News Column

Opera redux: Santa Fe Opera's 57th season in review

August 2, 2013

YellowBrix

Aug. 02--All five main-stage productions of Santa Fe Opera's 2013 season are up and rolling. ?The following write-ups are abridged from reviews that appeared in the daily ?edition of The New Mexican. They can be accessed in their original, complete forms at ?www.santafenewmexican.com.

In the realm of Gerolstein: La Grande-Duchesse de Gerolstein

The Santa Fe Opera launched its 57th season transporting its audience to a madcap realm where political foibles and military scheming are engulfed in a swirl of silliness. On offer is Jacques Offenbach's La Grande-Duchesse de Gerolstein, directed by Lee Blakeley in an energetic, colorful production that lets the piece wend along its farcical path without trying to invest it with any deep meaning, thank you.

A Grand Duchess with an unbridled sex drive takes an unseemly interest in her military cadets and particularly Private Fritz, whom she courts by promoting him rapidly up the ranks until he displaces even her commander-in-chief, General Boum. When clueless Fritz proceeds to marry his sweetheart, Wanda, the Grand Duchess plots to have him bumped off by the unholy trinity of Boum, her aide Baron Puck, and her suitor, Prince Paul; but she settles for just demoting him instead and resigns herself to marrying Prince Paul because, as she muses, "When you can't have what you love, you must love what you have."

It's a slender plot to spin out over three acts, but the Offenbachian point of view is that it's all right as long as you eke out the evening with an abundance of can-cans in which comely dancing girls display ankles, calves, thighs, and acres of frilly undergarments; so that's the game plan, and the piece has an accordingly miscellaneous feel. Adrian Linford's classic, stately sets (lit effectively by Rick Fisher) allow plenty of open space for action. Jo van Schuppen's splendid costumes fill those spaces with colorful elegance and yards of military braid, and choreographer Peggy Hickey makes them vibrant with copious choreography that the cast realizes with bounding elan. Spoken dialogue is delivered in English, but the original French text is retained for sung sections. The flow back and forth is accomplished seamlessly thanks to the performers' tasteful reluctance to overenunciate in either language.

Heading the cast is mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, an international star at the top of her game, in her first-ever portrayal of the Grand Duchess. This operetta is less a vocal showpiece than a spectacle, but she plumbs the score with authority. Her stylish rendition of the Act 2 aria "Dites-lui" was the musical high point of the production, displaying a broad dynamic spectrum, expressive articulation, and a spectacular voice that is velvety and penetrating.

Fritz is played by Paul Appleby, whose small but remarkably appealing voice is focused, supple, and sweet as a ripe peach. Soprano Anya Matanovic is an earnest, pure-toned Wanda, and bass Kevin Burdette is an amusingly browbeaten Boum. Baritone Jonathan Michie serves up an oily Prince Paul, and he gets the production's most outrageous costume: a pink spangled suit and matching pumps that make him a queenly prince indeed. Tenor Aaron Pegram is burdened with one of the production's few directorial missteps, being made to whine in a Southern accent that seems out of place in these surroundings. The apprentice singers are as strong as ever, as evidenced by an Act 2 chorus of young women reading letters from their soldier-boyfriends and a wonderfully executed domino-topple of cadets at the end of the Grand Duchess's famous aria "Ah! Que j'aime les militaires."

Conductor Emmanuel Villaume led a forthright reading that too often drowned out the singers and, on opening night, left many delicacies unaddressed.

Marriage ... la mode: Le nozze di Figaro

Audience members were greeted by a familiar sight as they took their seats for the first performance of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro: a stage studded with blooming stems that represent the garden in which the work's machinations would conclude four acts later. This is the same production the company offered in 2008, created by director Jonathan Kent, but for its revival it has been subtly transformed and improved by Bruce Donnell.

It was a good production to begin with, elegantly conceived in 1780s style. Paul Brown's sets include paneled rooms for much of the coming and going and, for the Countess' boudoir, a room dense with dark-silver rococo filigree. Brown's period costumes make everyone look like they've stepped out of a painting by Greuze, and Duane Schuler's lighting trains the eye on what might otherwise be overlooked.

