Houston Press

ConciertOh! de Invierno

By Olivia Flores Alvarez

Octavio Moreno has performed many times with Opera in the Heights, but the ConciertOh! De Invierno concert hits a personal note. The Latin American zarzuelas (opera-like, with both sung and spoken sections), boleros and música navideña (Christmas music) on the program are the music Moreno grew up with in Mexico. “This is what I grew up listening to,” he tells us. “This music is what pushed me to pursue a musical career. Even today, I try to do some of this music whenever I can; it’s too beautiful for me to let go. It’s music that I feel it deep in my heart, in my soul.


“Also, I love romantic music and two of the two arias [I sing] are very romantic.” Opera in the Heights Executive Director Mariam Khalili approached Moreno and a few other singers with the idea for the concert a few months ago. The organization had done a similar event several years ago and when the subject of a holiday concert came up, Khalili suggested ConciertOh! Along with Moreno, the lineup of performers includes Claudia Chapa, James Rodriguez, Arnold Yzaguirre, Patrick Contreras and pianist Brian Suits.

Moreno switches roles for a few songs, going from singer to accompanist when he picks up a guitar in the second half of the show. “I play on ‘Granada’ for Patrick. [Playing guitar,] that’s an obscure part of my life, one that I really enjoy.”

Does a zarzuelas concert being performed by an American opera company surprise Moreno? “Actually, no. Opera in the Heights isn’t a Latin American organization, but it also isn’t an Italian organization or a German organization; nevertheless, they’re doing Italian opera and German opera. I think we, the whole world, has gotten to a point where pretty much everything is everybody’s. In a country like this, where you can look around and see Irish people, Africans, Germans all in one place, adding a program like this makes sense.”

7 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Lambert Hall, 1703 Heights. For information, call 713-861-5303 or visit operaintheheights.org. $25.


ORGANIZER DESCRIPTION: Join Opera in the Heights (Oh!) for ConciertOh! de Invierno, a special holiday concert highlighting some of Oh’s most outstanding Hispanic artists in a way that that allows them to show off different styles of music. Oh!’s concert series will feature traditional zarzuelas, boleros and música navideña (Christmas music) that have broad appeal. (Zarzuela is a Spanish lyric dramatic opera genre alternating between spoken and sung scenes, and bolero is slow tempo Latin music.)

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Photography by Deji Osinulu

Photography by Deji Osinulu

The set-up:
What exactly are they thinking at Opera in the Heights? In this two-opera set, Gian Carlo Menotti's little bauble of an operetta, The Telephone (1947), has been given an insane Halloween gloss so that characters Lucy and Ben appear as Bride of Frankenstein and Frankenstein monster. What the hell?! It's mind-numbingly stupid – and insulting to the composer. But The Medium (1946) is deliciously taut and fragrant, a wonderful homage to the composer. What's going on?

The execution:
That we ultimately forgive director Lynda McKnight's myopic opening production is testament to the skill of Menotti (music and libretto), the fine playing of the chamber orchestra under maestro Eiki Isomura, and the exemplary sweet cast (soprano Julia Engels and tenor Thomas Richards). Fortunately, the comic opera lasts less than 20 minutes, so the shock of having to endure Lucy's Elsa Lanchester lightning-streaked wig or Ben's green skin and those bolts protruding from his neck is fleeting. But what is this? I know it opened on Halloween weekend, but, really, who thought this Munsters-esque look was a good idea?

Written as a curtain-raiser for Menotti's dank dramatic The MediumThe Telephone is a bright little work that's all glimmer and sass. About to leave on a business trip, boyfriend Ben is unable to propose to Lucy because she's constantly on the phone. She's tethered to her “umbilical cord,” as Ben calls it, when he's tangled up in its Laocoön cord. In mini arias, she gossips, gets a wrong number, calls the operator for the precise time, and apologizes to another best friend for gossiping with the first friend, while Ben frets in silence, as time ticks away. Realizing he can't win in person, he phones her from the train station and finally gets her attention. Yes, she will marry him. But will you remember, she teases. Sure, he says, Your face, eyes, lips? No, silly, my phone number.

Menotti had no idea how prescient he was.

Engels sparkles as preoccupied Lucy; Richards fumes as second-in-line Ben; Menotti dazzles. A tasty musical hors d'oeurve, the opera goes by in a flash. Nobody sets conversational speech so nimbly as Menotti. Fresh and piquant, the work's over before you know it.

These were his glory years, the '40s and '50s, when Menotti was considered the young savior of opera. His melodies flowed, his dramatic instincts secure, and almost everyone who had a new television set watched his magnificent NBC Christmas special Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951). This production turned on an entire generation to the glories of opera. (Are you listening, HGO?)

