Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Settling Into The Wortham Center

1987 has been a crucial year for Houston -- a city which has been beaten to a pulp in recent times by frightening changes in its oil-based economy. So far this year, a new convention center has opened its doors, the DeMenil Collection has gone public at a sparkling new museum, the Wortham Arts Center has made its long-awaited debut to international acclaim and, for the first time in its history, Houston's political leaders have rightfully acknowledged the role of the arts in helping to shape their city's future identity.

This fall, the Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet moved into their new facilities at the Wortham Arts Center; a two-theatred structure which is fast becoming known for some of the finest acoustics in the world. Having toured the building during various stages of its construction (and attended a heavily-miked performance of Follies there last June) I was eager to see and hear just how well the Wortham's auditoriums measured up to their pre-construction promises.

The most fascinating element of the Wortham's two extremely intimate theatres is, by far, their acoustical dynamic. Because the recessed Bayreuth-style orchestra pit in each theatre produces a sound balance which favors strings and voices over brass and percussion, instead of drowning in the sounds of blasting trumpets and throbbing tympani, one feels as if the orchestra is providing an airy musical cushion upon which the singers can support their voices. Thus, even a massive work like Verdi's Aida ends up sounding like a chamber opera and one never feels as if the soloists are busting their guts in order to overcome the wall of sound which separates them from the audience.

Although one hears every bit of the music, the sound dynamic in the Brown Theatre is wildly different from what one has learned to expect in larger opera houses. And, because the dimensions of the pit opening are so much smaller than the usual, one often feels as if the singers are holding a private salon. It's an incredibly exhilirating operatic experience.


Although I was unable to catch any of the Houston Ballet's repertoire, attending five performances by the Houston Grand Opera helped to give me some feeling for the historic changes that company is now undergoing. In the course of one season, HGO has gone from performing in Houston's 3,000-seat Jones Hall (an absolutely horrid auditorium with disastrous acoustics and woefully inadequate backstage facilities) to two acoustically lush, state-of-the-art performing arenas: the 2,200-seat Alice and George Brown Theatre and the 1,100-seat Roy and Lillie Cullen Theatre.

At the same time the company has gone from performing one opera at a time (the old stagione system) to mounting two or three operas in repertory. When one considers the onslaught of pressures as a result of (1) moving into the new building in September, (2) opening a new production of Aida with an all-star cast in mid-October, (3) telecasting the Aida, (4) presenting the world premiere of Nixon in China, (5) videotaping Nixon in China for future release, (6) premiering a new, multi-media production of Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio, (7) hosting the Music Critics Association's annual meeting, (8) trying to accommodate the national and international press's sudden interest in the new theatre and then, (g) offering a second string of Aida performances with a different set of principals, it becomes obvious that, at least for the folks who work at the Houston Grand Opera, the Fall of 1987 was about as calmly laid back as running a Presidential campaign.

All things considered, the administration and production staffs handled the transition exceptionally well. Once they survive their initial shakedown cruise in the new facility (a period which includes hosting Opera America's annual conference in January) it will be interesting to see what kind of rhythm the company establishes for itself.

In the meantime, tour packages aimed at arts devotees are now available and, while Texas may have once been a destination which culture vultures scoffed at, they would be well-advised to change their tune. Houston Grand Opera's future repertory includes Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte and Puccini's La Rondine in January/February. The April/May time slot features a new production of Massenet's Manon as well as soprano Eva Marton starring in Wagner's Tannhauser. For ticket information call (713) 227-ARTS.


Shortly after I returned home from Houston, the man who, twenty years ago, introduced me on the joys of opera told me that he had turned on the October 30 PBS telecast midway through Act I, Scene I of Aida and couldn't figure out if Verdi's opera was being broadcast from La Scala or Vienna. "Is the stuff they do in Houston really that good?" he asked. There was never any question in my mind as to its artistic merit.

Pier Luigi Pizzi's highly theatrical production (a shared venture with the Los Angeles Music Center Opera Association) is one of the most dignified versions of Aida I have ever experienced. Pizzi's sets (whose movable columns and platforms are as flexible as the ones he devised for San Francisco Opera's Macbeth) were beautifully enhanced by Ken Billington's lighting. The additional use of the stage's two side platforms -- which frame the orchestra pit in the Brown Theatre -- helped to bring the production into the audience's laps. Although Richard Caceres' excitingly butch Triumphal Scene ballet displayed lots of Grade-A beef and asscheek, his choreography was much more in tune with what Aida is all about than such grotesque spectacles as dressing up Luciano Pavarotti to resemble a pyramid covered with glitter.

In HGO's first cast, Placido Domingo (who was sounding better than ever) and Mirella Freni starred as the two lovers, with Stefania Toczyska scoring strongly as Aida's rival, Amneris. Alas, Freni did not always strike me as the perfect Aida; she had occasional pitch problems and seemed to lack vulnerability. Although Nicolai Ghiaurov was a bit dry-voiced as Ramfis, David Langan offered a solidy-sung King of Egypt. Baritone Ingvar Wixell delivered a powerful portrayal of Aida's father, Amonasro, and Emil Tchakarov's conducting brought a tremendous sense of vitality to the production.

Several nights later, under Louis Salemno's baton, the second cast exhibited a decidedly more human approach to the work. Ilona Tokody's Ethiopian princess, though vocally not as secure as Freni's, was an impassioned and occasionally frightened Aida. Robert McFarland scored a major triumph as Amonasro; Kevin Langan was a sturdy Ramfis.

In his American debut, tenor Mario Malagnini sounded a bit too nasal for my tastes. However, any disappointment with Malagnini's Radames was easily compensated for by Dolora Zajic's full-throated Amneris. This young American artist (whom I first noticed when she was in the Merola program) has rapidly grown into one of the few true Verdi mezzo-sopranos in today's new generation of singers. Although her acting can be a bit wooden at times, she has such a huge and powerful voice that, without too much effort, she can easily blow her colleagues right off the stage.

This is the kind of sound opera queens tend to have wet dreams about. For those willing to step foot in Orange County, Ms. Zajic can be heard singing Amneris opposite Leona Mitchell's Aida for Opera Pacific in late January. Call (714) 474-8000 for ticket information.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on December 17, 1987.

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