Nonetheless, some conceptions in the original production begged to be cleaned up. The most egregious error in 2008 involved the Countess, who had been ?made to behave despondently in Act 2. Donnell has rectified that, and she now commands the audience's respect with far greater dignity -- a woman demeaned by her husband, but who has fully assumed the nobility that came with her now-unhappy marriage.

Musical standards are high. Conductor John Nelson elicits careful balances from his orchestra and paces the musical paragraphs to clarify the theatrical momentum and Mozart's musical architecture. The casting of the singers is inspired. Every member of this handsome assemblage fits into the action with absolute credibility, each bringing substantial vocal and dramatic gifts to bear.

You have to love them all, but let's start with Susanna, first of all acknowledging that it is such a demanding role and then applauding pert, fresh-toned soprano Lisette Oropesa, who made everyone fall in love with her right from the outset. Nothing in the evening surpassed her rendition of "Deh vieni, non tardar" in Act 4, in which she spun strands of magic ?in the evening air. But you can't have her -- and neither can the Count, which is the conflict that ?motivates the whole opera. No, her heart belongs to Figaro; and who can blame her, since Zachary Nelson infused that endearing character with a similar measure of charm and allure, not to mention a warmly enveloping baritone.

The Count and Countess, bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch and soprano Susanna Phillips (reprising her role from 2008), made a believable, imposingly tall couple. Okulitch sang with vocal authority ?that underscored his self-assurance as a character accustomed to getting his way. Phillips took a while to settle in, as Countesses often do, but she arrived ?at a firm, full-throated performance. Her voice has been evolving impressively in recent years, and one senses that she may be on the verge of the vocal luxuriance that has marked the most memorable Countesses over the years.

Mezzo-soprano Emily Fons was a worthy Cherubino, ?remarkably boyish in her bearing, and soprano Rachel Hall, an apprentice, made an alluring, devious Barbarina. Keith Jameson was right on the mark as Don Basilio, as he seems to be in every character role he touches. But let us not overlook the pair who are sometimes discounted in this opera, Doctor Bartolo and Marcellina. Bass-baritone Dale Travis was amusingly pompous, but if you want a graduate seminar in operatic stage artistry, I suggest you keep your eyes trained on mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer. Formerly a distinguished Cherubino, she has graduated to the matronly role of housekeeper (and, it is revealed, Figaro's mother) and turned the part into a model of comic portrayal without upstaging her colleagues. One might take exception to details here and there. I was unconvinced by exaggerated rubatos that occasionally stretched instrumental and vocal phrases. I wish more suspense had been built into the moment when the Countess pardons her errant husband. We know she will forgive him, but he has reason to assume the opposite, having just been caught wooing the woman he takes to be Susanna. His redemption would seem sweeter if he sweated a moment longer.

Le nozze di Figaro is my favorite of all operas, and I have seen it more often than any other, but a good production can still disclose new ideas. In this production I heard something I had not encountered before. In the Act 3 duet "Canzonetta sull'aria," the Countess dictates to Susanna a letter that launches their entrapment of the Count. It is one of the loveliest expanses ever put on paper, and a musician's natural response is simply to bask in its beauty. Phillips and Oropesa, however, took an emotional turn as it unrolled, and the atmosphere shifted from delight to regret. Right they were; they may be embarking on some exhilarating mischief, but the subject is really a failed marriage. The greatest classics earn their status because they keep revealing their secrets.

Highland fling: La donna del lago

Gioachino Rossini's La donna del lago, a two-act opera based on Sir Walter Scott's poetical epic The Lady of the Lake, enjoyed widespread popularity for several decades following its premiere in 1819, but after that the world tucked it in for a century-long nap. Since its modern revival in 1958, it has been presented by various companies, and in the past few years a small handful of productions have starred American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato in the demanding title role of Elena, the part she upholds with impressive aplomb in the Santa Fe Opera production.

