Lis­ten Up Theater for oper­a­go­ers

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Santa Fe is well known as an opera town, but it has not suc­ceeded in build­ing a con­comi­tant theater scene de­spite decades of ef­forts. None­the­less, theater has got­ten a boost in the past year and a half, thanks to the emer­gence of Adobe Rose The­atre and New Mex­ico Ac­tors Lab, both of which bring pro­fes­sional-level as­pi­ra­tions to the ta­ble. An Ac­tors Lab pro­duc­tion of Si­mon Stephens’

Heisen­berg con­tin­ues through July 30, and Adobe Rose, hav­ing com­pleted its run of Robert Schenkkan’s un­nerv­ing new play Build­ing the Wall, is cur­rently host­ing a vis­it­ing troupe, Oa­sis The­atre (also through July 30). A small com­pany in the process of re­lo­cat­ing to Santa Fe from its home in the Catskills, Oa­sis is stag­ing a pro­gram of three one-act clas­sics in the theater’s adapt­able space: Shaw’s How He Lied to Her Hus­band, Chekhov’s A Mar­riage Pro­posal, and Molière’s The Forced Mar­riage.

The Santa Fe Play­house, our com­mu­nity theater (which bills it­self “the old­est con­tin­u­ously run­ning the­atre west of the Mis­sis­sippi”), is hav­ing its go at in­ter­war Ber­lin via the pop­u­lar Kan­der and Ebb mu­si­cal Cabaret (through Aug. 6), and then on Aug. 24 it be­gins a two-and-a-half-week run of this year’s Fi­esta Melo­drama, a lo­cal tra­di­tion since 1919. This summer, a new in­cen­tive called Shake­speare in the Garden ar­rives on the scene; its in­au­gu­ral of­fer­ing is to be The Tem­pest (Aug. 23 through Aug. 31), given al fresco in a re­cently con­structed cir­cu­lar per­for­mance space at the Santa Fe Botan­i­cal Garden. Na­gle Jack­son (for­mer artis­tic di­rec­tor of the Mil­wau­kee Reper­tory Theater and of the McCarter The­atre in Prince­ton) will di­rect the pro­duc­tion.

At this point, it seems hardly use­ful to draw an un­breach­able line of de­mar­ca­tion be­tween theater per­formed live in the same venue as the au­di­ence and theater per­formed live some­where else and simul­cast (or nearly simul­cast) into a lo­cal au­di­to­rium. Both are be­com­ing com­ple­men­tary facets of a the­aterlover’s ex­pe­ri­ence here­abouts, fol­low­ing the route al­ready em­braced by opera afi­ciona­dos who spend sum­mers tak­ing in live per­for­mances and win­ters en­joy­ing simul­casts at the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter thanks to The Met Live in HD. The ex­pe­ri­ences are far from iden­ti­cal, of course, but at least both in­volve au­di­ences that have gath­ered specif­i­cally for the event and share com­mu­nally in the ex­pe­ri­ence. We have reached a point where mar­keters are in­ves­ti­gat­ing what real dif­fer­ence ex­ists be­tween them. This summer, the Royal Shake­speare Com­pany, which trans­mits some of its pro­duc­tions to cin­e­mas, has em­barked on an ex­per­i­ment to help quan­tify the dis­par­ity, if there is any, be­tween these types of au­di­ences. Groups of at­ten­dees are be­ing wired with heart mon­i­tors to record their phys­i­o­log­i­cal re­sponses to the Bard’s gorefest Ti­tus An­dron­i­cus — one set watch­ing the show live in the theater in Strat­fordupon-Avon, the other see­ing it trans­mit­ted to a movie screen. “Pretty much ev­ery night there’s some­body who faints or is sick,” said the head of the com­pany’s Au­di­ence In­sight de­part­ment. “We want to see how the au­di­ence re­acts phys­i­cally to the pro­duc­tion.”

TAn­gels in Amer­ica: A Gay Fan­ta­sia on Na­tional Themes — to use its full name — is one of the es­sen­tial plays of the 20th cen­tury.

he summer simul­cast sea­son gets into swing with back-to-back evenings (Wed­nes­day, July 26, and Thurs­day, July 27) de­voted to Tony Kush­ner’s An­gels in Amer­ica from the Lyt­tle­ton The­atre in Lon­don, pro­duced by Na­tional The­atre Live in HD and screened at the Len­sic. An­gels in

