Age of Discovery

Classic Arts Features   Age of Discovery
William V. Madison finds something for the entire family to discover in Houston Grand Opera's 2006 _2007 season.

A cannibalistic witch with a sweet tooth. A legendary Lothario, dragged to hell. An Ethiopian princess, buried alive. Backstabbing Venetian court intrigues. Life and death in the forest. Cinderella‹and the Devil‹singing their hearts out. By offering something for everybody in 2006-2007, Houston Grand Opera aims to prove, in the words of incoming General Director Anthony Freud, that "opera is not an adults-only activity; it is an unforgettable experience that can delight and enchant the whole family."

Music Director Patrick Summers concurs. "The classic Hansel and Gretel never fails to please; Rossini's La Cenerentola (Cinderella) is as fresh as the day it was written." Mix in Janácek's popular fable The Cunning Little Vixen, Verdi's Simon Boccanegra and Aïda, Mozart's Don Giovanni, and Gounod's Faust, says Summers, "and you have the total operatic experience we seek to provide to our great city."

Superstar mezzo Joyce DiDonato embraces the opportunity to sing for young audiences‹something that Cenerentola's leading lady has been doing since she was an HGO Studio artist.

"I have to tell you some of my best memories of my training in Houston are of the student matinees we would do, not to mention the High School Discovery nights," DiDonato recalls. "Those performances, still to this day, remain the most vibrant and alive in my memory.

"You can't put anything past children: they smell inauthenticity a mile away, and call you on it," she says. "But I think the other joy in singing for young children is that they haven't yet learned to be inhibited in the theater, and so they feel free to laugh, to scream, to gasp…. We often forget that there are people who can still discover these pieces and don't take for granted how they will turn out. That is a joy, because they rely more than ever on us to tell them the story‹authentically and beautifully!"

Rossini's comic classic is one of DiDonato's calling cards; she's joined by tenor Lawrence Brownlee in his HGO debut as her Prince Charming. Barcelona's cutting-edge company, the Comediants, promises a fun-filled staging (January 27, 30, February 4m, 7, 9, and 11m, 2007). Bel canto specialist Edoardo Müller conducts, in his house debut.

Another HGO favorite, soprano Ana Maria Martinez, returns to the Wortham Center to portray Donna Elvira, the jilted wife in Don Giovanni (October 28, 31, November 3, 5m, 7, 9 and 11, 2006). It's a role she's sung several times and counts as her favorite.

"I admire Elvira's courage, determination, sense of truth‹seeking it and stopping at nothing to get it‹and above all her righteous indignation, which she upholds with tremendous dignity," says Martinez. She sees vulnerability in Elvira, as well as surpassing forgiveness and understanding. "This is another tremendous sign of inner strength," Martinez adds. "When this was written, a woman of this caliber was extraordinarily rare‹and in many ways, still is today."

From what Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, tell us, Elvira is the only woman whom Giovanni has to wed (or pretend to) in order to bed: she is unquestionably extraordinary. "The Don spent all of three days with her‹which, if one calculates the amount of women in his 'little black book,' is by far the longest time he's spent with anyone," Martinez notes. "I believe they are each other's match."

Helping HGO to celebrate Mozart's 250th birthday are Mariusz Kwiecen in his HGO debut as the Don, and soprano Alexandra Deshorties as the vengeful Donna Anna.

The season's other offerings, in order of appearance, include the following:

• Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky made history in Houston a few years ago with his first-ever Rigoletto; this season the star returns with another Verdian role debut, the troubled Venetian Doge Simon Boccanegra. Illuminating a father's simultaneous discovery of a long-lost daughter and fulminating political intrigue, Boccanegra is one of Verdi's most lush, rewarding scores, and you'll thrill to hear what Patrick Summers and the HGO Orchestra make of it (October 21, 24, 27, 29m, and November 4, 2006).

• Hansel and Gretel was the first opera Anthony Freud ever saw. "It left an indelible impression on me," he recalls. "Humperdinck's unforgettable score overflows with some of the best tunes in all opera." Just in time for Christmas, HGO presents a new chamber version, confected by Kathleen Kelly, the company's incoming head of music staff (December 1, 3m, 7, 10m, 13, 17m, 17, 20, 23m, and 23, 2006).

• Hard to believe that a nice guy like Samuel Ramey finds it so easy to play the Devil, yet Gounod's Méphistophélès is one of his most celebrated portrayals. The Kansas-born bass returns to Houston to terrorize tenor William Burden and soprano Tamar Ivari in her HGO debut, in a revival of Francesca Zambello's hair-raising production of Gounod's Faust (January 20, 23, 26, 28m, and February 3, 2007).

• Mezzo Dolora Zajick returns to Houston in one of her signature portrayals‹the Pharaoh's scheming, lovelorn daughter in Aïda. Her voluminous voice makes all the monuments of Egypt seem puny by comparison! Houston audiences will have a chance to hear her opposite Zvetelina Vassileva and Marco Berti (April 13, 15m, 18, 21, 24, 27, and 29m, 2007). An excellent alternate cast, headed by Michele Capalbo in the title role, performs May 5.

• Anthony Freud promises that "audiences will be captivated" by the final production of the regular season, Janácek's The Cunning Little Vixen, "a charming fable that boasts a scintillating score filled with colorful characterizations of the natural world" (May 4, 6m, 8, 11, and 12, 2007). The superb Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus, under Patrick Summers and Richard Bado, respectively, will provide the musical underpinnings for the entire season.

Will one of these masterpieces transform your kids into music lovers? This writer takes his godchildren to the opera whenever he can, only to discover that a child is just as likely to warm to Faust (Magic! The devil! One hit melody after another!) or to Don Giovanni (More magic! More melody! Disguises and tricks!) as to Hansel or Cenerentola, and Aïda's plight wins hearts every time she steps onstage. In music as in broccoli, tastes and temperaments vary, and kids are unpredictable. Just take their maturity into consideration and give it your best shot.

As for how to turn your father-in-law into an opera fan, that's an entirely different problem all together. But be assured that HGO will be working on the problem, night and day, throughout the coming season.

William V. Madison, a native Texan, does freelance writing on the arts from his current home base in Paris, France.

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