The piece requires singers skilled in the strenuous demands of bel canto vocal style, artists who can negotiate rapid figuration by the furlong, passing seamlessly from their highest notes to their lowest and vice-versa (dauntingly difficult), apportioning the countless tiny notes of these roulades to clarify an overarching phrase. DiDonato did not sing a measure all evening that failed to proclaim mastery of this style. From the very opening notes of her entrance aria, "O, mattutini albori!" she rendered everything with complete security. Her entrance was simple but visually striking. The open-air stage back allowed a passing breeze to tousle her tresses, and her unaffected bearing clarified the production's naturalistic aspirations. DiDonato offered everything opera aficionados have grown to expect of her, her voice proving rich but never heavy, her broad dynamic range projecting clearly even when soft, and her stamina seeing her through with unwavering security to her dazzling rondo-finale, the famous "Tanti affetti," in which she sang some superbly executed trills -- something we rarely hear.

Three men vie for Elena's hand: the hunter Uberto, later revealed to be the king, Giacomo V, in disguise; Malcom Groeme, Elena's existing boyfriend; and the highland chief Rodrigo di Dhu, whom Elena's father, Duglas d'Angus, wants her to marry. Complicating the matter is that Duglas and Rodrigo have fomented a rebellion against the king, and Malcom signs on as their ally, all of which places Elena at the center of a politically perilous situation.

The rest of the cast did not quite rival DiDonato, but some did very well, generally better in some elements of their interpretation than in others. Malcom is portrayed by the Italian mezzo-soprano Marianna Pizzolato, whose impressive singing justified the strong reputation she has been gaining in international bel canto circles. Her Act 2 cabaletta "Che sento!" sparkled with crystal-clear figuration at jaw-dropping velocity. The nature of her voice supported the part, her dusky, almost contralto-like timbre contrasting with DiDonato's more forward lucidity. Her stage portrayal was less convincing. She has her work cut out for her; it takes a leap of faith to accept a mezzo-soprano swathed in plaid and wearing a skirt (oh, all right, a kilt) as a male love interest, but even at that her bearing always tended toward the matronly rather than the manly.

Two tenors braved the Rossinian stratosphere. Lawrence Brownlee, as Uberto/Giacomo, does not posses a particularly ringing or extroverted voice, but his work was elegantly crafted, refined in delivery, subtle in some of its delicacies. His tight vibrato could sometimes tend toward a bleating quality, as it did in his aria "O fiamma soave," but I found him on the whole a pleasure to hear, and he proved a worthy partner to DiDonato in their duets. Rene Barbera, as Rodrigo, hit top-of-range pitches securely and embraced his rapid scales with gusto. ?Still to work on: tempering a tone that can be piercingly strident and developing ?the bottom few notes of his range, which did not serve him adequately at the opening performance.

There are very few bel canto basses out there, and Wayne Tigges, not being among them, did not bring the requisite skills to his portrayal of Duglas. In the small roles, rendered by company apprentices, tenor David Blalock made a fine impression as the royal servant Bertram, and soprano Lucy Sauter (Elena's confidante) and tenor Joshua Dennis (Duglas' servant) presented their parts capably. Conductor Stephen Lord elicited from the orchestra precise playing that always supported the singers.

There's not much to be said about the joyless production, which is directed unimaginatively by Paul Curran, with sets and costumes by Kevin Knight and lighting by Duane Schuler. The final scene suddenly pops to life; courtiers wear handsome outfits and the lighting shimmers with gold as Elena is ushered into the palace of Giacomo V, where she recognizes him as her erstwhile suitor. But it's a long, dark wait until we get there.

Immortal beloved: La traviata

La traviata returned to Santa Fe ?Opera in a performance under-?pinned by strong musical contributions from three of its ?participants, all of them appearing in their company debuts. Two Americans proved laudable in their roles as the lovers whose love must not be: as the courtesan Violetta Valery, soprano Brenda Rae, whose engaging voice and scrupulously constructed technique propelled her through a role that has sunk many a contender; and, as Alfredo Germont, tenor Michael Fabiano, whose virile, warm-hued instrument draws together tonal richness and dramatic edge even though it still floats buoyantly in the late springtime of its development. The third worthy of the evening was the gentleman in the pit, the British conductor Leo Hussain, who paced Verdi's evergreen score intelligently, inserted a few uncommon ideas into the phrasing, and often elicited nuanced playing from the orchestra.

The production is a revival of a staging unveiled here in 2009 by director Laurent Pelly (who also designed the costumes), with sets by Chantal Thomas and lighting by Duane Schuler. It sometimes proved visually striking, but when all is weighed in the balance, the presentation seemed devised more to realize the goals of the director's sketchbook than to expose the passionate heart of Verdi's opera.

