A hardy Houston Grand Opera opens season with a retooled “Traviata”

Sat Oct 21, 2017 at 2:29 pm
By Steven Brown

Albina Shagimuratova and Dmitri Pittas in Verdi’s “La Traviata” at Houston Grand Opera’s Resilience Theater. Photo: Lynn Lane

Getting to the opening night of Houston Grand Opera’s season was a twofold adventure Friday night. Operagoers had to find their way to a new location: the HGO Resilience Theater, installed in less than two weeks within the George R. Brown Convention Center, where the company took refuge after Hurricane Harvey disabled its longtime home.

But in order to reach the convention center Friday night, drivers had to crawl through a traffic jam spawned by the Houston Astros’ playoff game two blocks away. No wonder the Resilience Theater’s house lights went down a few minutes late.

As the evening ended, the Astros kept their World Series dream alive. And Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata showed that HGO’s fortitude in mounting its season against all odds, lived on, as well.

Set up inside a vast exhibit hall, the Resilience Theater consists of a proscenium stage reduced to bare essentials: black curtains framing the opening, but no fly space above the stage nor orchestra pit in front. The first rows of the audience sit in about 200 chairs on the exhibit hall’s main floor. Behind those stands is a bleacher-style bank of 1,500 seats.

With no pit in the way, the front row–where I sat for Acts 1 and 2–is barely 15 or 20 feet from the stage. HGO says no one is farther than 100 feet back in this configuration born of necessity.

If the company can close the deal to stage its entire season here, as it hopes, that immediacy will be the Resilience Theater’s primary contribution to the operatic experience. Whenever HGO unleashes powerful performers–as it does in La Traviata–the audience will encounter them in an up-close-and-personal way that a conventional opera house cannot offer.

Friday’s first example came in Violetta’s Act 1 showpiece, “Sempre libera.” Soprano Albina Shagimuratova filled the first part with a vigor, vibrancy and gleam befitting the courtesan’s paean to freedom. Then the voice of Violetta’s lover, Alfredo–portrayed by tenor Dimitri Pittas–floated from offstage. Bewilderment and wonder took over Shagimuratova’s face, with a visible intake of breath: Love’s hold over Violetta was there for all to see. Even if the physical response was partly a matter of a soprano catching her breath amid pyrotechnics, it reinforced the drama’s electricity.

An even more compelling scene came in Act 2, when Alfredo’s scandalized father, Germont–played by baritone George Petean–comes to persuade Violetta to end the affair. As the confrontation began, Germont’s sternness radiated not only from Petean’s ringing voice, but from his fierce, accusing eyes. His demeanor and sound both softened when Germont described Alfredo’s innocent young sister, whose future could be spoiled by her brother’s illicit liaison. And from there on, Petean and Shagimuratova made each emotional turn in the scene come alive, visually and vocally.

Shagimuratova’s singing ranged from broken gasps when Violetta realized what Germont wanted her to sacrifice to tender, almost whispered lyricism as Violetta imagined the girl whose honor was being saved. Just as Shagimuratova’s bearing alternated courage and heartbreak, Petean’s revealed Germont’s progress from disdain to sympathy. None of that would have come across as vividly if an orchestra pit had added distance between the stage and the audience.

All evening, Shagimuratova and Petean embodied the poetry and impact of bel canto singing at its best. They caressed Verdi’s melodies, bringing out the music’s feeling and sheer beauty; their voiced welled up full-throatedly when passions exploded. After savoring the rippling, glowing phrases of “Di provenza,” Germont’s attempt to console Alfredo after Violetta leaves him, Petean swept dynamically through the climactic cabaletta. At the very end, Petean soared into tenor-land by interpolating a high B-flat.

Pittas didn’t bring Verdi’s music the same range of color and feeling. But he sang with a gleam, security and fervor that captured Alfredo’s ardor and–after Violetta ended the romance–fury.

Alfredo’s confrontation with Violetta during the Act 2 party yielded the most visceral moment in director Arin Arbus’ staging. When Alfredo scornfully threw his money at Violetta, he did it in a series of salvos, stepping closer to her each time. With the last burst, he all but swatted the bills across her face. Shagimuratova’s Violetta fell to the stage and stayed there, inert.

But Arbus also played up the characters’ emotional connections. At the end of the same scene, the heartbroken Violetta crumpled to the stage, and Germont finally knelt aside her and took her hand. Germont ended “Di Provenza” forehead-to-forehead with his son Alfredo. In the opera’s denouement, as the ailing Violetta rose from her bed in an apparent return of strength, Alfredo took her in his arms–her body going limp at the moment of death.

Arbus, costume designer Cait O’Connor and choreographer Austin McCormick turned the party scenes into celebrations of bohemian abandon. O’Connor’s costumes embraced hoopskirted luxury as well as free-spirit wackiness: One man had a model ship planted on his head, and one woman sported a fascinator featuring dining utensils.

In the Act 2 party, McCormick turned the fortune-telling and bullfighting that the partygoers sing about into a gender-bending dance sequence. Amid the revelry, the HGO Chorus’s precision and deftness complemented the staging’s bustle. Lively portrayals of supporting roles came from present and past members of the HGO Studio young-artist program, including Zoie Reams as Flora; Ben Edquist as the Marquis; and Richard Trey Smagur as Gastone. Yelena Dyachek carried herself compassionately as Violetta’s servant Annina.

At the stage’s rear, the HGO Orchestra brought glitter, crispness and clarity to Verdi’ s score. The cast and conductor Eun Sun Kim, a Korean making her North American debut, mainly relied on closed-circuit video monitors to keep track of one another. But even when Shagimuratova and Petean lingered over expressive turns of phrase, Kim kept the orchestra with them–no small feat.

The Resilience Theater did, unavoidably, reveal limitations. The orchestra’s location at the rear of the stage put it at a disadvantage. Even from the front row, the playing was always audible but dulled in sonic impact. In front of the bleacher seats it sounded dimmer still. During the most delicate moments–such as the preludes to Acts 1 and 3–the whirring of the center’s air-conditioning system competed with the orchestra and the voices. But the singers, thanks to their advantageous position onstage, carried better into the bleachers. 

Another sacrifice: Because of the stage’s limited size and equipment, HGO had to do away with most of Riccardo Hernandez’s sets. Aside from a few ornate chairs and tables, the inclined platform on which the action played out was all that remained. So it was up to the cast to create the atmosphere. With Shagimuratova and Petean at the center of the vivid storytelling, everything that mattered came across vividly.

La Traviata runs through November 11 at the Resilience Theater in the George R. Brown Convention Center. houstongrandopera.org; 713-228-6737.

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