ON THE COVER Santa Fe Opera opens its 61st season this weekend, beginning with a pair of well-known classics — Johann Strauss II’s Viennese operetta Die Fledermaus and Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, a vocally lustrous bel canto tragedy of old-ti
here’s no surer sign of summer in the City Different than the sound of the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra intoning “The StarSpangled Banner” to launch a new year. The performance on Friday, June 30, begins the 61st season of the company, which started as an improbable dream in 1957 and, in the decades since, has grown into one of the nation’s major musical organizations and a must-visit destination for opera aficionados.
It has given some two thousand performances of 164 operas by 80 composers, including 14 world premieres. Another company-commissioned premiere gets added to the list this summer: The (R)evolution of
Steve Jobs, by composer Mason Bates and librettist Mark Campbell. Much anticipation accompanies this new work. It is the first opera by Bates, a Bay Area composer who has gained an avid following for finding common ground between serious music and serious technology. That combination should pay dividends in this tale of the American tech guru, both adored and reviled, who searches for inner meaning in his life. Campbell is among the opera world’s busiest librettists; this year alone, he will see the premieres of five operas built on his words. Santa Fe Opera has carried out some major overhauls to its theater over the past couple of years, and this may be the production where its greatly enhanced technical possibilities come into play most prominently.
The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs is the penultimate production of the summer, with its opening night set for July 22, and it will run for six performances scattered through the rest of the season. Various enrichment programs will fill the week before the opening, including a concert of Bates’ chamber music on July 16 and a two-day symposium called “Tech and the West” on July 21 and July 22. This premiere will receive a vast amount of national (and even international) coverage, the more so since the Music Critics Association of North American has scheduled its annual convention in Santa Fe to coincide with the opening. If you don’t have tickets yet, you would be ill advised to drag your feet.
There is a risk that the mountains of attention being lavished on this new opera will suck all the air out of the room. That would be a pity, because there are other things in this year’s offerings that richly deserve notice. The season opens this weekend with its feet firmly planted on the ground. Johann Strauss II’s operetta Die Fledermaus and Donizetti’s tragedy Lucia
di Lammermoor are both familiar chestnuts. The company is banking on the assumption that familiarity breeds audiences, and it has accordingly scheduled nine opportunities to see the former (it is both the season’s first performance and its last, on Aug. 26) and 10 to catch the latter.
For the operatically curious, the season picks up steam in its third week, when Rimsky-Korsakov’s
The Golden Cockerel gets added to the mix beginning on July 15. The composer of Scheherazade wrote 15 operas, which makes him the most productive classic composer of the Russian musical stage. A number of them remain in the repertoire in Russia, but this is the only one you are likely to encounter in America — and that rarely. A bagatelle among his stage works, it is probably not the one he would most want to be remembered for; but for all its silly slightness, this colorful and rambunctious work can be a delight. Based on a folkish poem by Pushkin, it became a popular success when Sergei Diaghilev produced it in Paris, in 1914, under the name Le coq
d’or. (The work is still widely known by that French title, for no good reason; if we wanted, we could call it Zolotoy petushok, as its composer did, since it will be performed here in Russian.) This was one of RimskyKorsakov’s last works, composed in 1906-1907, when a youngster named Igor Stravinsky was his most promising pupil — and its pages offer premonitions of Stravinsky’s
Firebird (another work involving an empowered fowl), which lay not far in the future. One disappointment. Bass-baritone Eric Owens, who had been slated to perform the important part of Tsar Dodon, has bailed from the production, just as he did from SFO’s Capriccio last season. One assumes that his replacement, Tim Mix, will handle the role expertly. Still, Owens’ departure is a particular letdown this year, as he was one of only two certifiable A-list stars on this summer’s roster, the other being Susan Graham, who will portray Prince Orlofsky in all but two performances of Die Fledermaus.
Bringing up the rear of the season is another work of particular interest, Handel’s Alcina. It hits the stage on July 29. Much though I love many Baroque operas, I appreciate that they are not to everyone’s taste; they can be long and repetitive, their plots can resemble overly strategized chess games, and if the performers are not well attuned to stylistic niceties, page after page can fall flat. But Handel wrote at a cut above all other composers of late-Baroque operas in Italian, and Alcina is one of his most immediate and engaging operas — not a formalized tale on a theme from Classical antiquity, but rather a medieval fantasy in which a somewhat sympathetic sorceress, abetted by her sprites and monsters, is pitted against a passel of mortals wrapped up in quests of the heart. It has something of a Shakespearean flavor, really, with some of its touches recalling The Tempest or A
Midsummer Night’s Dream. It promises to be imbued with appropriate musical sensitivity since it will be led by Harry Bicket, the company’s chief conductor and a specialist in the music of Handel and his contemporaries.
All in all, it’s a season rich in variety: a frothy Viennese operetta, a brooding Romantic tragedy, a whimsical Russian fantasy, a modern study of an American icon, and a captivating Baroque play of dreams and illusions. As Prince Orlofsky will proclaim on opening night and on many evenings thereafter, “Chacun à son goût!” — James M. Keller
It’s a season rich in variety: a frothy Viennese operetta, a brooding Romantic tragedy, a whimsical Russian fantasy, a modern study of an American icon, and a captivating Baroque play of dreams and illusions. As Prince Orlofsky will proclaim on opening night and on many evenings thereafter, “Chacun à son goût!”