I am not a fan of filling opera overtures and preludes with staged pantomime. Nonetheless, I found this to be the most effective expanse of the entire production in terms of the cast's interaction with the set. About 20 large, granitic blocks are arranged at different heights across the stage. When a funeral procession winds through, the blocks convincingly evoked a Parisian cemetery with characteristic above-ground sarcophagi. As Alfredo weeps from afar, we understand that Violetta is inside the coffin and that the opera is Alfredo's memory of what has happened. That's the last we see of that notion, but it's not the last we see of the blocks, which serve as platforms over which characters bound and pose in ensuing scenes. The pantomime gives way to the festive gathering in Violetta's home, where partygoers navigate the set tightly for a while before becoming more dispersed among and atop the blocks. (Later in the opera, crowds sometimes dance and sway distractingly, for no apparent reason.) Violetta would seem a stronger character if she were not directed to behave like a floozy, as she is here, swigging Champagne from a bottle and striking supine poses with legs flailing in the air. The prima donna assoluta of this show is the flamboyant Hollywood-cerise gown Violetta wears in Act 1, curiously conceived to seem something a marionette would be more likely to wear than a person. The dress rather upstaged her during the daunting aria "Sempre libera," but if attendees focus on her singing, they will surely admire her virtuosic delivery, which is filled with spot-on pitches and precisely modulated coloratura.

Verdi follows this (in the opening of Act 2, Scene 1, set in Violetta's country house) with a corresponding solo turn for Alfredo, a soliloquy that includes his aria "Dei miei bollenti spiriti," which Fabiano rendered with winning exuberance. Pelly, however, has mucked up the dramatic balance by having Violetta present, running about playing a game of hide-and-seek in which Alfredo seems hardly interested. In principle, the pinnacle of this scene follows when Giorgio Germont, Alfredo's father, confronts Violetta and convinces her to break up with his son. Although no characters had shown much emotional connection to one another up to that point, the affective temperature took a plunge here. Opera aficionados speak of the "Verdi baritone" as a vocal type that excels in delivering sustained, high-lying phrases with a resplendent tone enriched by squillo, the bright edge that results when a singer infuses his sound with abundant high overtones. Roland Wood, who portrayed Germont p re, is not a Verdi baritone thus defined. He is, in contrast, a baritone of a supremely English sort who would probably be more in his element singing "On the Road to Mandalay" than "Pura siccome un angelo." Effortful vocal production that emphasized the periphery of his vibrato rather than the center of his pitches combined with a cardboard bearing and a profoundly unconvincing beard to undercut the power of this seminal scene. Then, too, the set did its best to keep the counterpoised characters apart rather than bring them together -- a dynamic the stage arrangement enforced throughout the piece.

After intermission, the "casino" scene in the townhouse of Violetta's friend Flora flowed with welcome swiftness. The formally costumed denizens of the salon, illuminated by high-contrast, expressionist lighting, looked good posing on the set's blocks, suggesting mobile sculptures in a mechanized waxworks. The most involving expanse of the evening came in the last act, when Rae sang "Addio del passato" with carefully calibrated dynamics and heart-rending poignancy. It is, tellingly, a solo scene. Although this production does have visual appeal, its physical aspects inhibit the emotional connections that Verdi's opera goes to such lengths to establish, and the evening's most dramatically convincing segments are therefore achieved by characters in moments of isolation.

Singin' them prison blues: Oscar

On July 27, Santa Fe Opera offered the world premiere of Oscar, a two-act work by composer Theodore Morrison, who penned the libretto jointly with the British opera director John Cox.

