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Houston Grand Opera Scores With Old and New Dramas


by Olin Chism 8 Feb 2011

With ‘Lucia di Lammermoor,’ the Houston Grand Opera assembles a vocally impressive cast that breathes new life into a 19th century operatic standby. With ‘Dead Man Walking,’ it steps boldly into dark corners of the 21st century, where acting chops are as vital as vocal ones. It succeeds in both instances.

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The Houston Grand Opera’s most recent pairing is a noteworthy demonstration of the company’s versatility. With Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (above), Houston assembles a vocally impressive cast that breathes new life into a 19th-century operatic standby. With Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, it steps boldly into dark corners of the 21st century, where acting chops are as vital as vocal ones. It succeeds in both instances.

Dead Man Walking, viewed and heard Sunday afternoon in Houston’s Brown Theater, has had quite a run since its premiere in 2000. There was a notable series of performances a couple of seasons ago in Fort Worth, and memories of that production stayed with me on Sunday. In both Fort Worth and Houston, audiences often sat in rapt silence as the story unfolded — a far surer sign of audience involvement than just another Standing O.

Although casts, conductors, stage directors and designers are different, the Fort Worth and Houston productions are similar in both atmosphere and dramatic impact. In both, chain-link segments create an oppressive prison environment, and the execution-chamber scenes with gurneys and other death apparatuses are spooky.

In Houston on Sunday, Joyce DiDonato and Philip Cutlip were vocally and dramatically strong leads as the nun and the condemned killer she befriends. Like Daniel Okulitch in Fort Worth, Cutlip has a weight-lifter’s physique that makes him seem even more sinister (vigorous pushups seem to be a requirement for the role).

Among secondary roles, Frederica von Stade as the killer’s pathetic mother was superb (though no more so than Sheryl Woods in the same part in Fort Worth).

Patrick Summers conducted a highly atmospheric performance, and an excellent supporting cast, along with director Leonard Foglia and the design team of Michael McGarty (sets), Jess Goldstein (costumes), Brian Nason (lighting) and Elaine J. McCarthy (projections) made for a consistently effective afternoon of musical theater. Some of these names will be familiar to those who saw Heggie’s Moby-Dick in Dallas.

This was billed as Von Stade’s final operatic stage performance, which explains why she got the prime position in the curtain calls at the end. Heggie was also present and took bows.

Lucia di Lammermoor, heard Saturday night, will never equal Dead Man Walking for dramatic impact — it’s too much of a bygone era — but with a superb cast, which Houston has, it has its own thrills.

The chief thrill-maker was Albina Shagimuratova in the title role. She acted well, sang lyrically, and handled Donizetti’s vocal acrobatics with confidence. The mad scene was never really over-the-top (thank goodness), although at one point, when Lucia climbed up on a table, I had irreverent thoughts of Musetta and Café Momus.

Shagimuratova might have dominated some casts, but this one was strong enough to maintain balance. It included Dimitri Pittas (Edgardo), Scott Hendricks (Enrico), Oren Gradus (Raimondo) and Rachel Willis-Sørensen (Alisa).

Antonino Fogliani conducted sensitively, and orchestra and chorus were in top form. Director John Doyle kept the chorus more active than is typical for Lucia, with lots of choreographed movement, and designer Liz Ascroft’s dark clouds (or was that smoke, or fog?) kept the atmosphere ominous. Jane Cox’s dramatic lighting was a plus.

Dead Man Walking has finished its run, but Lucia di Lammermoor will continue through Feb. 11.

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