Amer­ica: A Gay Fan­ta­sia on Na­tional Themes —to use its full name — is one of the es­sen­tial plays of the 20th cen­tury, a two-part epic com­pris­ing Mil­len­nium Ap­proaches and Per­e­stroika. In 1993, Mil­len­nium Ap­proaches earned Kush­ner a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and both parts re­ceived Tony and Drama Desk awards as the best plays for the years of their re­spec­tive Broad­way pre­mieres, 1993 and 1994. A fan­ta­sia it is, in­ter­weav­ing and jux­ta­pos­ing strands of plot with pel­lu­cid clar­ity and sweep­ing the viewer along with the lin­guis­tic el­e­gance and grandeur of an im­mense poem-in-prose. It is, most fa­mously, a play about the AIDS cri­sis and how it af­fects the cen­tral male cou­ple, their fam­i­lies, and their friends. But its do­main is still more vast, with its char­ac­ters rang­ing from McCarthy­ist pit bull Roy Cohn to pre­sumed Com­mu­nist spy Ethel Rosen­berg, from a clos­eted Mor­mon to an Ortho­dox rabbi, from “The World’s Old­est Liv­ing Bol­she­vik” to a heart-of-gold drag queen to an an­gelic mes­sen­ger from Heaven. These are long plays: In the Na­tional The­atre’s pro­duc­tion, Part One runs three and a half hours and Part Two four hours, in­clud­ing two in­ter­mis­sions for each. The play is di­rected by Mar­i­anne El­liott, known to NT Live au­di­ences for her di­rec­tion of War Horse and The Cu­ri­ous In­ci­dent of the Dog in the Night-Time, and it stars a mixed An­glo-Scot­tish-Ir­ish-Amer­i­can cast that in­cludes the in­de­fati­ga­ble Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn.

Opera-lovers have had their eye on An­gels in

Amer­ica re­cently be­cause of an op­er­atic ver­sion of the work com­posed by Peter Eötvös, whose mu­sic we have vis­ited oc­ca­sion­ally in these col­umns. The piece was pre­miered in 2004 in Paris and was then mounted in eight fur­ther cities be­fore fi­nally reach­ing New York last month, when it was given by New York City Opera (ba­si­cally a new com­pany with an old name). The op­er­atic ver­sion uses a greatly stream­lined li­bretto by Mari Mezei, the com­poser’s wife, who fo­cuses on just the dra­matic nar­ra­tive and em­ploys only about 10 per­cent of Kush­ner’s text. Some of the op­er­at­i­cally in­clined vis­i­tors who flood our town at this sea­son will have seen the opera in one (or more) of its pro­duc­tions, and they may find it es­pe­cially in­ter­est­ing to re­visit the play it­self through these NT Live broad­casts.

In fact, all of the the­atri­cal simul­casts sched­uled for Santa Fe this summer have op­er­atic con­nec­tions. Next up (on July 30) is Shake­speare’s Macbeth, from the Strat­ford Fes­ti­val in On­tario. Strat­ford leapt into the HD broad­cast mar­ket two years ago, dis­tribut­ing their staged Shake­speare pro­duc­tions in ver­sions slightly redi­rected and filmed in or­der to max­i­mize their cin­e­matic im­pact. The Screen, which re­mains fully ac­tive on the cam­pus of the soon-to-ex­pire Santa Fe Univer­sity of Art and De­sign, is the lo­cal out­post for these stage-screen hy­brids, which have hewed to a very high stan­dard in their ini­tial sea­sons. This

Macbeth is di­rected for the stage by An­toni Ci­molino, the Strat­ford Fes­ti­val’s artis­tic di­rec­tor, and then redi­rected for film by She­lagh O’Brien. Word is that the pro­duc­tion siz­zles with sex­ual al­lure be­tween the Thane-on-the-rise (Ian Lake) and his am­bi­tious Lady (Krystin Pel­lerin). The op­er­atic con­nec­tion is to Verdi, of course, who un­veiled the most fa­mous of Macbeth op­eras in 1847; the Ital­ian li­bretto was crafted with con­sid­er­able cre­ativ­ity by Francesco Maria Pi­ave. There is an­other op­er­atic treat­ment worth seek­ing out, though: Macbeth by Ernest Bloch, with a French li­bretto by Ed­mond Fleg. (Bloch later re­leased an English-lan­guage ver­sion, with a li­bretto by Alex Co­hen.) Bloch’s is a more Sym­bol­ist take on the tale, with a very dif­fer­ent feel from Verdi’s rel­a­tively re­al­ist ap­proach. It has been pro­duced now and again, but it re­mains an ob­scure cu­rios­ity, though one that can be ap­proached through record­ings.

