It’s opera time
This weekend marks the opening of the 59th season of Santa Fe Opera, which will present 38 evenings of five different operas before ringing down its figurative curtain on Aug. 29. Donizetti’s vivacious La fille du régiment (The Daughter of the Regiment) occupies the first and last nights, and along the way it will share the stage with operas by Verdi, Strauss, and Mozart as well as a brand new work commissioned by the company from composer Jennifer Higdon and librettist Gene Scheer, based on Charles Frazier’s bestselling novel Cold Mountain. On the cover is an image from a postcard published circa 1905 from a set of 10 cards illustrating La fille du régiment.
Santa Fe Opera reaches its 59th season this weekend, launching a summer that includes familiar classics by Verdi and Strauss, somewhat less-visited pieces by Donizetti and Mozart, and the premiere of a new commissioned work, Cold Mountain, which Jennifer Higdon has composed to a libretto by Gene Scheer. But the biggest news this summer is that there are more and better bathrooms, which should put to rest the number-one audience complaint about the theater, as well as a redesigned front-of-house area that promises easier circulation, particularly within the gift shop (which had grown unnavigable), at the box office, and around concession areas. Improvements and enlargements have also mushroomed in the technical shops, dressing rooms, and stage wings, expansions that won’t be apparent to visitors (except those who treat themselves to a backstage tour, which are conducted every weekday morning) but are sure to enhance the quality of life for those who labor in the shadows.
“Love Is a Battlefield” proclaims the company’s website in its marketing pitch for Donizetti’s La fille du régiment (The Daughter of the Regiment). That’s fair enough: It is a love story that unrolls in a farcical wartime setting. Then again, that motto could serve all of the summer’s operas — or, for that matter, practically every opera ever written, since the whole art form basically floats in a sea of conflicting hormones. This bel canto bauble, which served to charm audiences in Paris when Donizetti moved there from his native Italy, is not likely to impress anyone with its literary depth, but its plot may be just the thing for a hot summer night, and its score overflows with musical appeal. It is silly enough to make us overlook its bellicose surroundings as we cheer for everything to work out for the vivandière Marie (the regiment’s young supply woman) and her adoring boyfriend Tonio. All ears will be on tenor Alek Shrader, who will have to pop out nine high C’s in quick succession, but that shouldn’t prevent listeners from embracing the rest of this opera’s delights with similar enthusiasm.
The company then moves from Donizetti to the composer who emerged as his heir apparent during the decade that followed La fille du régiment: Giuseppe Verdi. Rigoletto is one of his crowning achievements, a work of genius that tells its grim plot compellingly and envelops it in one of his most constantly engaging scores. Baritone Quinn Kelsey, the most recent recipient of the prestigious Beverly Sills Artist Award, assumes the part of the hapless title character, but most opera aficionados are surely just as excited at the prospect of hearing the dynamic tenor-onthe-rise Bryan Hymel as the philandering Duke of Mantua. They will hear him, but on fewer evenings than were planned. His most recent engagement has been as Aeneas in Berlioz’s mammoth Les Troyens at San Francisco Opera, and the run proved so taxing that he felt it wise to withdraw from the first few Rigolettos he was scheduled to perform here. At least Santa Fe Opera was able to secure a promising substitute: Bruce Sledge, whose voice we found “honeyed and heroic” when he dispatched the demanding role of Paolo Erisso in Rossini’s Maometto II during Santa Fe Opera’s 2012 season. One has high expectations of his portrayal of this touchstone Verdi role in three July performances; and that should ensure a rested voice for Hymel when he assumes the part beginning on Aug. 4.
Santa Fe Opera owes payback to Oscar Wilde for having brought into being Theodore Morrison’s embarrassing biographical opera Oscar in 2013. This summer, the company evens the score somewhat by demonstrating why Wilde was someone we should care about. His play Salome encountered great resistance when it was new. Banned from the London stage, it was premiered in Paris, in a French translation of Wilde’s own devising, while the playwright was serving time at Reading Gaol for gross indecency — the episode elaborated in Morrison’s opera. Wilde’s decadent play did shock people’s sensibilities, what with Salome swaying in her erotic Dance of the Seven Veils, demanding John the Baptist’s head on a platter, and planting a sensual kiss on his deceased lips. The Germans, however, took to the play in a way the French and British had not, and Richard Strauss decided to set it pretty much the way Wilde had written it, using a German translation that had proved successful when staged by Max Reinhardt a few years before. This will be the shortest evening at the opera this season, running perhaps 100 minutes with no intermission, and listeners have reason to anticipate a tightly dramatic reading under the baton of David Robertson.
The hardest sell of the season will probably be La finta giardiniera (The Feigned Gardeness), a comic opera Mozart wrote in 1775, when he was eighteen years old. It sports one of those convoluted 18th-century plots that will probably confound most viewers at some point or another, not that it makes much difference. If you want compelling drama, go to Rigoletto or Salome. What La finta giardiniera does promise, however, is a stream of lovely music — not the deepest or most moving in Mozart’s catalog, but always pleasant and enjoyable. Without a strong cast, the piece might wear out its welcome in the course of its three hours (not counting intermission), but this production, led by chief conductor Harry Bickett, will include four artists who have earned well-deserved favor with Santa Fe audiences through numerous productions: sopranos Susanna Phillips and Heidi Stober, tenor William Burden, and baritone Joshua Hopkins. I can’t remember who was the Londoner who argued that no city could consider itself world-class if one of its theaters wasn’t offering some Mozart opera every night of the year, but the point is fairly made.
The season’s new opera, Cold Mountain, arrives in a tide of publicity. It will be the latest incarnation of what started as a phenom of a novel: Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, which sold about three million copies, won the 1997 National Book Award, and sat at the top of the New York Times’ bestseller list for 61 weeks. In 2003, it appeared as a very long film starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, and Renée Zellweger. The narrative traces a Confederate deserter’s trek through the North Carolina mountains to reunite with a sweetheart he scarcely knew — a sort of Odyssey of the Appalachians. Composer Jennifer Higdon grew up in them thar hills — well, yonder on the Tennessee side — so she may bring a particular regional sensitivity to the setting in her first essay at opera. Lots of ancillary presentations will surround this premiere, including recitals of Higdon’s chamber music, a Frazier-led installment of what has been a multimonth book club, and a three-day symposium on the opera and the Civil War at the New Mexico History Museum. But the opera itself will be the main event. Again, the casting would seem to place it in good hands, with a roster that includes baritone Nathan Gunn, mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, tenor Jay Hunter Morris, soprano Emily Fons, and conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya.