Mezzo Barton is the voice, heart and soul of Houston Opera’s thrilling “La Favorite”

Sat Jan 25, 2020 at 2:19 pm
By Steven Brown
Lawrence Brownlee as Fernand and Jamie Barton as Léonor de Guzman in Houston Grand Opera’s “La Favorite.” Photo: Lynn Lane.

Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton added richness and power to Houston Grand Opera productions long before Gaetano Donizetti’s La Favorite opened Friday in Wortham Theater Center. 

In HGO’s 2015 staging of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre, she gave Fricka — the god Wotan’s aggrieved wife — a stature befitting Valhalla’s guardian of laws. Barton in 2018 brought emotional intensity and bel canto glow to the role of Adalgisa, the heroine’s rival-turned-friend, in Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma.

But those formidable portrayals didn’t foretell the vocal and dramatic volcano Barton would unleash Friday, when she herself played the heroine: Favorite’s tormented Léonor, unable to free herself from a love triangle that  brings heartbreak and dishonor. Léonor is a king’s mistress, but she really loves a man who becomes the king’s war hero.

During the first two acts, as Léonor’s stresses compounded, Barton’s singing captured all the crosscurrents between passion, foreboding and despair. 

Especially when Léonor’s duets with her beloved Fernand and king Alphonse brought bittersweet visions of love, Barton spun out Donizetti’s melodies with a suppleness and shapeliness that radiated emotion bel canto-style. When the vocal line plunged to evoke Léonor’s fears of doom, Barton’s voice boomed like a contralto’s; when anguish bubbled up, Léonor’s outcries came out as walloping high notes.

But the climax came in Act 3, with Léonor’s aria “O mon Fernand.” At first, it was flowing and almost understated, with Barton’s sweetness conjuring up the affection that Léonor still felt for her paramour. 

But at the aria’s first mention of the affair’s inevitable doom, Barton’s voice again dove and thundered. And from there, more and more fervor gripped her singing. It grew more vibrant and full-throated, and in the faster-paced cabaletta, sheer abandon took over: Barton filled the music with swaggering energy, bold attacks and cri de coeur flourishes that vaulted from her voice’s highest range to its lowest — exerting a visceral impact at both ends. It all added up to what was probably the most arresting individual scene in an HGO production in recent years.

Barton didn’t let the fourth and last act turn into an anticlimax, though. With Léonor reduced to despair by a public condemnation and beating, Barton gave the final scene — a reconciliation with Fernand that comes too late — an electricity of its own. Her voice sounded even fuller and darker than before, and it let her fill Donizetti’s melodies with the weight of heavy-heartedness.

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee, as Fernand, by and large paled alongside Barton. Throughout the first two acts, his singing was secure but small and monochromatic, offering little sign of the ardor that Fernand avows for his sweetheart.

When the audience returned after intermission, an explanation came: HGO managing director Perryn Leech stepped onstage to announce that Brownlee had a cold, but decided to forge ahead and asked for the audience’s understanding. 

By Act 4, his voice gained a little vibrancy and focus, so Brownlee brought a modicum of ardor to “Ange si pur”–the showpiece better-known as “Spirto gentil” in the opera’s Italian version. And in the finale, Brownlee gave Fernando’s music something of a despairing edge, so that Barton didn’t have to carry the scene alone.

Baritones with bel canto aplomb are rare creatures, but HGO found one in Jacques Imbrailo, who played Alphonse. His voice was warm, mellow and deft, and he savored the tender side of the role’s lyricism — serving notice that Alphonse, even though he sets up his mistress for humiliation, does have a heart and conscience.

Christopher Bozeka as Don Gaspar, Jacques Imbrailo as Alphonse and Jamie Barton as Léonor in Houston Grand Opera’s “La Favorite.” Photo: Lynn Lane

That lyrical warmth emerged first in Alphonse’s aria, “Léonor, vien,” signaling that the king really loves his mistress. But Imbrailo’s voice also boasted impact enough to bring out Alphonse’s kingly pride and resolve as the aria unfolded. And in Alphonse’s Act 1 duet with Léonor, Imbrailo equalled Barton’s bel canto finesse.

Outside the amorous triangle, the rest of the cast helped move the story along vigorously.

Bass Federico De Michelis sang with heft and resonance as Balthazar, Fernand’s father and the head of a religious order. When Balthazar invoked god’s wrath in the face of Alphonse’s infidelity, De Michelis’ robust tones got the message across.

Soprano Elena Villalón brought brightness and ring to the role of Inès, Léonor’s confidant. Villalón was a dose of cheery spirit in the Act 1 scene with Léonor’s friends, and she added a gleaming soprano line in ensembles. Tenor Christopher Bozeka, as Alphonse’s henchman Don Gaspar, sang with sarcastic vigor as the courtiers taunted the Fernand about his unwitting dishonor.

The HGO Orchestra’s winds and brasses sometimes drowned out the strings in the score’s lustiest spots. But the group, led by company artist director Patrick Summers, largely played with sweep and transparency, and Summers guided it adroitly when the singers needed sonic space to savor Donizetti’s lyricism. The HGO chorus sang breezily when the story need charm or vitality, then redoubled the impact of climactic ensembles.

Though no one is likely to call Favorite a director’s opera, Kevin Newbury added a couple of vivid strokes. He cast Alphonse, who has just returned from battle when he enters, as a wounded warrior with leg brace and cane; that helped explain why Fernand’s heroism in battle meant so much to the king. 

And when the courtiers denounce Léonor at the end of Act 3, Newbury had them beat her, throw her to the floor, tear off her gown and paint a red X on her bodice. Léonor, left alone onstage, then struggled to her feet, gasping and weeping, during the Act 4 prelude — and Barton threw herself into the histrionics.

Neither Victoria Tzykun’s set, suggesting a marble ballroom, nor Jessica Jahn’s costumes made any particular contribution to the storytelling. That was probably because they were designed for another opera: Carl Maria von Weber’s Euryanthe.

But the generic visual elements hardly mattered when Barton was onstage. Her singing illustrated everything.

Houston Grand Opera’s “La Favorite” continues at Wortham Theater Center with performances 2 p.m. Sunday, January 26; 7:30 p.m. Saturday, February 1; 7:30 p.m. Thursday, February 6; and 2 p.m. Sunday February 9.; 713-228-6737.

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