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Thread: La Favorite at Houston Grand Opera

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    Senior Member Involved Member Nemorino's Avatar
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    La Favorite at Houston Grand Opera


    Grand Opera in 4 Acts
    Music by Gaetano Donizetti
    Libretto by Alphonse Royer & Gustave Vaëz
    Based on Le comte de Comminges by Baculard d’Arnaud
    Premiered December 2, 1840

    Performed by Houston Grand Opera
    January 24, 26, February 1, 6, 9, 2020

    Performance reviewed – Sunday, January 26, 2020


    Léonor de Guzman - Jamie Barton
    Fernand - Michael Spyres (* replaced Lawrence Brownlee on 1/26)
    Alphonse XI - Jacques Imbrailo
    Balthazar - Federico De Michelis
    Don Gaspar - Christopher Bozeka
    Inès - Elena Villalón

    Conductor - Patrick Summers
    Director - Kevin Newbury
    Set Designer - Victoria Tzykun
    Costume Designer - Jessica Jahn
    Lighting Designer - D.M. Wood

    Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus
    Richard Bado, Chorus Master


    La Favorite is a grand opera in 4 acts, in the French style with a lot of changes of scene, and a ballet (which was omitted in this performance). The libretto is based on a historical play that has taken extreme liberties with historical events. Act 3 is dramatically the strongest act, as most of the tension and action of the story unfolds here. Acts 1 & 2 are mostly exposition and character development, while Act 4 is a somber denouement of spiritual redemption.

    As a bel canto opera, there are lots of wonderful opportunities for each of the three lead singers to command the scene and showcase their technique. The slow cavatina – fast cabaletta formula is used, but since this is late Donizetti the transitions are not as cut-and-dry as with Rossini or early Verdi. There are no big cadences signalling the arrival of a particular aria or cabaletta, there are bridging recitative sections, and other characters and the chorus sometimes interject so that scenes feel more musically continuous.

    This is not the rarest of bel canto operas, but it’s rare enough that an outing of it is kind of a must-see for an opera fan. One can see with the dramatic Act 3, and with memorable arias throughout the score why it once was one of Donizetti’s most popular operas. But the story has dated, and a traditional staging doesn’t offer much for the casual operagoer other than an opportunity to hear some fabulous singing.


    And this is what Houston Grand Opera delivered wonderfully this Sunday afternoon.

    It started with a surprise guest. Tenor Lawrence Brownlee had sung through an illness on opening night, and was reportedly still sick, so on Sunday I wondered who was going to see sing the role of Fernand. HGO flew Michael Spyres in from New York City *that morning* for a one-off performance with no rehearsal. He sang the role from the side of the stage while an assistant director “walked” the role on stage with the other actors. Mr. Spyres’ performance was thrilling, fully committed to the drama and musical interpretration from the side of the stage. His voice has a somewhat darker, deeper coloring than other bel canto tenors, so that he sounds a bit more like a “dramatic” tenor, but still has the range to hit the spectacular high notes.

    I won’t claim that having one of the leads offstage didn’t have an impact on the way scenes unfolded dramatically. The first half felt lacking in forward momentum. The duets with the tenor didn’t always blend perfectly – and Spyres had an advantage in loudness since he was standing in front of the proscenium – but a lot of credit is due to music director Patrick Summers, who was making a lot of adjustments on the fly and keeping the singers together remarkably well. In the second half, there were moments where everything gelled so magically together that you forgot that the ensembles were broken up spatially.

    The unquestionable star of this show is mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton. Having a singer who can pull off Leonor is the main pre-requisite to putting on this opera, and Barton is sensational. The range that is called for in some of her arias is really astounding, and Barton has real power in the low registers of her voice that is very rare; on several occasions I gasped with amazement at the clarity of low-lying notes which I’ve never heard so fully voiced.