Aweek af­ter the An­gels in Amer­ica dou­ble-header, the Len­sic will have an­other NT Live screen­ing (Aug. 3): Salomé, from the Na­tional’s Olivier The­atre. Opera-lovers know it through the 1905 work by Richard Strauss, last seen in Santa Fe two sea­sons ago. For his li­bretto, Strauss used a Ger­man trans­la­tion of the play Salomé by Os­car Wilde, which is the most fa­mous dra­matic telling of the bib­li­cal story and which served as the foun­da­tion for many en­su­ing pro­duc­tions of Salomé in the worlds of theater, film, and dance. The NT Live pro­duc­tion, di­rected by Yaël Far­ber, takes a dif­fer­ent, post-Wildean tack that re­places the story’s in­her­ent misog­yny with a more fem­i­nist sen­si­bil­ity. “This charged retelling turns the in­fa­mous bib­li­cal tale on its head,” reads the pub­lic­ity, “plac­ing the girl we call Salomé at the cen­tre of a rev­o­lu­tion. An oc­cu­pied desert nation. A rad­i­cal from the wilder­ness on hunger strike. A girl whose mys­te­ri­ous dance will change the course of the world.” Like Strauss’ opera, this is a short evening: an in­tense hour and three-quar­ters with no in­ter­mis­sion.

The summer’s fi­nal NT Live screen­ing, again at the Len­sic, will be Yerma, by Fed­erico Gar­cía Lorca — or rather, “by Si­mon Stone af­ter Fed­erico Gar­cía Lorca,” since, as with Salomé, this is a case in which the di­rec­tor has re­vised the original pro­foundly. Yerma was em­braced as a mas­ter­work from the time of its ini­tial pro­duc­tion, in 1934; in fact, such lit­er­ary lu­mi­nar­ies as Ramón del Valle-In­clán and Miguel de Una­muno be­gan prais­ing it to the press even be­fore open­ing night, hav­ing seen the dress re­hearsal. It has the fla­vor of a clas­si­cal tragedy, one that fo­cuses on a sin­gle char­ac­ter — an un­hap­pily mar­ried woman whose un­ful­filled de­sire to have a baby leads to des­per­a­tion and catas­tro­phe, whose very essence be­comes yerma (“bar­ren”), much like the arid Span­ish soil that sur­rounds her. Here, the ac­tion is trans­posed to 21st-cen­tury Lon­don and that cen­tral role, played by the ac­tress-singer-dancer Bil­lie Piper, is reimag­ined as a life­style blog­ger — in­deed not a ca­reer that would nour­ish the soul, one sup­poses. She was awarded an Olivier Award for her por­trayal, which ar­rives from the stage of the Young Vic in Lon­don.

There is also an op­er­atic con­nec­tion in­volv­ing this play. The Brazil­ian com­poser Heitor Villa-Lo­bos started quite a few op­eras, but he brought only four to com­ple­tion. (Well, one was more of a mu­si­cal —

Mag­dalena, which gained crit­i­cal ac­claim when it ran on Broad­way in 1948.) The last of his op­eras was

Yerma, which he fin­ished in 1956, three years be­fore his death. By co­in­ci­dence, while Villa-Lo­bos was work­ing on it (liv­ing in New York City at the time), he was ap­proached about writ­ing an opera on the

Macbeth plot, trans­posed to a Brazil­ian set­ting; but he was un­able to ac­cept the pro­posal, be­ing en­tirely en­grossed with Yerma. The original plan was that the opera’s li­bretto should be an English trans­la­tion of Gar­cía Lorca’s play, but Villa-Lo­bos was ea­ger to plunge ahead be­fore the trans­la­tion could be pre­pared. (In any case, he spoke no English; his bi­og­ra­pher Lisa M. Pep­per­corn re­ported that his func­tional vo­cab­u­lary was limited to “vanilla ice cream” and “strong, strong cof­fee.”) Plans for an im­me­di­ate pro­duc­tion got put on ice and then fell through com­pletely. In the event, the opera was never per­formed un­til 1971, 12 years af­ter the com­poser’s death, when it re­ceived its world pre­miere in … Santa Fe.

In terms of sheer chutz­pah, the 1971 sea­son must qual­ify as the most am­bi­tious in Santa Fe Opera’s his­tory. It com­prised six op­eras: Mozart’s The Magic Flute and The Mar­riage of Fi­garo, Of­fen­bach’s The Grand Duchess of Gerol­stein, Verdi’s mon­u­men­tal Don Car­los (the only year the com­pany has ever per­formed it), Wag­ner’s The Flying Dutch­man (in the first of three sea­sons in which it fig­ured), and Yerma. (No Strauss, al­though it is of­ten said, mis­tak­enly, that Strauss op­eras fig­ured in ev­ery year of founder John Crosby’s ten­ure.) A few fresh faces got wel­come ex­po­sure. The

Word is that Strat­ford Fes­ti­val’s pro­duc­tion of Macbeth siz­zles with sex­ual al­lure be­tween the Thane-on-the-rise (Ian Lake) and his am­bi­tious Lady (Krystin Pel­lerin).

