Jamie Barton as Léonor de Guzman in HGO’s premiere of La Favorite.

Image: Lynn Lane

Dubbed “opera’s nose-studded rock star” by The New York Times, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton has long been hailed for her rich voice and charismatic stage presence.

But last year brought some pretty big milestones for the Houston Grand Opera Studio alumna. She closed out the BBC Proms, made her Broadway debut as a guest artist in For the Girls, a limited-run show crafted by Kristin Chenoweth, and sang the role of Orfeo in the Metropolitan Opera's Orfero ed Euridice.

Now, she’s taking on the titular role of Léonor in Gaetano Donizetti's rarely-performed La Favorite, which makes its Houston Grand Opera company debut, this weekend.

“It’s such a different shift for me,” says Barton, noting that there are not many title roles for mezzos. “Probably the most famous is Carmen, followed by Delilah, which is Samson and Delilah, so you’ve got to share that one.”

Set during the Castilian reconquest of Moorish Spain, La Favorite centers around a love triangle between Alphonse XI, King of Castile, Léonor, his favorite mistress, and her lover Fernand, a monk-turned-solider. Wishing to end her relationship with the king, Léonor finds herself caught between the men in her life all while the church grapples for power against the monarchy and the Spanish push back the Moors.

While Barton has never performed the role of Léonor in a fully-staged production, she has some history with the part. Back when Barton was studying at HGO Studio, Kathleen Kelly, former director of the young artist program, recommended she add Léonor’s aria “Oh, mon Fernand” to her repertoire. The move, Barton jokingly says, won her many competitions. It also earned her rave reviews when she sang the part in Madrid during Teatro Real’s concert version of the opera in 2017.

But doing it here in Houston is a whole other experience.

“The sheer fact that they are launching the production to showcase one of their former Studio performers is mind-blowing on a thousand different levels,” she says. “But it challenges me to look at the material from a different perspective.”

Luckily, HGO, which specifically sought out Barton for the role, is also taking a different approach to La Favorite. Instead of following the traditional format of the operatic love triangle—one in which the woman is inevitably blamed for everything and tragically dies—the company’s production explores whether a person can love multiple people at once, says Barton. It’s also an examination of the power imbalances between men and women, she adds, something that hits close to home in the #MeToo era.  

“There’s a reason love triangles always end with the woman dying, either martyring herself or being killed. That’s why something from the 1800s can be relevant to an audience in Houston, Texas, right now.”

 Runs Jan 24 and 26, Feb 1, 6, and 9. Tickets from $20. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Ave. More info and tickets at houstongrandopera.org

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