Thomas Hampson, Luca Pisaroni, Chad Shelton, Rihab Chaieb, et al (voices) Houston Grand Opera/Patrick Summers
Pentatone PTC 5186 857 132:24 mins (2 discs)
While opera is possibly the most collaborative of art forms, it’s the composer who usually becomes known as creator of a work. For Da Ponte to have achieved the fame he has points to the brilliance of his three librettos for Mozart. Yet, ironically, these were not necessarily the most noteworthy achievements of his long life, as Tarik O’Regan and John Caird explore in The Phoenix, their semi-fictitious opera-within-an opera about the Italian’s extraordinary journey to becoming an American citizen.
The irony that suffuses this Houston Grand Opera live performance release from Pentatone is not always to the good, however: the download package of the digital-only release eschews Caird’s libretto, without which it’s often impossible to grasp more than a broad sense of what’s happening. It’s a complex piece, with multiple role-doublings and words in English, Italian and more, as Da Ponte’s life is traced through the staging of The Phoenix, an opera composed by his son Enzo. The action involves a whistle-stop tour across Europe and America, pausing at key places to reflect on his experiences as artist and adventurer, family man and immigrant.
It’s O’Regan’s music that really draws the attention: the choruses in particular are very fine, and his resonant orchestral writing embraces big-boned Americana and lithe Classical pastiche. With an able cast robustly led by Thomas Hampson and firm conducting from Patrick Summers, the overriding theme of the importance of art, freedom and cross-cultural intersection finally cuts through.