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 Beverly Sills in her Metropolitan Opera debut as Pamira in Rossini's Siege of Corinth on April 7, 1975.
11 Nov 2007

Houston pays homage to opera’s living legends

Although seriously ill, Beverly Sills and Luciano Pavarotti were still very much alive when general director Anthony Freud in his second year in this position planned the 53rd season of the Houston Grand Opera.

Above: Beverly Sills in her Metropolitan Opera debut as Pamira in Rossini's Siege of Corinth on April 7, 1975.


It is thus coincidence — but therefore doubly touching — that the season opened with two operas that pay tribute to America’s first true supersoprano, felled by cancer in May, and to the most legendary tenor of the late 20th century, who died in September.

The season opened in the Wortham Theater Center with Verdi’s “Masked Ball” on October 19; Donizetti’s “Daughter of the Regiment” followed on October 26. Luciano Pavarotti spoke of Riccardo, the king-hero of Verdi’s “Masked Ball,” as his favorite Verdi role and the one he would chose if he were to be allowed to sing only one opera for the rest of his life.

Indeed, “Masked Ball” — with Renata Tebaldi as Amelia — was the tenor’s first Verdi recording, made before he sang the opera on stage. He made his role debut as Riccardo at the San Francisco Opera in 1971. And 20 years later he was the star of a Metropolitan Opera production released at a DVD by Deutsche Gramophone. For the story of “Masked Ball” librettist Antonio Somma turned to the 1792 murder of Swedish King Gustav III. This was uncomfortable subject matter for the crowned heads of Verdi’s day, and to placate them the composer moved the opera to Boston, where Riccardo was a obviously crownless governor.

In this production from the Chicago Lyric Opera French-born, Vienna-educated director Oliver Tambosi combined Sweden and Boston to set the opera “in a kingdom, once upon a time.” Designer Frank Philipp Schlössman joined Tambosi in what — to use a buzz word of the day — is a deconstructionist approach to the work.

The King wore a paper gold crown that spoke more of the proximity of Halloween than of royal grandeur, and all in attendance at the final ball were garbed in the same crowns and ermine-trimmed robes as Riccardo. Although colorful, this “take” impeded the dramatic force of Verdi’s music, leaving this a largely well-sung, but unengaging drama.

As Riccardo Mexico-City-born Ramón Vargas left no doubt that he is one of the world’s leading Verdi tenors today. Born in 1960, Vargas is now at the peak of his powers, and his voice that has previously cast him as a lyric tenor has a darkness that qualifies him for heavier roles.

Vargas was well matched by veteran Italian baritone Carlo Guelfi as a troubled Renato, husband of Amelia, caught in the clutches of unrequited love with Riccardo. It was premature, however, to cast Tamara Wilson as Amelia, for, although a young artist of promise, the HGO studio alumna is not yet ready for a role of this weight.

High point of the production, seen on November 2, was the sinister scene in which Eva Podleś as witch-like Ulrika forecasts the doom about to descend upon these unhappy characters. And Podleś — a true contralto of the old school — brought high passion to her portrayal of Ulrika.

Coloratura Lyubov Petrova, one of today’s most impressive Zerbinettas in Strauss’ “Ariadne,” was seriously overdirected as a hyperactive feline Oscar. HGO music director Patrick Summers again extracted superb playing from the orchestra that he has brought to a level of exceptional excellence.

In dedicating his HGO Riccardo to Pavarotti Vargas recalled student days in Vienna, where he heard the tenor in this role at the Staatsoper. “His identification with the role, his generous singing, his electrifying phrasing and exuberant voice left an indelible impression, which has been a fountain of inspiration for me,” Vargas wrote in the program.

Beverly Sills sang Maria in “Daughter” at the HGO in 1973. It was a signature role for which she had a special affection and just a year ago she gave her vocal ornaments for the opera to vocal coach Gerald Martin Moore, asking that they be shared. Laura Claycomb, a vivaciously youthful Marie in the current HGO staging, used them in this production, seen on November 3. The Texas-born soprano further wrote a verbal tribute to Sills, her “Queen of Hearts,” for the HGO program book.

And to give concrete meaning to these sentiments, Claycomb headed the cast in a “Daughter” that was anything but traditional. In a production first seen at Bologna’s Teatro Comunale director Emilio Sagi moved the story of the 1840 work forward from the age of Napoleonic wars to the final days of World War Two. “My aim was to bring greater insight into the psychology of the opera’s protagonists,” Sagi wrote in a program note. “I wanted them to be human beings, not puppets, and to make them more lifelike and entertaining.”

But whether Donizetti’s simple village souls have thus achieved the “greater sense of reality” that Sagi sought is open to question. The opening act, now set in a village bar, is excessively overrun by stout-hearted men of the military, who at times make the stage a blur of khaki. However, with the second act — all too brief in this production — Sagi comes into his own in the Art Deco salon of Marquise of Berkenfield, smashingly sung by Eva Podleś, who exceeds Ethel Merman in comic elan.

Podleś, now well into her 50s, is a cult object wherever she sings, and it was a coup for the HGO to cast her in these two very different roles. Sagi further peopled the stage with outrageous servants, inspired — he admits — by the films of Ernst Lubitsch — and a bevy of party guests rich in local references.

Texas-born Claycomb is always at her best when she returns to the HGO, and here the beauty of her voice — tinged at times by melancholy — was of magic appeal. And she paired with tenor Barry Banks to bring this “Daughter” to a hilarious close.

In his HGO debut British Banks, a man short in stature but a giant in vocal power, was an ideal Tonio — naive and innocent and with a voice that hit the 9 high C’s of “Ah! Mes Amis” with ease and exactitude. And in another debut Italian conductor Riccardo Frizza underscored the easy charm of Donizetti’s idiom. (Frizza, by the way, conducts a Genoa staging of Sagi’s “Daughter” with Patrizia Cioffi and Juan Diego Florez on a Decca DVD.)

The production was designed by Julio Galán.

The HGO dedicated this production to Sills’ memory; in the context of the season, however, it also recalls that it was as Tonio that Pavarotti achieved superstar status as “King of the High C’s” when he sang “Daughter” at the Met in 1972. (Joan Sutherland was his Marie.) And Pavarotti spoke of Riccardo, the king-hero of Verdi’s “Masked Ball,” as his favorite Verdi role and the one he would chose if he were to be allowed only one opera for the rest of his life.

Indeed, “Masked Ball” — with Renata Tebaldi as Amelia — was the tenor’s first Verdi recording, made before he sang the opera on stage. He made his role debut as Riccardo at the San Francisco Opera in 1971. And 20 years later he was the star of a Metropolitan Opera production released at a DVD by Deutsche Gramophone.

Pavarotti made four appearances in Houston: a recital in 1979, two concerts, one with Joan Sutherland in 1983, and a solo appearance in 1987, and he was a guest artist at the Houston Grand Opera Ball in 1982.

Beverly Sills made her HGO debut in 1966 as Queen of the Night in “The Magic Flute.” She returned in 1970 to sing the three heroines in “Hoffmann” and later appeared in the leading roles in “Lucia,” “Traviata,” “Merry Widow” and “Don Pasquale.”

The current HGO further marks the 20th anniversary of the opening of its home, the Wortham Theater Center, on May 9, 1987.

Wes Blomster

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