Review: Jamie Barton, a Phenomenon in “La Favorite” – Houston Grand Opera, January 24, 2020

The Houston Grand Opera presented “La Favorite” in its original French, as a vehicle for Georgia mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton. Donizetti’s 1840 masterpiece “La Favorite” was one of the mid-19th century vehicles for operatic superstars to display their vocal prowess.

Jamie Barton’s Léonor

The opera proved a triumph for Jamie Barton, singing the role of Léonor de Guzman, revealing Barton’s rich lower register, bright top and coloratura virtuosity.

Léonor’s poignant aria O mon fernand was an impressive performance of bel canto singing, both expressive and emotionally affecting. Following that, Barton performed each of the stanzas of Mon arrêt descend du ciel – the fiery cabaletta to O mon fernand – adding embellishments to the the second stanza. The Houston audience responded with an exuberant, sustained ovation.

[Below: Léonor (Jamie Barton) is in her wedding dress; edited image, based ona Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Barton’s repertory is wide-ranging, encompassing roles representing such diverse styles as bel canto, Wagnerian [Review: Another Zambello Ring Cycle Begins – Wagner’s “Das Rheingold”, San Francisco Opera, June 19, 2018] and American opera [Review: Mulligan, Barton, Zambello, Paiement Make the Case for “The Crucible” – Glimmerglass Festival, August 5, 2016 ]. For “La Favorite” Barton endured some extra-textual staging (see below), requiring a physical performance that exceeded what most artists performing the role would expect.

Lawrence Brownlee’s Fernand

Barton’s co-star Lawrence Brownlee, cast as Fernand, attempted to soldier through the performance, although it was announced, before the opera resumed after intermission, that he was suffering from a bad cold.

In the performance’s second half, Brownlee rallied to a considerable extent, especially in the final scene (back in the monastery) for Fernand’s famous solo aria Ange si pur, but his voice remained tentative and was obviously under stress.

My admiration for Brownlee’s elegant vocal artistry is unbounded [see Rossini Royalty – An Interview with Lawrence Brownlee], but his indisposition prevented me from deciding whether the role of Fernand is the right fit for a “Rossini tenor’s” leggiero tenor voice, even one as stylish as Brownlee’s.

[Below: Lawrence Brownlee as Fernand; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

(My only previous experiences with live performances of “Favorite” were Italian spinto tenor Marcello Giordano as Fernand and before that a couple of performances by Italian lyric-spinto tenor Luciano Pavarotti in the opera’s Italian version “La Favorita” – all three of these performances at San Francisco Opera’s War Memorial Opera House. Each of these performances was sung by tenors with the right vocal weight for the role.)

Note: Just before publication of this review, the Houston Grand Opera announced that Lawrence Brownlee had withdrawn from the next subsequent performance, to be replaced by Michael Spyres.

Jacques Imbrailo’s Alphonse

South African baritone Jacques Imbrailo was in superb voice, his appealing lyric instrument complementing Donizetti’s luxuriously melodic score. The production assigned the character of Alphonse a physical infirmity, requiring Imbrailo to limp and use a brace, a seemingly unnecessary and even distracting innovation.

[Below: King Alphonse XIII (Jacques Imbrailo, right) converses with his mistress Léonor (Jamie Barton, left) whom he has designated as his favorite; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

I have admired Imbrailo’s work both in Houston [Review: Classy Cast in Classic “Cosi fan Tutte” – Houston Grand Opera, October 31, 2014] and elsewhere [Review: Imbrailo, Winters and Ketelsen Effective in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s Psychoanalytic Take on “Pelléas et Mélisande” – Zurich Opera, May 8, 2016], but regarded his Alphonse as the most impressive performance I have seen to date.

Federico De Michelis’ Balthazar, Elena Villalon’s Inès and Christopher Bozeka’s Don Gaspar

Argentine bass-baritone was a sturdy presence as the politically connected monk Balthazar. De Michelis has proven to be an invaluable performer, creating vivid characterizations for the important comprimario roles of the operatic repertory [See Review: Hopkins, Norman and Burdette in a Beauty of a “Billy Budd”- Central City Opera, July 21, 2019 and Review: Back Home for “Bohème” – Houston Grand Opera, November 10, 2018].

