Houston — Houston Grand Opera is one of the premier opera companies in the country, if not the world. They are famous for presenting and even commissioning new operas that later became standards in the repertoire. Hurricane Harvey dealt them a serious blow. Their home, the magnificent Wortham Theater, also home to the Houston Ballet, was rendered uninhabitable and may stay that way for some time. In the few weeks before the opening of the season, HGO had to find new digs.
Not just any theater will accommodate the two opening grand operas: Verdi’s La traviata and Handel’s Julius Caesar. It must provide space for a full symphonic orchestra (somewhat smaller for Handel’s opera), large sets with adequate fly space, a stage able to fit a large chorus and soloists, seating for all the subscribers and attendees and a place to put that orchestra. The solution was the creation of the aptly named Resilience Theater in a corner of the mammoth George R. Brown Convention Center’s exhibition space.
It is less than ideal space for an opera, to say the least, but HGO made it work, sort of—and it worked better for Julius Caesar than it did for Traviata. Seating is chairs on bleachers and only the center section has an unobstructed view. By the way, he chairs are miserably hard and you are advised to bring a cushion.
For Traviata, the sound was dead and the singers had to push beyond their vocal capabilities. The tenor in Traviata had to take the final high C, a tenor’s glory, down the octave at the end of the usually cut second act cabaletta because of vocal exhaustion. Julius Caesar fared much better because the singers wore microphones like those used in Broadway musicals. Hopefully, they will use the same solution for Traviata’s remaining performances and the rest of the season.
As to the operas, Traviata fared poorly, while Caesar sparkled. (More on the latter in a separate review.)
It was apparent that Traviata would be in trouble when we noticed that the orchestra was in the back of the stage. This forced the conductor, Eun Sun Kim (in her North American conducting debut), to have her back to the stage and absolutely no eye contact with the singers. This, in combination with the poor acoustics, muted the orchestra as well as created some ensemble troubles and slowing tempi. Seeing the empty stage with no set meant that HGO was improvising. There were just some random pieces of furniture as required by the storyline.
But the biggest problem was the casting, which might have been mitigated by some more distance between the audience and the stage. Being this close to the singers doesn’t help with opera’s required suspension of belief. Violetta, soprano Albina Shagimuratova, was unbelievable as the famous consumptive courtesan. Vocally, she has the goods but her portrayal was too tight to express physically what she was saying vocally. As the hapless Alfredo, tenor Dimitri Pittas, was more convincing as a young guy from the country bedazzled by the famous beauty. As Alfredo’s scandalized father, baritone George Petean was vocally excellent for the role and being stiff on stage fits his character.
Director Arin Arbus had the most challenging job of all. Bereft of scenery and faced with a bare stage with a few chairs here and there, her original staging was wildly inappropriate for the situation. Her modifications were impossible to discern, but she surely made some. Frequently, there was no staging, with the singers standing in place and singing as though this was a concert performance, which was probably an acceptable solution to her myriad of challenges. What remained was sometimes at odds with the story. For example, in the staged last act overture, Violetta’s loyal maid Annina, sung by Yelena Dyachek, brings Violetta a glass of water, but one of Violetta’s first first lines is to request the same thing. Later in the act, Alfredo is supposed to enter overfilled with joy that his father forgave the lovers, but he simply walked on stage and paused well in front of her.
In most productions of this opera, when Violetta is thrown to the floor by the furious Alfredo, she just remains there unattended. You would think that someone would go to her for comfort or at least to cradle her head, but this rarely happens. We cannot blame Arbus for doing the same, but it is a strange tradition. These are Violetta’s friends in attendance, after all.
All the above aside, it is nothing short of miraculous that Traviata made it to the stage. Probably, most of the quibbles are due to the makeshift nature of suddenly moving a production already in rehearsal from a wonderful opera house into a place that usually houses convention exhibits. Future productions will begin their life designed for and accustomed to the improvised space.