Compared to Europe, opera in America can sometimes seem a quaint business.
Last spring, for instance, an adventurous Wagnerian in Germany could see, on consecutive evenings, Robert Wilson's coolly modernist, chaste, mystically lit Easter-time production of "Parsifal" in Hamburg and a postmodern, homoerotic "Lohengrin" from one of Europe's most controversial directors, John Dew, in Bielefeld.
Houston Grand Opera has now made America seem a little less quaint with its own weekend of Wilson and Dew. Despite practically no local Wagnerian tradition, Houston mounted a spectacular version of Wilson's "Parsifal" with results both musically and visually superior to Hamburg's efforts last year. And it invited Dew, who has turned backwater Bielefeld into a center of operatic outrageousness, to make his United States debut with two productions of operas based on "Beauty and the Beast."
No Disney, Dew is more the David Lynch of opera. In his Bielefeld production of "Zemire et Azor" by the 18th-Century Belgian composer Andre-Ernest-Modeste Gretry, the director turned the beast (Azor) into a pasty-faced, crazed rock musician; Beauty (Zemire), a sexpot bimbo; her father, a '50s yahoo Texas vacuum-cleaner salesman. To complement this imported production, Houston also commissioned a new "Beauty and the Beast" opera, "Desert of Roses," from Robert Moran, a onetime experimental composer who has now become a minimalist.
But the bad boy of Bielefeld, who reportedly arrived in Houston ill-prepared for the Moran and proved inflexible in his conception of the Gretry, was fired a week ago.
The pictures and reports from Bielefeld indicated a raucous conception of "Zemire," turning this fluffy succession of pretty arias into something creepy. However, Houston's general director, David Gockley, said he had objected to the inconsistency of placing a '70s-style rocker within a '50s concept.
Houston's cleaned-up version, taken over by an assistant director, Ross Perry, proved blandly innocuous and undercharacterized.
Azor became an affable lounge lizard subjected to sing in sleazy motels until Beauty recognizes his inner talent. The libretto, translated into English and rewritten by John LaChiusa, librettist also of "Desert of Roses," became sitcom silly, with lots of references to period TV shows. Only the skewered pop-art sets by Gottfried Pilz, Dew's regular Bielefeld collaborator, gave an indication of the edge this production once had.
Moran imagines "Beauty and Beast" in the far more rapturous tradition of the Cocteau film. LaChiusa's libretto is uncommitted of time and place. But Dew's production, finished by Perry but apparently faithful to the original outline, imagines the Beast as a violent Civil War soldier, punished for his carnage in a desert of roses by an enigmatic Woman who mysteriously controls the fable.
Here the elegant production, mysteriously lit and nicely fluid, lets the music speak for itself--a music of Glass' driving rhythms, Straussian contrapuntal intricacy, and the gorgeous, soaring vocal lines, especially for the women, of a latter-day Puccini. Moran relishes sugar and spice heaped on by the spoonful and seems to like nothing better than a radiant, sensual climax through which love can transcend all bounds.
In both operas the company put together capable, hard-working American casts. Most notable were the Beauties: Jayne West, sounding very pretty as the Girl in the Moran; Diana Amos a spunky Zemire. Kip Wilborn also gave a decent Elvis imitation in one of Azor's arias. Both conductors, John DeMain (in Moran) and Daniel Beckwith (in Gretry) were enthusiastic.
But it was in Wilson's "Parsifal" that Houston really demonstrated what the company is capable of. The luminous production, which had looked slightly peculiar in gloomy Hamburg, seemed a perfect reflection of Texas light and openness. Hamburg's seasoned Wagnerian singers, who had seemed stifled by Wilson's stylized movement, were replaced by a mostly younger cast that was disciplined and utterly convincing.
John Keyes, the Parsifal, sang with uncommon freshness and innocence. Harry Peeters, due to sing Mozart's Sarastro in Los Angeles next season, was the understated Gurnemanz; Monte Pederson, the crusty Amfortas.
Dunja Vejzovic, the only effective member of the original Hamburg cast, re-created her memorable Bride of Frankenstein-style Kundry. Christoph Eschenbach conducted a performance clearly articulated, long of line and intense of feeling.
Wilson is a native Texan, and Houston has honored him and Wagner in a manner that now makes the Germans look a little quaint.