[Below: Federico de Michelis as Balthazar; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Texas soprano Elena Villalon sang Inès’ aria brilliantly, an aria whose setting with Léonor’s female attendants presages Princess Eboli’s veil song chorus in Giuseppe Verdi’s “Don Carlo”

[Below: Inès (Elena Villalon, right) receives instruction from Léonor (Jamie Barton, left); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Ohio tenor Christopher Bozeka was Don Gaspar, an adversary of Fernand’s (and Léonor’s) advancement in royal circles. Bozeka sang with authority as both soloist and participant in Donizetti’s beautifully conceived ensembles of principals and chorus.

[Below: Don Gaspar (Christopher Bozeka, left) harbors a disdain for Léonor (Jamie Barton right), the favorite of King Alphonse (Jacques Imbrailo, center); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Puerto Rican tenor Esteban Cordero sang the role of A Gentleman.

Maestro Patrick Summers and the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus

Maestro Patrick Summers gave an insightful reading of Donizetti’s vocal and orchestral music, conducting a spirited performance by the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus (the latter whose Chorus Master is Maestro Richard Bado.)

Donizetti may or may not have been aware of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture that preceded “Favorite” by eight years, but the opera’s appealing overture conjures a seascape of surging waves.

Kevin Newbury’s Direction, Victoria Tzykun’s Sets and Jessica Jahn’s Costumes


Houston Grand Opera’s Kevin Newbury production of “La Favorite” shows both the possibilities and potential pitfalls of “repurposing” an operatic production that was created for an entirely different opera.

The sets by Victoria Tzykun and costumes by Jessica Jahn were originally created for a Newbury production of Weber’s “Euryanthe” which was performed at the Bard (New York) SummerScape in 2014. Rather than absorbing the high costs of creating a wholly new productions, using existing “Euryanthe” sets and costumes for “La Favorite” provided an opportunity to revive a Donizetti masterpiece as a vehicle for Jamie Barton. 

There proved to be a downside to the “repurposed” production – it kept elements of the original “Euryanthe” production that did not translate logically to its new setting as “Favorite”. The “Euryanthe” plot is a weak one, permitting Newbury and his colleagues to impose some imaginative, topical approaches to their dramatic presentation. However, “Euryanthe’s” plot does not resemble the “Favorite” plot, and transferring Newbury’s ideas from “Euryanthe” to the Houston Grand Opera “Favorite” weakened and confused “Favorite’s” inherently defensible plot.

The scene changes, if fast moving, required awkward transitions. The change from the first scene’s monastery to Léonor’s domicile included rolling a double-bed into the monastery and dropping chandeliers from above the stage, while Ines’ female companions rushed in from the wings.

The least defensible holdover from Newbury’s production of “Euryanthe” was the decision to revisit his staging of a “Euryanthe” scene inwhich the chorus beats Euryanthe up and marks her white gown with a bloody red X for failing to defend herself from the charge of infidelity.

[Below: in Kevin Newbury’s production, Léonor (Jamie Barton) is the victim of a savage physical attack from Spanish noblemen; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

In “Favorite” it is not Léonor but the monk turned soldier Fernand who insults the king. Remarkably, in Newbury’s production, the chorus of noble men and women, rather than beating up Fernand, beat up Léonor – who, rather than being an upstart outsider as they consider Fernand to be – is a member of their own class.

If the point is supposed to be (as I suspect it was) that this is the deplorable way in which women are treated in 19th century opera plots, it is not how Donizetti and his librettists Alphonse Royer, Gustav Vaëz and Eugene Scribe treated Léonor in their “Favorite”, so there is no “crime” to fit Newbury’s punishment.

Recommendation

Even though I have reservations about the staging, I enthusiastically recommend the Houston Grand Opera performances of “La Favorite” for all devotees of operatic singing of the first rank, especially of bel canto opera.

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