World Premiere Review: Superb Performances from Thomas Hampson and Luca Pisaroni in O’Regan and Caird’s “The Phoenix” – Houston Grand Opera, April 26, 2019

American baritone Thomas Hampson and his real life son-in-law Italian-born bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni melded their personas in a beautifully sung and impressively acted operatic biopic of Mozart’s illustrious librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte.

The opera, whose music was by Irish-born American composer Tarik O’Regan, and its libretto, by British director John Caird, proved to be an indulgent paean to Da Ponte, Mozart’s collaborator for “Marriage of Figaro”, “Don Giovanni” and “Cosi fan Tutte”.

Da Ponte’s old age and Da Ponte’s youth are presented in two different formats – his old age is the subject of O’Regan’s “The Phoenix” itself, but his youth is presented as an opera that Da Ponte’s son Enzo has composed (in which Enzo plays the younger Da Ponte). For the sake of clarity, I will refer to Enzo’s composition as a “musical play” and O’Regan’s composition as the “opera”.

A consequence of this division is that those scenes of Da Ponte’s life in Europe constitute the musical play, while those scenes of Da Ponte’s life in America are concentrated in the second act of the opera.

Thomas Hampson as the older Lorenzo da Ponte

Performing the role of Da Ponte as an older man, Hampson enlisted his mellifluous baritone and acting skill to project the self-assurance of a dramatic genius reflecting on his eventful life.

[Below: Thomas Hampson as Lorenzo Da Ponte; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Hampson’s Da Ponte appears in the first act introducing and commenting upon the musical play, but it is the second act in which Hampson’s Da Ponte is most prominent, as, having left Europe forever, Da Ponte adjusts to life in the New World.

[Below: Lorenzo Da Ponte (Thomas Hampson, front right center, carrying suitcase) arrives in America; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Luca Pisaroni as Enzo da Ponte and as Lorenzo da Ponte as a younger man

Caird has constructed his libretto so that the youthful Da Ponte – who achieved his fame in Europe during the Enlightenment – appears in flashback scenes that are part of a new musical play, composed by his son Enzo, being presented in New York in the early 1830s.

Luca Pisaroni is tasked to play two roles. Pisaroni is both Lorenzo’s son Enzo in the opera and the younger Lorenzo in the musical play.

Pisaroni’s performances were masterful. As Enzo, appearing in the American scenes, he was convincing as a dutiful son, determined that his father should achieve proper recognition for his central role in Mozart’s most successful operas.

[Below: Enzo Da Ponte (Luca Pisaroni, right) listens to the European stories of his father, Lorenzo (Thomas Hampson, left); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Pisaroni’s lyrical bass-baritone was especially effective when he assumed the role of the younger Da Ponte. Known for his facility in Mozart’s music, Pisaroni demonstrated facility with O’Regan’s passages of recitative. As an actor, Pisaroni proved to be plausible as the larger-than-life Lorenzo.

[Below: Lorenzo Da Ponte (Luca Pisaroni, left) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Rihab Chaieb, right) exchange thoughts about creating a new style of opera; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Hampson and Pisaroni were supported by four artists who between them sang 18 comprimario roles.

Rihab Chaieb as Maria Malibran; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; and Nancy Da Ponte.

Mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb successfully assayed three character roles of persons important to Da Ponte, including an affecting portrait of Da Ponte’s wife Nancy.

[Below: Nancy (Rahib Chaieb, right) becomes the fiance of the young Lorenzo Da Ponte (Lucas Pisaroni, left; ; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Chaieb performed brilliantly as Mozart, donned in a costume designed to evoke the audience’s memories of the character Cherubino from “Marriage of Figaro”

[Below: Rihab Chaieb as the composer Wolfgang Mozart; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Chad Shelton as Patrick Kelly; the Bishop of Ceneda; Giacomo Casanova; Emperor Joseph II; “Opera” Taylor; and Clement Clarke Moore; and other cast members.

Assuming the roles of the men important in the life of the Da Pontes was Chad Shelton, whose bright-sounding tenor complemented Hampson’s and Pisaroni’s lower voices.

Especially noteworthy was Shelton’s monologue as the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, for which O’Regan’s orchestral accompaniment alluded to the Stone Guest’s ominous arrival at Don Giovanni’s dinner.

[Below: the New Yorker Clement Clarke Moore (Chad Shelton, right); becomes the patron and benefactor of Lorenzo Da Ponte (Thomas Hampson, right); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Lauren Snouffer and Elizabeth Sutphen assumed several of the comprimario character roles and added their voices to the opera’s final sextet.

[Below: the young Lorenzo Da Ponte (Lucas Pisaroni, center) is pestered by the divas Anna Morichelli (Elizabeth Sutphen) and Brigida Banti (Lauren Snouffer); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Snouffer preformed the roles of Giulietta; Anzoletta; Mary Grahi and Brigida Banti.  Sutphen was Faustina; Angela Tiepolo; Annetta; Matilda Grahi and Anna Morichelli. Gabriel Magallon was Emmanuel Conegliano; Stephen Hill was Baruch Conegliano and Ethan Gonzalez was Anania Conegliano.

Maestro Patrick Summers, the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus, and the Musical Performance

Houston Grand Opera’s music director Maestro Patrick Summers, a champion of new opera, presided over an affectionate performance of O’Regan’s work by the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra. The Houston Grand Opera Chorus, under the direction of Chorus Master Richard Bado, performed the opera’s abundant choral music with distinction.

Tarik O’Regan’s Musical Composition

Irish-born American composer Tarik O’Regan composed a complex score, rich in the choral and ensemble music for which O’Regan is justly famous,

Some scenes, such as that of Da Ponte’s arrival in America, have the feel of Benjamin Britten’s great seafaring opera choruses. Two of the roles – that of Old Lorenzo and of Enzo/Young Lorenzo – are especially effective, obvious vehicles, as they are for its world premiere, for the vocal and dramatic talents of major operatic stars.

John Caird’s Libretto and Recommendation

The libretto, by John Caird, excerpts many of the major life events of Da Ponte from his five-volume memoirs, which portray him, not always with historical accuracy, as a larger than life Enlightenment figure, like his friends the Emperor Joseph II, Casanova and Mozart.

Presenting Da Ponte’s checkered career in Europe as American musical theater composed in the early 1830s in which his Da Ponte’s son Enzo plays his father is conceptually interesting, but has its dramatic downsides.

The sequence of scenes – Da Ponte’s baptism, investiture and expulsion from the priesthood, his randy friendship with Casanova and seditious politics resulting in expulsion from Venice, his battling prima donne in London and subsequent bankruptcy – often seem like chapters out of his Enlightenment contemporary Voltaire’s Candide and sometimes remind me of Bernstein’s operatic treatment of Voltaire’s satirical work.

Ultimately, if the opera has a fatal flaw, it is that Da Ponte’s long life and wild experiences were too interesting to the opera’s composer and librettist, who were loathe to leave any part of it out of their musical work. Only a small percentage of operas throughout history have secured a place in the performance repertory, and the prospects of that occurring for this complex work seem daunting.

I recommend the opera and production for the excellent performances of Thomas Hampson and Luca Pisaroni and their supporting cast members.