Thomas Hampson as Lorenzo Da Ponte.

Image: Lynn Lane

The chance to rave about choral writing in a modern opera is rare, but Tarik O’Regan’s The Phoenix, a new opera commissioned and premiered last weekend by Houston Grand Opera, offers up some of the most sublime, incantatory choruses I’ve ever heard.

Directed and written by librettist John Caird, HGO’s production is ambitious in scope, covering 70 years of history in two acts, and although the dizzying pace and repetitive scene changes get old rather quickly, the strength of the cast and O’Regan’s luscious score ensures this production might stick around for a while.

Lorenzo Da Ponte's long life, saturated with scandalous behavior and drawn out in the most unexpected of turns, is practically perfect for opera. Apart from his role as librettist for Mozart’s celebrated trio of operas (Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutti) Da Ponte’s story is virtually unknown, but it crosses two continents and about 10-odd careers.

The Phoenix is structured as an opera-within-an-opera: Da Ponte, now 83 years old, presents a production about his life to an audience of New Yorkers, hoping to get funding for the first Italian opera house in New York City. We’re the American audience observing this dress rehearsal, but we also get a peek behind the scenes: set designer David Farley creates a wooden scaffold with off-stage wings, and a velvet red curtain that rises and descends, demarcating the action. The scenes frequently cutaway to people on the wings: singers changing costumes, rehearsing lines, making wisecracks to each other, and commenting on the action onstage. 

Rihab Chaieb as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Image: Lynn Lane

It all begins in Europe. Da Ponte is born an Italian Jew but becomes a Catholic priest in Venice, and after being banished from Venice (his lifestyle doesn’t quite match his holy office) he moves to Vienna, where he’s appointed Austrian court poet. Here he meets young composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, played by mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb, as well as a jealous Salieri. You see a man who goes through triumphal successes (his collaboration with Mozart is a hit) but also despairing failure. 

The first half ends with an impoverished Da Ponte boarding a ship from Europe to America, and the chorus sings in rousing a capella, scored in a thrilling range of voices. “Freedom to write and freedom to think, freedom from war, religion, and power,” Da Ponte celebrates after his arrival in the New World, although he’s simultaneously bemoaning the lack of culture and education. Baritone Thomas Hampson cuts a powerful, grizzled presence as the elderly Da Ponte, and he shades the rather simplistic character with deep poignancy and a resonant, burnished voice. His lullaby aria to his dying wife as he cradles her in his arms is devastatingly lyrical, and he infuses the rather egocentric character with a noble dignity, despite his scrupulous behavior.

Bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni plays the young Da Ponte and his namesake son, Enzo, with an energy and vigor that’s a dynamic foil to Hampson. His voice is molten in the lower range and lucid on top, and when he sings “The music I write must come from here, in America” to his father, it’s both endearing and persuasive, a firm establishment of his American identity.

The other seven members of the cast must embody about 22 other characters—not to mention seamlessly switching shifting from English to Italian back to English, both in recitative and song—no easy task for a singer.Tenor Chad Shelton is the real chameleon of this production, providing memorable scenes as the Bishop of Ceneda, the Emperor of Austria, and the various odd characters in America. The two sopranos, Lauren Snouffer and Elizabeth Sutphen, are delightfully peppery in all nine characters they play, whether it’s Da Ponte's various mistresses, the spiteful, entitled divas of the King’s Opera in London, or Giulietta and Faustina, Da Ponte's nieces.

Chaieb makes her HGO debut in three crucial roles: Maria Malibran, the young opera singer rising to stardom, the mischievous genius Wolfgang Mozart, and Da Ponte’s wife Nancy. They couldn’t be more different, and she etches a powerful personality for each, with costume changes to match. Her voice is deeply expressive, liquid in the upper range and possessing a warm, smoky depth, and her declamation to Da Ponte before leaving him: “I’ve lived for you, and I would die for you, but not here,” is both fiery and arduous.

Thomas Hampson as Lorenzo Da Ponte arrives in America.

Image: Lynn Lane

The Phoenix is ultimately an immigrant story with unexpected historical insight—who knew that Mozart and Da Ponte were penning operas around the same time the U.S. Bill of Rights was being written? And the libretto is sprinkled with winks and knowing nods. There’s a scene where Mozart and Da Ponte mock the exaggerated singing of the time— “they decorate, elongate with crazy words with crazy rhymes, they paint the words with pointless noise”—and the orchestra mirrors their sentiment in a sardonic jab at the opera seria style.

O’Regan’s score is strung with moments like this. At times he slides into contrapuntal writing, or spare Gregorian-style chant (the score where Da Ponte is christened into the Catholic church features a haunting men’s chorus). There are references to Britten and Copland in the American scenes in the second half; the soundscape is best described as a fusion of influences. And the best musical moments in the entire opera are the ones with the most people, a credit to O’Regan’s layered and complex choral writing. When the masked Venetians swirl around Da Ponte with their outstretched, grasping fingers, hissing in layered dissonances, we’re genuinely frightened. Patrick Summers leads the orchestra in a nuanced interpretation of the score: It’s passionate and perfectly balanced, a luxuriant backdrop to the voices.

Unfortunately, there are so many characters, so many scene changes, and so much ground to cover chronologically that there isn’t much time for character development (the opera has noticeably few arias, the windows that give the most insight into a character’s internal journey). “Who am I? Will I ever know?” sings Da Ponte, but the libretto seems to dwell more on outward roles he plays than internal transformation; the tale spun is endlessly entertaining, but ultimately feels more like a timeline than a true story. But the music is sumptuous, and what the production lacks in depth it makes up in heart and humor. Will Da Ponte live on in this opera or be buried by history once again? Only time will tell.

Thru May 10. Tickets from $26. Wortham Center, 501 Texas Ave. 713-228-6737. More info and tickets at houstongrandopera.org.

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