Santa Fe New Mex­i­can noted of the then-up­com­ing sea­son: “So­prano Kiri Te Kanawa sings the role of the Count­ess in The Mar­riage of Fi­garo, a role she will re­peat in her Covent Garden de­but this fall. Young Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera mezzo so­prano Fred­er­ica von Stade will be the Cheru­bino.”

Amidst it all, the pre­miere of Yerma was buoyed on a wave of con­cen­trated ex­cite­ment. “Opera Lures Celebri­ties,” shouted a New Mex­i­can head­line on Aug. 11, the day be­fore the pre­miere. They in­cluded Carol Fox, di­rec­tor of the Chicago Lyric Opera; Kurt Adler, di­rec­tor of the San Francisco Opera; Ar­minda Villa-Lo­bos, widow of the com­poser; “in­ter­na­tion­ally known so­prano Bev­erly Sills and her hus­band, Peter Gree­nough” (they at­tended the dress re­hearsal, but had to re­turn to New York be­fore the pre­miere); Vera Zo­rina and her hus­band, God­dard Lieber­son; crit­ics Speight Jenk­ins of Opera News (later gen­eral di­rec­tor of Seat­tle Opera), Winthrop Sar­gent of The New Yorker, and Martin Bern­heimer of the Los An­ge­les Times. The con­duc­tor was Christo­pher Keene (fu­ture gen­eral di­rec­tor of “the old” New York City Opera). The ti­tle role was sung by the Cata­lan so­prano Mirna La­cam­bra, with a sup­port­ing cast that in­cluded tenor John Wake­field, bari­tone Theodor Upp­man, and mezzo-so­pra­nos Elaine Bon­azzi and young Ms. Von Stade.

The au­di­ence re­cep­tion was en­thu­si­as­tic, but crit­i­cal re­sponse was mixed. Quain­tance Ea­ton, a re­spected pres­ence among opera com­men­ta­tors at that time, found (in her Mu­sic Jour­nal re­view) that “it was a for­mi­da­ble un­der­tak­ing well re­al­ized.” The

New Mex­i­can’s Wil­liam Dun­ning re­ported on the re­views as they ap­peared, in­clud­ing Bern­heimer’s rue­ful as­sess­ment that “Heitor Villa-Lo­bos’ Yerma, un­veiled on Aug. 12, has led Santa Fe down the un­ad­ven­tur­ous trail to bore­dom.” Dun­ning coun­tered Jenk­ins’ re­view with a fair point: “He makes in­tel­li­gent mu­si­cal com­par­isons … and rec­om­mends prun­ing. ‘What Yerma des­per­ately needs is per­for­mance in the ver­nac­u­lar,’ he said — though as a na­tive Texan, he should re­al­ize that is pre­cisely what hap­pened when SFO pre­sented an opera sung in Span­ish for the first time in its his­tory.”

In the event, Santa Fe Opera never of­fered Vil­laLo­bos’ opera af­ter its two per­for­mances that summer, on Aug. 12 and Aug. 18. The piece has en­joyed few re­vivals since. It re­mains un­rep­re­sented in the com­mer­cial record­ing cat­a­log, but cu­ri­ous lis­ten­ers can glimpse it via a CD avail­able through the web re­tailer House of Opera (www.op­er­a­pas­sion.com). It is prob­a­bly of the va­ri­ety that used to be called “pi­rate record­ings,” and al­though such tapes were not strictly le­gal, opera-lovers may none­the­less be grate­ful that they cap­tured mo­ments that would be oth­er­wise lost — in this case, of a mem­o­rable open­ing night in Santa Fe 46 years ago.

The NT Live pro­duc­tion of Salomé takes a dif­fer­ent, post-Wildean tack that re­places the story’s in­her­ent misog­yny with a more fem­i­nist sen­si­bil­ity.

An­drew Garfield and Nathan Ste­wart-Jar­rett in the Na­tional The­atre’s pro­duc­tion of An­gels in Amer­ica

Ian Lake in Strat­ford Fes­ti­val’s Macbeth

Is­abella Ne­far in the Na­tional The­atre’s Salomé

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