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Chorus! Capitalizes on Variety

Brown Theater, Wortham Center
01/30/2009 -  & February 1*, 7, 11, 13
Sergei Prokofiev: Epigraph from War and Peace
Benjamin Britten: “Who Holds Himself Apart” from Peter Grimes
Richard Wagner: Spinning Chorus from Der fliegende Holländer - Entry of the Guests from Tannhäuser
Giuseppe Verdi: Murderer’s Chorus and Witches' Chorus from Macbeth - Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore - “Va pensiero” from Nabucco
Henry Purcell: “Hush, No More” from The Fairy Queen
Giacomo Puccini: Humming Chorus from Madama Butterfly
Igor Stravinsky: “With Air Commanding” from The Rake’s Progress
Kurt Weill: Alabama Song from Mahagonny
Dmitry Shostakovich: Police Scene from Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District
Georges Bizet: Cigarette Chorus from Carmen
Arthur Sullivan: “A Policeman’s Lot” and “With Cat-Like Tread” from The Pirates of Penzance
Jacques Offenbach: Barcarolle from Les Contes d'Hoffmann
Carl Orff: “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana
George Friedrich Handel: Hallelujah Chorus from The Messiah
Richard Rodgers: Alleluia from The Sound of Music
Modest Mussorgsky: Wailing Chorus from Khovanshchina
Richard Rodgers: “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel
Leonard Bernstein: “Make Our Garden Grow” from Candide

Ryan Mckinny (Sleep/Police Sergeant/Khovasky/Pangloss), Caitlin Lynch (Cunegonde/Jenny/Venus), Shon Sims (Scribe/Candide/Samuel), Jon Kolbert (Kuzka), Octavio Moreno (baritone)
Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Richard Bado (Chorus Master), Patrick Summers (conductor)
David Pountney (director), Johan Engels (set and costume designer), Damien Cooper (lighting designer), Michael Clark (lighting supervisor)

(© Felix Sanchez/Houston Grand Opera)

What is, exactly, Chorus! ? This is the question that has been on the mind of Houston opera-goers for nearly a year, and we finally got the answer over the weekend. A bizarre, fascinating and frustrating amalgamation of choral chunks plucked from opera, operetta, oratorio and musical theater, Chorus! contains many impressive and memorable moments, but left me scratching my head on the way home.

Most importantly, Chorus! sounds phenomenal. A series of nearly two dozen intense choral numbers from a large spectrum of music is effortlessly pulled off by the HGO chorus and orchestra, with Maestro Summers somehow switching gears on a dime to move us from Shostakovich to Bizet to Sullivan and occasionally convince us that the progression was initially conceived that way. The orchestra was awe-inspiring as they chewed up the crazily virtuosic Police Scene from Lady Macbeth a few short numbers after scaling back vibrato and focusing on purity of tone and intonation for Purcell’s “Hush Now”. Likewise, the chorus was shown off in virtually every permutation of voices, from the softest pianissimo in the Humming Chorus to the overwhelming massed cries of “Peter Grimes!” The production gave a visceral thrill, with many spine-tingling moments and, after the “finale” of familiar Rodgers and Bernstein choruses (followed by a sing-along encore of “America the Beautiful”), handkerchiefs were being brought to teary eyes throughout the audience.

David Pountney and HGO general Director Anthony Freud conceived Chorus to be a “mirror image” of us, the audience. The opening of the production was arresting, with the chorus members nonchalantly filed onto stage as if wondering in from the lobby while the orchestra was still warming up and then, without warning, exploding into the first shattering chord of Prokofiev’s “Epigraph”. Indeed, the Prokofiev-Britten juxtaposition that opened the night was perhaps the most convincing. Other combinations were pleasantly surprising, such as the surprisingly effective shift from the Anvil Chorus to “Hush, No More”, which combined a complete change in musical content with a sudden addition of blue to the previous red, white and black color palette, carrying us tellingly into another musical world.

Other connections were less effective, such as the whole opening of the second half, where the Entry of the Guests from Tannhäuser was staged as a red carpet parade of “celebrities” (beginning with Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz through Marilyn Monroe and Andy Warhol and ending with a male dancer in drag) and seemed very much like a Monty Python parody. The progression of styles here was truly jolting: Wagner was followed by another Sullivan number, then by Verdi, Handel and Rodgers, as the mob ogling the celebrities was gradually “robbed” by pirates, and witches disrobed the transvestite dancer. All was “made well” by the two Hallelujah/Alleluia pairing, and at this point the conceit of troubled, intense choruses followed by relief had been played out. We were subjected to it once more, however, and, fascinating as it was to experience the weight of the Wailing Chorus from Khovanshchina, it was hard after the ridiculous preceding montage to take this powerful tableau as seriously as it should be taken. Hopefully one day the Mussorgsky work will be given a full staging here in Houston.

The unifying visual scheme, based on Arthur Siegel’s photograph “Rights of Assembly” worked well overall, with sliding panels creating different stage situations. Costumes and sets were mostly in newspaper hues to match the photo, with various effectively placed splashes of blue and red. Two dancers were used in the production, occasionally verging into some very provocative gestures during the Stravinsky-Weill sequence.

All in all, once one set aside questions about the plot and, at times, taste level of the production, the evening was truly entertaining and it was indeed good to hear this music, much of which HGO will otherwise rarely if ever perform. One does hope, however, that productions like Chorus will remain an occasional diversion and not become a mainstay in the company’s upcoming seasons. Full immersion into the complete context of these scenes is required to truly understand and appreciate them, and that was the most problematic aspect of the evening.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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