Alberich in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung and the non-singing Pasha Selim in Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio,  gave a magnificent performance as Saul. His riveting acting was amazingly physical – in his madness he runs laps around the bare stage – and his baritone encompassed forte outbursts and whispered snarls.

Paul Appleby, like Purves a member of the 2015 Glyndebourne staging, brought a clear tenor and troubled emotion to the 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 the multiple roles of Abner, the High Priest, Doeg, and an Amalekite. (Abner, Saul’s commander-in-chief, is here a kind of sinister, slithery Puck with fingers as claw-like as Nosferatu’s.)

Saul’s haughty daughter Merab despises David for his lowly origins while sister Michal loves him for his virtue. Andriana Chuchman sang Michal with a ripe but still brilliant soprano and broke into a flailing happy dance when ordered to wed David. Pureum Jo endowed Merab with sun-bright soprano tone and, like Chuchman, shaped slow arias meltingly. And all night the chorus sang with polished precision and performed complicated movements crisply.

Saul can be seen at Houston Grand Opera through Nov. 8. For information and tickets, go here.

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.