HOUSTON — A friend who had lived in both Dallas and Houston once commented on their difference.
“Houston is always more willing to take risks,” he said. “Dallas is too busy looking over his shoulder to see what people are thinking.”
It paints both cities with broad brushes, but there’s something about it.
I thought about it on April 30, while watching the Houston Grand Opera production of Puccini Turandot. The staging, design and lighting were the work of Robert Wilson, a Waco native but long a major – and provocative – artist and theater director/designer on the international stage.
It’s hard to imagine the Dallas Opera, for all its accomplishments, presenting something so extravagant. I might be surprised one of these days.
Last night I heard the Houston Symphony at Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. It’s a fare hardly unheard of in Dallas, and both orchestras’ lineup has been equally conservative. But it may have come at an added cost as one of Andrés Orozco-Estrada’s farewell performances after eight seasons as the orchestra’s musical director.
I also thought about the contrasting performance facilities of the two cities. Houston took chances with local architects. Dallas – looking over his shoulder for approval – chose international “star architects”.
Houston also took a risk by placing its two facilities on the corner of a downtown intersection, near one of the city’s bayous. They both suffered from repeated and sometimes catastrophic flooding during hurricanes. Dallas is grateful not to have those challenges.
Houston Grand Opera: A Ritualized Turandot
The Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet perform at the Gus S. Wortham Theater Center, a complex of two performance venues — the 2,405-seat Brown Theater and the 1,100-seat Cullen Theater — with a common grand concourse that connects Prairie Ave.
Designed by Eugene Aubry of Morris Aubry Architects and opened in 1987, it’s a great mass of postmodern brickwork, with cheeky touches of traditional design motifs. The “Grand Staircase” is a pair of escalators framed by towering, swirling sculptures by Albert Paley.
Postmodern buildings, with their scholarly whimsy, have generally not worn well. But the interior of the Brown Theater, with dark red walls in semi-cylindrical shapes, provides excellent sound – crisp and full-bodied, with a little more “sound” than the Winspear Opera House in Dallas. (How the crisply modern 2009 Winspear remains to be seen remains to be seen.) Sound design was done by Jaffe Acoustics.
Houston Grand Opera’s history of 70 world premieres – “more willing to take risks” – certainly puts the Dallas Opera’s handful of new works to shame. With HGO as one of its original co-curators, this Turandot been around a bit since making their debut in Madrid in 2018, but these were their first appearances in the United States.
Treating Puccini’s charged confrontations in mythical China as ritual more than human drama, Wilson makes much of his characteristic stiff gestures and movements. (The singers reportedly needed sessions with chiropractors and physical therapists.)
The characters are facing forward rather than interacting conventionally. At the back of the empty stage are sliding black panels in front of a mostly blue-lit scrim, except in bloody moments when it’s splattered with red.
Figures with faces whitened by makeup are mostly clad in black, with impressive armor for the soldiers, though the outsiders Calaf, Liu, and Timur contrast in light blue. The icy Chinese princess Turandot, introduced on a high side cantilever, sports a shiny red dress. His father, the old Emperor Altoum, descends from the flies in opulent white robes. Irreverent Ministers Ping, Pang, and Pong bounce and dash like Teletubbies in black suits.
Embodying Turandot, Tamara Wilson poured out sounds as glorious as they were heroic. Kristian Benedikt’s helpful but somewhat clotted tenor left someone wishing for a more Italian blaze. Delivering the famous “Nessun dorma” in front of a tangle of abstract black canvases, he still received a roaring ovation.
Nicole Heaston’s soprano was seriously underpowered for Liu, until she summoned more projection for her defiant final sacrifice. (There was, however, no dramatization of his death).
Old Altoum and Timur were sung more sonorously than usual by, respectively, Héctor Vásquez and Peixin Chen. Takaoki Onishi gave Ping a particularly handsome baritone, cleverly joined by Andrew Stenson’s Pang and Carlos Enrique Santelli’s Pong. The three of them were delightfully campy and impressively athletic.
Was it convincing? Well, yes, if you accepted it as Robert Wilsonit is Turandot. I wouldn’t want this to be my only version of the opera, but I’m glad I saw it.
Conducted by Eun Sun Kim, Music Director of the San Francisco Opera and Principal Guest Conductor of the HGO, the HGO orchestra performed beautifully and the excellent choir showed excellent preparation by Richard Bado. But there were more sync slips between stage and pit than you’d expect in the third of six performances.
Houston Symphony: Mahler in a troubled room
Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, designed by the firm of Caudill Rowlett Scott, opened in 1966. Clad in travertine marble, a square columned structure shades the ovoid shape of the performance hall. Designed as a multipurpose facility, with a full stage and flies for theater productions, it also has an acoustic shell for orchestral concerts.
The hall’s acoustic design was done by Bolt Beranek and Newman, the firm that designed the original – and universally designed – acoustics for what is now David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City. (Later revisions attempted to improve the sound of the New York venue. The latest, with a redesign of the concert hall by Diamond Schmitt Architects and acoustic advice by Paul Scarbrough of Akustiks, is due to open in October. )
At Jones Hall, the ceiling above the paneled audience chamber is an array of hexagonal steel reflectors. The rear part can be raised or lowered to expose or hide the second balcony, varying the reception capacity of the room between 2,300 and 2,912.
As with the original Philharmonic Hall in New York, Jones was acoustically problematic from the outset. Relatively minor tweaks over the years have not made it sonically satisfactory; proposals for radical reconstruction have not yet been realized. (The absurd toilet inconvenience is another issue.)
The sound of Mahler’s April 29 symphony performance was worse than I remembered: harsh, in your face, violins taking a sharp edge of steel, double bass notes exploding out of proportion. There was a little bounce from a back wall, but no enveloping heat. A friend reminded me that the sound can be mushy and lifeless in more distant seats.
Inside and out, Jones Hall is a 1960s period piece. By contrast, Dallas’ Meyerson Symphony Center, designed by IM Pei, increasingly seems to transcend its 1980s design. his is a modern and elegant building, its subtle play of geometries punctuated with skilful traditional allusions. And the widely adjustable acoustics deliver rich, spacious sound.
Perhaps Jones Hall’s singularly unflattering sound kept me from enjoying the Mahler. For all the flamboyant interpretive dancing from Orozco-Estrada on the catwalk and the huge dynamic range, the performance somehow felt more deliciously calibrated than emotionally felt. I kept wanting a little more time at pivotal times. The translations of the sung texts were displayed on large video screens at the sides of the stage.
The Houston Symphony Chorus, prepared by Betsy Cook Weber, matched the orchestra for discipline and dynamic range. Competent soloists were soprano Ana María Martínez and mezzo Sasha Cooke.