Monday, May 18, 2009

Review: Brief Encounter

Brief Encounter
André Previn
Houston Grand Opera
May 6, 2009

Brief Encounter, Houson
Elizabeth Futral as Laura Jesson.

Photo: Felix Sanchez.

Tortured love affairs make good opera. That's a fact. Houston Grand Opera's world premiere of André Previn's second opera, Brief Encounter, wins on all fronts. Based on Noël Coward's one-act play Still Life and David Lean's 1945 classic film, Previn and librettist/director John Caird re-imagine this soulful tale with stunning results. Previn's lush cinematic score pays homage to Lean's film while also expanding the Brief Encounter canon.

Previn's diverse career has taken him from Hollywood composer (four Academy Awards) to jazz pianist; he's left no genre untouched. He even conducted the Houston Symphony for a brief stint during the late 1960s. Brief Encounter is only his second opera, so there's yet another chapter to be told in Previn's musical history.

Brief Encounter tells the story of the sweet but troubled affair of Laura Jesson, a bored British housewife, and Alec Harvey, a handsome and caring doctor, who come to life once a week on their regular Thursday meetings. The scene opens with a behemoth clock that dissolves to show Laura and Alec at the very end of their relationship. So time has already run out as Alec tenderly reaches for Laura's hand. They sit silently across the table from each other quietly acknowledging the end. Starting at the end sucks us right into the heart of their pathos. Now we are curious, how did they meet, spend their Thursdays, fall in love, become lovers, and return to their spouses?

Baritone Nathan Gunn is positively dreamy as Alec. He not only fills Trevor Howard's shoes but adds to them as he endows Alec with a sensitive edge, powerful acting, and a smooth tonality. Elizabeth Frutal's believable Laura is both demure but willing to take a chance on happiness. Frutal's vocal color brings us straight into her confused interior world. The couple's potent chemistry anchors the opera. Kim Josephson portrays Fred, the lonely husband, with a quiet dignity and has at least one moving turn that makes us rethink Laura's behavior. Comic relief comes through in Meredith Arwady's performance as Myrtle Bagot, the station proprietress.

Bunnie Christie's gray-toned train station is filled with images of time from wall clocks to a gigantic time piece that opens the opera. The monotone hues contain the drama well, evoking the film without being heavy handed, lending a bittersweet tone that crosses the film to opera barrier. Leafless trees add to a sense of pending loss. Paul Pyant's lighting design evokes the bleek London skies, the lonely river, and the cool intimacy of interior spaces. Patrick Summers and the HGO Orchestra give full weight to Previn's melodic score. It's melancholy of the highest order. Thursdays have never been this exciting.

Reprinted from