Menotti was the voice of the new verismo, or, perhaps, the old verismo in new guise – passionately singable, lyric, gritty, melodramatic, Italianate. A worthy successor to Puccini and Mascagni, Menotti was supposed to revive moribund, old-fogy opera. But for all his prodigious gifts, he was in the wrong century, and his throwback rococo style didn't suit the fashion of the time. After his early hits, he was branded hopelessly old-fashioned. Although he received two Pulitzer Prizes for Music – The Consul(1950) and The Saint of Bleecker Street (1954) – none of his future work would be so wildly applauded. His last opera was The Singing Child (1993). He was also indirectly responsible for a third Pulitzer: he wrote the libretto for his partner Samuel Barber's opera Vanessa (1958), which won Barber the prestigious award.

The Medium is sleek psychological thriller. Madame Flora (mezzo Claudia Chapa, in full diva mode), a sham seer, hoodwinks her emotionally fragile patrons with fake séances and stage tricks. Daughter Monica (soprano Julie Thornton) supplies the phantom voices while mute Toby (Alex Scheuremann), in love with Monica, supplies the special effects. Flora is haunted by memories not fully enumerated by Menotti, but her unspecified terrors have something to do with surviving the horrors of WW II. Motivation might be nebulous, but Menotti overlays the scant background info with eerie skittering woodwinds, prickly percussion, and Monica's minor key folk tune “The Black Swan,” to instill an atmosphere of creepy European angst. The drama is high-pitched and over-the-top. Pure verismo, the work is out there, as we say.

Who has touched her with an icy hand, Madame Flora demands to know, cutting short the séance. She blames Toby and forces him out of the house. When he sneaks back to get Monica, a drunken Flora, obsessed and hallucinating, shoots him. “I have killed the ghost,” she shouts in triumph.

Jodi Bobrovsky's set design is appropriately moldy and seedy, a New Orleans house decayed and redolent of mildew. When Flora's demons descend, the lights go red and spooky.

Chapa, memorable from OH's past seasons as a bouncy Mistress Quickly in Falstaff and a gleeful witch in Hansel and Gretel, possesses a purring inky mezzo that envelops Menotti's dramatic lines with probing depth and nuance. When she goes bonkers, stand back. As repressed Monica, Thornton turns a bit shrill in the upper register when singing full out, and her voice can get lost even through Menotti's chamber orchestration, but her rendition of “Black Swan” glows with tenderness, like innocence remembered. Although a non-singing role, Scheuremann's Toby is constantly wary and feral, on guard against Flora's unwarranted outbursts and quickly hiding behind the furniture for protection. He's lost his innocence years ago. The clients, who vehemently protest Madame Flora's confession that she's a fraud because they want so desperately to believe their children are in contact with them, are suitably limed by soprano Gwen Alfred, tenor Richards, and mezzo Monica Isomura.

The verdict:
Any Menotti is rare in today's opera rep. A return to his particular brand of full-out theatricality is long overdue, certainly welcome, and a surprising re-discovery.

The Telephone and The Medium continues on November 7 at Opera in the Heights, 1703 Heights Boulevard. For information, call 713-861-5303 or visit operaintheheights.org. $35-$67.

La Tragédie de Carmen Overcomes Its Shortcomings at Opera in the Heights

By D. L. Groover

March 23, 2015

Photo by Deji Osinulu Photography

Sishel Claverie as Carmen and Jared Guest as Escamillo in the Ruby Cast of Carmen

The set-up:
Do you hear that whirring deep underground? It’s composer Georges Bizet spinning in his grave after the beating his immortal opera masterwork Carmen gets under ham-fisted director/auteur Peter Brook in his adaptation La Tragédie de Carmen. Tragedy, indeed.

Poor Bizet. First he had to die prematurely during the opera’s premiere run at Paris’s Opera-Comique, never knowing what a smash hit he had created; now, he has to endure this.

The execution:
This one-act Reader’s Digest version from 1981, closing out Opera in the Heights’ season, is an unholy mash-up of the opera, Prosper Merimee’s 1845 novella, and tons of directorial flourishes from the radical director who caused a theater stir with such Royal Shakespeare Company productions as the inmates-run-the-asylum Marat/Sade (1964) and the white box, acrobatic A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1970). Along with contemporary Robert Wilson, Brook’s visual flair is always striking, but his hot-house ideas tend to shock more than illuminate.

Tragédie doesn’t shock, so much as stupefy. Needless to say, this 80-minute intimate piece dispenses with the opera’s colorful mise-en-scene, paring the sumptuous Spanish tapestry down to a threadbare quartet and two speaking roles.

