The Houston Grand Opera’s current offering pairs what is probably the most popular of all operas with what is arguably the greatest of all English operas. Both Madame Butterfly and Peter Grimes come off well, though the latter is the more consistent success.
Butterfly is visually a knockout. Christopher Oram’s set is stark but graceful, with a curving ramp containing much of the action and silhouetted trees and even characters adding to the drama (lighting designer Neil Austin is responsible for much of the effect).
Vocally and dramatically the title role is in good hands. Ana María Martínez is a singing actress who can give familiar scenes a renewed sense of life. Complementing her performance are solid singing and acting by Levi Hernandez (Sharpless), Lucy Schaufer (Suzuki) and Rodell Rosel (Goro).
The Houston Grand Opera orchestra and chorus captained by Patrick Summers are added strengths. I particularly liked some unusual pauses that added dramatic punch.
Unfortunately, the Pinkerton of Joseph Calleja is a step down from the generally high level. He is not a particularly subtle singer and his acting added little strength to the performance.
Michael Grandage’s effective direction doesn’t violate tradition. Cio-Cio-San’s final moments come off well and her small son becomes more of a participant than usual (generally, he’s just there). The program lists two persons for the part, and it’s unclear to me which one was onstage Friday night. Whoever it was deserved special applause.
Peter Grimes, seen Saturday night, was both vocally and dramatically a powerful evening. Anthony Dean Griffey seems to be taking over what was once Jon Vickers’ copyright of the title role. Griffey is a magnificent actor with a voice beautifully suited to the part.
The excellent large cast (Katie Van Kooten was Ellen Orford and Christopher Purves was Captain Balstrode) brought Grimes’ fishing village vividly to life. The choral singing was superb, as was the orchestral playing under Patrick Summers’ direction.
Ralph Myers’ set is a striking departure from anything I have ever seen in a Peter Grimes production. The whole opera takes place in what could be a high school gymnasium or cafetorium, with a small curtained stage at the rear that is opened for intimate scenes such as Grimes’ hut. It’s not exactly unsuitable, but it didn’t add power to the drama, either.
The set’s configuration may have contributed to the fact that there were moments when the soloists’ voices seemed to fade a little.
Madame Butterfly and Peter Grimes will continue on Thursday and Friday, respectively, in the Wortham Theater Center. The Butterfly performance is an addition to the regular schedule in acknowledgment of the huge popularity of Puccini’s opera.