Houston Grand Opera’s La favorite is the company’s latest great performance of an opera with a problematic plot. On paper, Gaetano Donizetti’s La favorite, which opened last week, might seem different than most nineteenth-century operas. It’s a love triangle involving a mistress, yes, but this time the mistress has her own lover on the side! Sounds a little more empowering for women, right? Wrong. Like in too many other operas of the era, the female lead is the victim of men’s misdeeds. Portrayed sympathetically, yet lacking any real agency, she is doomed to accept her fate.
A fictional story based on historical figures in fourteenth-century Spain, Donizetti’s opera centers on Léonor (Jamie Barton), the mistress of King Alphonse XI (baritone Jaques Imbrailo). Being the “favorite” mistress comes with significant political clout, but Léonor longs to be queen. Meanwhile, Léonor and Fernand (tenor Lawrence Brownlee), a lowly monk, have developed feelings for each other. Fernand leaves the monastery to pursue Léonor, but she insists that she cannot marry him and cannot explain why. She instead secures him a high position in the army.
After Fernand leads the Spanish in a great military victory, King Alphonse offers him whatever he desires as a reward. He chooses Léonor’s hand in marriage, being the only knight or courtier unaware that she is the king’s mistress. The King agrees and has them married within the hour. When all is revealed, the blame falls squarely, predictably, and unjustly on Léonor. In a shocking sequence in the third act, Fernand publicly renounces her, and the onlooking knights begin to beat her until she falls to the ground. After a few more kicks, they abandon her, lying bruised and disgraced alone in the woods. Fernand retakes his vows as a monk, but encounters Léonor one last time in the final act. Perplexingly (infuriatingly?), it is Léonor asking Fernand for forgiveness in the opera’s last moments.
As usual in opera performances from this era, HGO’s production transcends the material. Barton, an internationally renowned mezzo-soprano and HGO Studio alumna, is stunning in the title role. Her powerful instrument fills the hall with richness and beauty, and her use of chest voice is wonderfully aggressive. After Barton’s emotional performance of the demanding “O mon Fernand” in the third act, the audience gave her the longest and loudest ovation I have heard after an aria in the last five years of attending HGO productions. Aside from her masterful singing, Barton is a skilled actress. One of the most striking moments in the production was Léonor’s slow, pained exit from the stage after being brutalized by the knights. Barton’s hushed crying communicated more about her profound loss than most of the arias in the final act.
Imbrailo, last seen in HGO’s 2014 production of Così fan tutte, also impresses as King Alphonse XI. He shines in the second act, delivering an unexpectedly sympathetic performance—at least at first—that demonstrates genuine love for Léonor. Imbrailo’s voice is warm, capable of both tenderness and strength, and it blends beautifully with Barton’s for their second act duets. Brownlee, an HGO favorite, satisfies as Fernand. At intermission, it was announced that Brownlee was “soldiering on” through a cold, but that did not stop him from nailing the high notes, especially in the fourth act. Brownlee sings with a precise and focused tone, always reliable but lacking a varied color palette.
The technical aspects of the production are particularly well-done, from director Kevin Newbury’s inspired staging to the elegant sets by Victoria Tzykun. Over the course of the second act, the backdrop of a palace interior becomes more and more translucent, revealing a landscape of leafless trees. At the height of the drama, the backdrop lifts halfway up, leaving only the barren forest behind the action. This bleak setting remains until the opera’s final moments, when the walls abruptly return, suggesting the possibility that the palace interior was never really left at all and the dark woods were merely metaphorical.
Jessica Jahn’s costumes deserve special recognition. Beyond their beauty, her garments help articulate the story. Fernand’s quickly shifting social status from monk to lover to military official in the first act are captured through simple onstage changes in his upper body garb. King Alphonse first appears in his undergarments, the bindings on his battle-wounded leg clearly visible, a surprising choice that softens him. As he sings of his love for Léonor, he leans on his wardrobe, seeming more like a lowly soldier than a king, and only dons the royal garb that befits his rank as the music increases in tempo. Most noticeably, Léonor changes from her rust-colored dress as the king’s mistress to a blue wedding gown when she marries Fernard, only to be stripped to her white slip and marked with red paint.
A co-production with The Metropolitan Opera, La favorite is appearing at HGO for the first time—reason enough to purchase a ticket. It is worth seeing for the wonderful music making, strong performances, and breathtaking stagecraft. However, its story may disappoint in the ways that so many classic operas do.
Runs Feb 1, 6, and 9. Tickets from $20. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Ave. More info and tickets at houstongrandopera.org