“The Phoenix” soars in Houston Grand Opera world premiere

April 29, 2019
By Steven Brown

Thomas Hampson and Luca Pisaroni as the old and young Lorenzo Da Ponte, respectively, in “The Phoenix” at Houston Grand Opera. Photo: Lynn Lane

If Lorenzo Da Ponte hadn’t created the texts of three of Mozart’s greatest operas, he might well be forgotten today. As it is, he stands deep in the iconic composer’s shadow: How many operagoers who love The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni or Così fan tutte could tell you anything about their librettist?

In fact, Da Ponte led a long and tumultuous life. His adventures carried him from Venetian churches to Vienna’s royal court, onward to London’s hardscrabble opera houses and finally to the young United States, where he spent his last 33 years struggling to find a niche.

Composer Tarik O’Regan and librettist John Caird depict that entire saga in The Phoenix, which Houston Grand Opera commissioned and premiered Friday at the Wortham Theater Center.

O’Regan and Caird have created a fast-moving work with a lively and colorful score that boasts some compelling high points. Playing the indomitable Da Ponte in his U.S. years, baritone Thomas Hampson — in his HGO debut — leads an animated, vibrant cast. Most of the principals play multiple roles, and Caird, doubling as director, has turned their quick-change efforts into vivid portrayals.

Da Ponte himself is the phoenix of the opera’s title, repeatedly gathering himself up after personal calamities — including banishment and bankruptcy — to forge ahead. O’Regan and Caird seize on an episode from Da Ponte’s years in New York, where he dreamed up a plan to build the city’s first opera house.

In Caird’s scenario, Da Ponte and his son, Enzo, are raising money for the project by staging an opera they have created for the purpose. The opera’s subject: the elder Da Ponte’s turbulent life. The Phoenix is thus an opera-within-an opera, framed as the dress rehearsal for the fundraising performance.

If Da Ponte is a phoenix, O’Regan’s score is a chameleon, shifting styles in a way that amplifies the story’s changes of locale and circumstance. The music tips a hat to 18th-century opera by sometimes unfolding in distinct numbers. But within that framework, the music ranges widely.

The overture heralds the contrasts: It begins with an atmospheric 21st-Century soundscape, a translucent mist of pianissimo strings and gently chiming percussion. But that gives way to a bustling neoclassical allegro, complete with counterpoint.

Da Ponte welcomes his dress-rehearsal audience in an exuberant number that continues the crisp neoclassical vein, and he later bids them good night in the same vein. A men’s chorus evoking spare medieval chant opens a scene showing the boy Da Ponte — born Jewish — being christened in the Catholic church.

After the story moves to Vienna, the young Da Ponte — bass Luca Pisaroni — regales Emperor Joseph II with a lusty send-up of the overblown opera seria style. Da Ponte and Mozart, a pants role portrayed by mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb, naturally celebrate their shared artistic vision in a burst of neoclassical vitality.

But when Joseph, portrayed by tenor Chad Shelton, salutes Mozart and Da Ponte before going off to war, the music’s modernism underlines the timelessness of the duo’s works: Built on a pulsating accompaniment of keening dissonances, Joseph’s meditation is one of The Phoenix’s most arresting numbers.

Photo: Lynn Lane

After Da Ponte lands in the United States, the scene in his grocery store in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, begins with a hint of Aaron Copland-esque Americana. When Da Ponte and his family move to rural Pennsylvania, the orchestra’s gleaming, airy sonorities set the scene as his wife, Nancy — also played by Chaieb — savors the idyllic setting.

And for the opera-within-an-opera’s climax, Da Ponte leads the way in a stately, sonorous ensemble very reminiscent of the climactic chorus in O’Regan’s Mass Observation, which the Houston Chamber Choir performed earlier this month. While that Mass Observation chorus is an a cappella reverie, this ensemble — a tribute to the power of poetry and music — gradually swells, unleashing the full grandeur of the orchestra’s pealing brasses and ringing percussion.

For all the zest of the globe-trotting saga and multifaceted score, The Phoenix’s weakness is that it covers so much territory. The synopsis fills nearly 2-1/2 pages of program booklet, and Act 2 — describing Da Ponte’s ups and down in the U.S. — begins to decelerate in momentum.

O’Regan and Caird encompass Da Ponte’s life as a sort of historical pageant, but they shortchange a key evolution in his character: After showing Da Ponte consort with mistresses during his priesthood, then feel guilty about it, they produce a wedding ceremony and bride practically out of nowhere — in the same musical sequence that includes Joseph II’s funeral and Mozart’s death. What made Da Ponte finally settle down? Why was Nancy the woman for him?

Nevertheless, despite the episodic issues, the cast’s commitment and flair helped propel the three-hour saga Friday night.

In the sprawling role of the elder Da Ponte — an almost-constant presence, between the framing scenes and the second half of the opera-within-an-opera — Hampson made the poet a dynamo. When Da Ponte addressed his theater audience and depicted his own U.S. life as a shopkeeper and standard-bearer for art, Hampson sang with spirit and an almost theatrical immediacy. In Da Ponte’s more introspective turns during the opera-within-an-opera, Hampson’s mellowness and lyricism helped bring out the music’s heart.

Pisaroni, Hampson’s real-life son-in-law, brought youthful ardor to his performances as the young Da Ponte in the first half of the opera-within-an-opera, and as Da Ponte’s son Enzo in The Phoenix’s framing scenes as well as the latter part of the opera-within. In both roles, Pisaroni’s red-blooded singing and vigorous presence let him cut a lively figure.

Chaieb brought her glowing tones to three roles: famed singer Maria Malibran in the framing scenes, then Mozart and Nancy Da Ponte in the opera-within-an-opera. The mischievous energy of Chaieb’s Mozart complemented the warmth of her portrayal of wife and mother Nancy. When Nancy, at the climax of the London scene, insisted on leaving for the United States — “I’ve lived for you, and I would die for you, but not here” — Chaieb’s rich-voiced resoluteness made that another of The Phoenix’s most powerful moments.

Shelton played six characters, no less. To focus on the most prominent, Shelton’s gleaming tones and crystal-clear enunciation brought a worldly-wise confidence to Casanova — a confidante of Da Ponte’s in Venice — and regal dignity to Joseph II.

Sopranos Lauren Snouffer and Elizabeth Sutphen brought soaring voices and youthful energy to roles including Da Ponte’s mistresses in Venice and divas bedeviling him in London. As Anzoletta, a mistress, Snouffer brought an affecting tenderness and lilt to the lullaby for one of his illegitimate children.

Designer David Farley’s set evoked a long-ago theater’s stage and wings, enabling The Phoenix’s audience to observe not only Da Ponte’s autobiographical opera, but the action in the wings. Farley’s costumes added historical flavor and richness.

Caird’s staging brought out the liveliness of the characters and their interactions. Conductor Patrick Summers led the HGO Orchestra, which played with energy and tautness in the score’s neoclassical passages, as well as limpid tone-painting in the more modernistic ones.

The HGO Chorus brought finesse, transparency and impact to the many choral passages. Thanks to the group’s expressiveness, the funeral music for Joseph II was another of The Phoenix’s high points. Maybe the opera’s choral sections could one day evolve into a suite with a life of its own.

The Phoenix runs through May 10 at Wortham Theater Center. houstongrandopera.org; 713-228-6737.


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