    And baritone Jacques Imbrailo completed the trifecta of perfect leads. I was excited to see Imbrailo, who is synonymous in my mind with Billy Budd; his performance at Glyndebourne in that role is frequently cited as a reference recording. He has a strong and well-balanced baritone voice, and he is really good at playing suffering characters. One of the clever touches in this production, is that Alphonse has a war-wound. It is implied that his leg was badly injured in the battle where Fernand saves his life, and he uses a brace and is in a lot of pain when he is introduced in Act 2.

    The supporting cast was also uniformly good, and I would advise to keep an eye out for young soprano Elena Villalón, who may not have the largeness of voice to carry a leading role yet, but definitely has the talent and is on the path to being there in a few years.

    The Houston Grand Opera Chorus is one of the strengths of the company, and they got to create a number of fantastic effects with this colorful score.

    A++ overall. I anticipated this production to have the best cast of any opera production in Texas this season, and it exceeded my expectations.


    Early on, this was billed as a “new production”, which was pretty exciting, because Houston does not build too many new productions these days except for their annual world premiere (which, as I have complained before, is a Christmas-themed “family opera” every year...). However, while it is technically true that this is a new production of La Favorite, the sets and costumes were rented from another Kevin Newbury production. His Bard Summerscape production of Weber’s Euryanthe...

    The sets by Victoria Tzykun and costumes by Jessica Jahn were very good, but did not add anything specifically to La Favorite. The sets were visually striking, consisting of what appeared to be a 19th-century palace ballroom which gradually became translucent (through a lighting effect) to reveal a spooky, primeval forest just outside. Then the whole palace set could be raised halfway up to show even more of the forest outside, while the giant root system of an uprooted tree gradually lowered down in the center to hang above the action like a demonic chandelier.

    This sounds perfect for the palace- and forest-set Euryanthe, but doesn’t sound like it fits to La Favorite. The entire basis for this recycling seems to rest on one line in the opera where Leonor accuses Alphonse of hiding her away in a forest. I think this was a probably a cost-cutting substitution necessitated by the flooding two years ago of the Houston Opera’s Wortham Theater home, and subsequent rebuilding expenses. So, although it was pretty obvious to me that it wasn’t 100% appropriate for La Favorite, it’s forgiveable in this situation, and it’s possible that most of the audience didn’t notice.

    Kevin Newbury’s direction had some clever touches: the injury to King Alphonse, and a Scarlet Letter-esque sequence at the end of Act 3 where the denounced Leonor is spat upon and painted with a giant red X by members of the court to symbolize her stigmatization. This sequence was just violent enough to be a bit shocking in the context of the otherwise sedate show, and successfully put me on the edge of my seat. Other parts of the opera felt a bit like the old “park-and-bark”. Again this could be partly due to the loss of one of the key actors, so I’m going to be charitable again, and give the production overall a B. It was not spectacular, but it was serviceable.

    (Addendum: I have just noticed that this is billed as a co-production with The Metropolitan Opera. Hmm... )


    There are several shows left of this production in Houston, and it is a must-see for opera fans in the area. I would recommend it to casual operagoers, too, if they understand going in that the story is a bit creaky and does not represent the genre’s finest moment.

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  3. #2
    Opera Lively News Coordinator Top Contributor Member MAuer's Avatar
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    What an incredible cast! It's not often that an ailing star is replaced with another star of the same caliber.

  4. #3
    Junior Member Recent member Mascagnian's Avatar
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    I was at this very same performance last Sunday, and agree with your assessment in its entirety.

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    Opera Lively Media Consultant Top Contributor Member Ann Lander (sospiro)'s Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by MAuer View Post
    What an incredible cast! It's not often that an ailing star is replaced with another star of the same caliber.
    I agree!
    "Every theatre is an insane asylum, but an opera theatre is the ward for the incurables."

    FRANZ SCHALK, attributed, Losing the Plot in Opera: Myths and Secrets of the World's Great Operas

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