Oscar Wilde's caustic wit made him a darling of late-Victorian salon society, but this opera focuses instead on the low point of his life. Manipulated by his boyfriend, Bosie, into suing Bosie's father for libel (the father had asserted publicly that Oscar and Bosie were lovers), Wilde not only lost that case but was then found guilty of gross indecency and cast into two years' brutal confinement at Reading Gaol. It is a heart-rending chapter of Wilde's biography that depicts a life going down the drain, but deprived of invigorating personal conflicts or any departure from the inevitable, the work lacks a dramatic arc that might sustain it as a full-length opera. One senses that the creators realized this when they decided to superimpose an unrelated character, the American poet Walt Whitman, who observes the action as an outsider. He introduces the tale at the outset, strolls in to comment on the situations as they unroll, and ushers Wilde into the realm of immortality at the end. This device is useful to the extent that it efficiently fills in some back story, but it also gives away where the drama is going. "Oscar himself was prosecuted by the Crown for 'gross indecency' and found guilty," Whitman states up front -- after which the act moves back a step to the run-up to that event, and then the action plays out exactly as we have been told it will. This is not a unique example of how the libretto manages to eviscerate what is already only marginally dramatic.

Perhaps the creators viewed the crux to be how Wilde's inner character is transformed by the brutality he encountered in prison -- how he gained humanity. But, in countertenor David Daniels' portrayal, Wilde merely advances from being sad at the beginning to being sadder in prison. One witnesses no sweeping transformation. Why, one wonders, did the story not begin with a scene in which a flamboyant Wilde might hurl bolts of brilliant banter into an adoring entourage? At least that would have highlighted the degree to which prison would break his spirit. Instead, his legendary witticisms are scattered frugally here and there, often landing with a thud, and since they appear both before and during his incarceration, their presence or absence do not betoken any profound change of character.

Bosie appears as a vision and is portrayed by dancer Reed Luplau, who also resurfaces in several other roles to which he is melded in Wilde's imagination. It's an ambitious idea that would be difficult for any composer to realize effectively, let alone one writing his first opera, which is the case with Oscar. Here it seems precious. So does the idea of having Whitman speak a few brief sections as if in a stage play, rather than sing them -- passages that made the score sound unfinished. Such departures from standard operatic procedure did not succeed in enlarging the expressive palette.

Morrison has provided a reactionary and sentimental score. Notwithstanding momentary bites of bitonality, an infusion of harmonic sevenths, and patterns that trace whole tones, it resides mostly in a space between Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes and Aaron Copland's The Tender Land. Words are occasionally infused with madrigalesque depiction ("rowdiness," "endless," "bright"), apparently to provide outlets for Daniels' impressive ability as a coloratura singer. The composition does not lack skill as it moves through its succession of set pieces, but it didn't fill its two hours and 20 minutes with musical momentum or cohesion. The orchestration sounded disjointed and not organic, often seeming a dutiful enlargement of music that had been conceived at the piano. Conductor Evan Rogister approached the score with respect and a sure hand.

Surely this opera will never receive a finer performance than it did here. Daniels possesses a truly attractive, well-modulated voice, and so does baritone Dwayne Croft, who portrays Whitman. In the dancing roles, Laplau was fluid but not emotionally incisive. The other two principal roles are ancillary in terms of the drama, but in both cases the singers acquitted themselves splendidly. Soprano Heidi Stober, as Wilde's friend Ada Leverson, impresses more and more with each new role; here she proved a natural actress and supported her interpretation with a richly rounded tone that suggested greater depth than we encounter in the soubrettish parts in which she often appears. Tenor William Burden, as friend Frank Harris, brought his accustomed vocal security -- rich lyric tone with an urgent dramatic edge -- to his rock-solid interpretation. Bass Kevin Burdette portrayed both a trial judge and a prison warden who is said to be sadistic but was rendered here with little relish.

The production, directed by Kevin Newbury, is quite lavish by house standards. David Korins' handsome sets, lit by Rick Fisher, include a Victorian brick and ironwork structure (for the prison) and a lovely interior room (a nursery) in Leverson's home. That nursery is the setting for the work's most unanticipated scene, in which children's toys -- rocking horse, teddy bear, jack-in-the-box, clowns galore -- come alive to act out the trial. Costume designer David C. Woolard went the whole nine yards here, as brightly bedecked denizens of the crammed courtroom engaged in much zaniness before declaring Wilde guilty and breaking into a rousing chorus of "Rule, Britannia!" On one hand, I found it jarring compared to the rest of the staging. On the other, it did show bravery of conception that was largely lacking in the rest of the evening.

The Santa Fe Opera season continues through Aug. 24. Call 986-5900 or visit www.santafeopera.org.

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