There are no Seville townspeople, no soldiers, no kids chorus, no brawling cigar factory girls, no gypsy smugglers, no bullfight parade. Though cut, rearranged, and re-orchestrated by Marius Constant, the opera’s famous numbers are somewhat intact (Carmen’s “Habanera” and “Seguidilla,”Jose’s “Flower Song,” Escamillo’s “Toreador Song,” Micaela’s “I am not afraid”). They drift in and out, functioning less as character motivation as in Bizet, than used as background score to Brook’s condensed, simplified expressionism. I suppose this type of treatment is OK as a Greatest Hits compilation, or as a pale substitute when a full stage mounting isn’t feasible. But what’s the point? Why mess with something that’s perfect as it is? Why redoCarmen at all?

This Brook recension adds no great insight to Bizet. If anything, the distillation makes the whole affair more comic when every incident gets piled on top of one another. There’s no breathing room for the characters to develop or interact within the world that the opera so fulsomely creates.

Fortunately, OH’s presentation has a fiery Carmen in mezzo Sishel Claverie. (Briana Hunter sings the role in the alternate Emerald cast.) Exuding erotic stage presence as if trailing cigar smoke, she steams up intimate Lambert Hall. In her red laced corset and swirling skirts, which never stay down for long, she cuts quite a figure. Feisty and free, she’s no man’s possession. Enter at your own risk. In a lovely touch, she rolls a cigar on her bare thigh. Claverie’s voice is smoky and seductive, too. Stand back, or get burned.

No one can touch her, although soprano Lisa Borik, as Micaela, who loves Jose from afar, is a good match. Her rich, soaring voice gives this wimpy good girl more intensity than usual, but she still doesn’t have much to do in this pocket-sized version except stand aside and witness Jose’s degradation. Tenor Brent Turner, as love-mad Jose, had a more difficult time of it opening night, but came into his own after his lyric voice opened up. His “Flower Song” wasn’t ideal, slipping out of key on those treacherous high notes, but as his character grew more jealous and unhinged his voice found the right niche, full and dramatic. (Jose Daniel Mojica sings hapless Jose in the Emerald cast.)

Baritone Jared Guest was a pumped-up bullfighter, although in Brook’s version, he enters Pastia’s tavern hideout without entourage or cheering throngs, slipping in quietly as if he’s about to order tapas and a sangria. Guest’s big and burly, a bit rough around the edges, but his celebrated “Toreador Song” was nicely phrased, replete with matador’s ego and roving eye.

We’re in ’30s Spain under Brook, a time shift that’s almost de rigeur these days wheneverCarmen is produced. Designer Jodi Bobrovsky’s Picasso-inspired cubist look fits admirably. Every scene has a fight in it, so it seems, be it knife or fist, and the cast commits wholehearted to Josh Morrison’s staged mayhem. Director Lynda McKnight keeps the show freighted with “fateful” poses, while young maestro Eiki Isomura leads his chamber orchestra through Bizet’s beguiling, if truncated, melodies with seductive ease.

The verdict:
Bizet’s white-hot opera sizzles and smolders. One of opera’s first down-and-dirty works, the Parisians didn’t know how to respond to such wild carrying-on, especially at the Comique, known for its lighter fare so different from the oh-so-grand Operá. In only a few months, the ferocious gypsy girl would seduce Europe, soon to conquer the known world. She’s never been out of the Top 10 in any list of the most popular operas. Brook does her no favors by stripping away background and motivation and rejiggering the music, but there’s nothing he can really do to damage our favorite Lady of Spain. She’s much more enduring than he is. Carmen’s always had great bones, legs, and voice. At Opera in the Heights, Claverie possesses all three to enchant, lure, and seduce us anew.

La Tragédie de Carmen. March 26, 27, 28, 29m at Opera in the Heights, 1703 Heights Boulevard. For information visit operaintheheights.org or call 713-861-5303. $13-$63.

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OITH Does Well by Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito

By D.L. Groover

February 3, 2015

Emerald Cast: Vitellia and Servilia

The set-up:
Mozart’s penultimate opera, La Clemenza di Tito, is music fit for a king, which is certainly appropriate since it was commissioned to celebrate the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II’s coronation as King of Bohemia in September, 1791. The celebrations were hastily planned, leaving only about two months to ready Prague for the royal treatment.

An opera seria was required, but when approached to compose it on such short notice, imperial kapellmeisterSalieri turned down the offer. The producer of the festivities then turned to the only composer in Vienna who could do justice to such a project, W.A. Mozart.

Offered double the salary he could command in the capital, the young composer eagerly accepted the assignment. Working from an already written libretto by the grand master of opera seria, Pietro Metastasio, Mozart and his adapter Mazzola quickly churned out an opera worthy to honor the “enlightened emperor.”

