Thomas Hampson and Luca Pisaroni as the old and young Lorenzo Da Ponte. (credit: Lynn Lane)

Report: The Phoenix, a world premiere by Houston Grand Opera

Mark Buller | 06 May 2019

HOUSTON, TX—  I was privileged to attend the world premiere of The Phoenix by Tarik O’Regan and John Caird last week at Houston Grand Opera. This was HGO’s 66th world premiere, a feat which should garner the praise of fans of both new music and opera in general, as the company is doing more than its fair share in keeping the art form alive.

Much can be said about the new opera, and several reviews have been published. I need to clarify that I don’t intend to write a review here, but rather a kind of report. As I’ve been commissioned by the company for a few operas and a dozen art songs, I do not have the distance required to be an impartial critic. As a composer, however, I have a number of thoughts.

The Phoenix follows the life of Lorenzo Da Ponte, from his life in Venice, to his collaboration with Mozart, to financial ruin in London, then to adventures in New York running a grocery store and a school. The story is wide-ranging, and it’s incredibly staged in this compelling production.

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Reviews skew mostly positive so far, with some exceptions that grouse about the musical language and a kind of dramatic turgidity. A singer I know lamented the “lack of melody,” which I’ll confess mystified me. The whole opera isn’t instantly memorable, but there are plenty of wonderful moments. In one of those, O’Regan seeds the opera with a fabulous leitmotif, harmonized in tenths.

To me, that illustrates O’Regan’s experience in choral forms, structuring and voicing harmonies in resonant ways. Throughout the opera it allows him to achieve sonorous orchestral accompaniments without overpowering the singers. In particular, the writing for Hampson, as Da Ponte, spends much of the first act in a lower register, which doesn’t quite allow the resonance and volume one might expect – but no matter, given the expert orchestration which allows Hampson to be clearly heard. The opera certainly isn’t suffused with a string of catchy melodies, but neither should it be.

Luca Pisaroni as young Lorenzo Da Ponte and Rihab Chaieb as Mozart. (credit: Lynn Lane)

Luca Pisaroni as young Lorenzo Da Ponte and Rihab Chaieb as Mozart. (credit: Lynn Lane)

We might make comparison to Wagner, to Puccini, to Donizetti, who broke up long stretches of exposition with standout dramatic moments. O’Regan has done the same thing here, and when the music is beautiful, it is gorgeous. I want to especially herald him for the slow burn throughout Act I. Somehow, through some compositional slight-of-hand, O’Regan keeps the tension churning without letting up for over an hour, cresting only when Emperor Joseph II sings a moving farewell to Da Ponte and Mozart. And in the closing fifteen minutes, the composer lets loose, alternating moments of pathos with lightheartedness that mirrors the work of Mozart himself.

In his libretto, Caird sets forth the drama via a distancing device – namely, an opera-within-an-opera – so O’Regan needed to create a musical language which smacks of Classical opera. In that, he hits a home run. When we need recitative, we get recitative, complete with fortepiano flourishes and light touches from the strings.

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Hats off to Caird, whose contribution is the best example of a neoclassical libretto since Auden penned The Rake’s Progress. Caird doesn’t try for stilted, elevated language, and doesn’t settle for endless conversational prose; instead he rides a good middle-ground. He gives us some terrific moments in which to enjoy the chorus, which again is O’Regan’s specialty.

It’s not a perfect opera. Such a thing does not exist. The Phoenix could use a bit of tightening. Covering such a long stretch of Da Ponte’s career is dramatically challenging, but by making reference to his bloated memoirs, the choice makes sense. I wonder if the pacing might be better served by a few minor cuts.

In any case, it’s a world-class opera that’s fit for the world stage. I know I’m not alone in hoping it succeeds. Fortunately, HGO is making a recording, as they have with other of their more successful commissions. It’s not a money-making endeavor to do so in today’s market, but the opera world is fortunate to have the company’s dedication in this regard. Santa Fe’s recording of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs is one such example, giving those of us unable to travel to Santa Fe the opportunity to hear the extraordinary piece. Hopefully The Phoenix makes a similar impression upon its eventual release. ■

Mark Buller is an award-winning composer and pianist based in Houston, Texas. Buller was chosen national winner of the Rapido! Composition Contest in 2016 for his “Regressive Variations.”

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