It’s opera time


Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - James M. Keller

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.

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