Mozart couldn’t have been more pleased when he got to Prague. His music was played everywhere, a veritable Mozart festival. The Czech capital always loved him more than his adopted Vienna. The new opera, though, didn’t quite inflame the stuffy aristocrats, who found this melodic paean to an ancient Caesar a trifle boring. Those who knew their music and could hear what Mozart accomplished in this stylish work raved about the piece, but it was too little too late. One perceptive Czech did comment that after hearing Tito, it should have been Mozart who got the crown, not Leopold.

The opera found early favor, but got swamped by his other masterworks that swept the international scene. Almost two centuries would pass before the intrinsic beauties of the score were fully appreciated.

The execution:
In Opera in the Heights’ first production without maestro Enrique Carreon-Robledo, who was unceremoniously booted by the board last December in what was hazily reported as a “change of direction,” interim music director Eiki Isomura led a thrilling performance of this Mozart rarity. The OH orchestra sounded splendid. Two and a half hours, which includes intermission, flew by as we were presented with a modern-dress rendition, plain, simple, elegant, of this old tale made totally fresh by Mozart’s evanescent imagination.

Emperor Tito (tenor Zach Avery) is the sweetest man in Rome, beloved and honored by his citizens for his truthfulness and unimpeachable sense of justice. But when he chooses a wife, he rebuffs his predecessor’s daughter, vain and ambitious Vitellia (soprano Celeste Fraser). Bad idea. She goes ballistic and wants blood – his. Seducing Tito’s best friend Sesto (mezzo Vera Savage), Vitellia convinces the hapless man to assassinate Tito.

There’s a subplot about adviser Annio (mezzo Jennifer Crippen) and his love Servilia (soprano Theadora Cottarel), a bump in the plot which inspires Mozart to pen some ravishing love duets and goodbye arias, but is basically filler. Publio (bass baritone Justin Hopkins), head of the Praetorian Guard, is there whenever someone needs to be arrested.

In the end, all is forgiven through the magnanimous clemency of Tito, a.k.a. Leopold. The people rejoice in a triumphal chorale. “May the gods strike me down if ever I cease working for the good of Rome,” Tito exclaims. Prophetic words, for Leopold would be dead six months after Tito’s premiere.

The emerald cast is one finely tuned ensemble. They mesh together, really listen to each other, and play off all the seria’s high drama and melodramatics. Each brought something special to the work. Tito’s a rather thankless role, too good to be true, but Act II has him questioning loyalty and tormented by betrayal in some of the most transparent continuo sections alternating with full orchestra. (Throughout, the harpsichord playing by Catherine Schaefer was always elegant.) Avery’s crisp tenor shone best when his character had something juicy to sing.

Vitellia is certainly akin to Magic Flute‘s Queen of the Night, just not as floridly virtuosic. But she’s someone new to opera, a force to be reckoned with: elemental, powerful, dangerous. Her successors will become Verdi mezzos and Wagner villains: Azucena, Amneris, Ortrud. Vitellia breathes fire into the opera. Her “Non piu di fiori” (“No more wedding wreaths for me”) augmented by sweet clarinet (thanks to Maiko Sasaki) stands alone as a concert aria, as this wicked woman debates her fate, almost going mad with indecision. Should she confess and end her happiness, or let Sesto be killed for her sin? Frasar commands a large voice which rides over the orchestra during her fiery outbursts, and she made a perfect vamp, teasing poor Sesto in lacy black lingerie. Crippen and Cottarel were lovingly matched in ardor and warmth, and Hopkins’s Publio held our attention with impeccable phrasing and honeyed tone.

But this was Savage’s show. What a subtle powerhouse she is. As misguided Sesto, a pant’s role originally sung by castrato, she’s tall and blond and makes a very handsome man in black suit and tie. When director Keturah Stickman has her strip to her BVDs to keep Vitellia satisfied, the startling effect, somewhat ill-conceived, still manages to make dramatic sense since Savage plays it so well and looks the part. And her singing is a dream: supple and powerful, with a deep velvet shimmer. Whatever she sings, we believe.

Designed by Jeremiah Minh Grünblatt, the entire set is plastered with newspaper pages, like decoupage gone wild. The look’s supposed to suggest political relevancy, I guess. It just looks like newspaper glued all over the set. But the updating, using Secret Service men and a chorus in black suits, works a lot better at getting this idea across. If nothing else, the contempo references don’t trip up Mozart.

The verdict
Although I miss maestro Carreon-Robledo’s fire and passion in the pit and wish he were still leading OH, I will show clemency. Thank Mozart and some really fine interpreters for this stay of judgment.

To view the article in its original form, please visit the Houston Press page, HERE