Santa Fe Opera’s 61st season, in review
These are abbreviated versions of longer reviews that ran in The Santa Fe New Mexican immediately following the opening of each Santa Fe Opera production this season. The original reviews can be found at www.santafenewmexican.com.
Payback in three-quarter time DIE FLEDERMAUS
Director Ned Canty’s new production of Die Fledermaus, the operetta by Johann Strauss II, offers pretty much what one expects from the work: handsome sets and costumes, some lovely singing of entrancing tunes, multiple dry stretches, and attempts to punch things up with an overlay of funny business.
Two implied rooms are in play during in Act 1 — a late 19th-century boudoir and parlor in the home of Gabriel and Rosalinde von Eisenstein (tenor Kurt Streit and soprano Devon Guthrie). Above the set looms a huge bat. Die Fledermaus, of course, means “The Bat,” referring to a prank Gabriel played on his friend Dr. Falke (baritone Joshua Hopkins) that left the latter wandering the streets in full daylight still garbed in the bat outfit he wore to a costume party the night before. The operetta traces Falke’s revenge, an elaborate scheme that centers on a ball given by his friend Prince Orlofsky (mezzo-soprano Susan Graham). The event ensnares everyone in the Eisensteins’ orbit, most prominently their chambermaid Adele (soprano Jane Archibald) and Rosalinde’s suitor Alfred (tenor Dimitri Pittas), to expose Gabriel as a womanizer — which, in the end, nobody cares about one way or the other. The overhead bat remains in place above the red-plush ballroom of Act 2 and the chaotic jail of Act 3.
The work is given in Charles Ludlam’s adaptation of the stilted English-language version crafted in the mid-20th century by Ruth and Thomas Martin. Listeners will have to rely on the seatback texts to decode the syllables some of the characters emit. Hopkins at least scored a great moment by delivering the excruciating couplet “Come along to the ball; it will boost your morale” — and then turning to the audience with a combination of quizzical amazement and helpless exasperation. That was a sincerely funny touch, and one wished for more wit on its level.
Conductor Nicholas Carter led the Overture with verve. The opera’s slender musical substance was made palpable when, well into Act 2, Archibald sang her Laughing Song with joy and élan. Apart from her rock-solid professionalism, listeners must also have been relieved to finally hear Strauss provide something to sink their teeth into.
Guthrie’s rendition of “Voice of My Homeland” was affecting, though one regretted the distraction caused by unnecessary ballerinas swirling about. Prince Orlofsky was aced vocally by Graham, who kept busy modeling robes and kimonos over her silk pajamas. The women outsang the men with the exception of Hopkins, whose beautifully modulated baritone made him an impressive Falke. Kevin Burdette’s shtick as the jailer Frosch was something to be endured. With two intermissions, the evening ran nearly three and a quarter hours, and audience response grew appropriately tepid during Act 3.
Additional performances of “Die Fledermaus” take place at 8 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 7, Aug. 14, Aug. 19, and Aug. 26.
The bride wore blood LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR
Santa Fe Opera’s new production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, directed by Ron Daniels, provides a tour de force for soprano Brenda Rae as the hapless heroine forced by her brother to abandon the man she loves and marry the groom he has chosen, shedding her sanity in the process. Her coloratura displayed relaxed mastery that allowed her to bend the tempo without breaking it, with a fluid result that was respectful of the stylistic intentions of bel canto expression. In her Act 2 “Il pallor funesto,” she unleashed textbook renditions of high-velocity scales ascending and descending, diatonic and chromatic, all finely calibrated.
The role requires serious stamina, but Rae remained vocally fresh for her heartbreaking interpretation of the famous Mad Scene, an expanse of surpassing virtuosity in which, having killed her bridegroom, she raves lunatically in front of stunned onlookers. She held the audience rapt in the palm of her bloody hand, maintaining sonic balance with the instrument that was her obbligato partner through much of that stretch: the verrophone, a modern take on the glass harmonica, whose ethereal tones symbolized insanity to listeners of the time and remain eerily evocative today. In the scene’s concluding section, “Spargi d’amaro pianto,” Rae interpolated difficult ornamentation, all of it cleanly and with impressive musicality. She attacked the top notes fearlessly, all the way up to a high E-flat.
The cast was well-matched in terms of vocal heft and blended well in ensembles. As Lucia’s beloved Edgardo, tenor Mario Chang brought particular passion to his furious outbursts. One might watch for more nuanced finesse as this young singer moves forward in his promising career. Zachary Nelson offered his cultivated baritone to the role of Lucia’s brother, Enrico, entirely convincing in the persona of his sister’s oppressor. Bassbaritone Christian Van Horn, as chaplain Raimondo, proved ever-attentive to the score as written and took on an increasingly vivid dramatic presence as the evening progressed. Carlos Santelli’s light, wellproduced tenor brought punch to the part of the rather underwritten character of Arturo, Lucia’s bridegroom.
Conductor Corrado Rovaris kept things moving fleetly. A longer pause in the wedding jubilations would have boosted suspense as the guests realize the enormity of the situation they are witnessing, a moment of tension that might have been savored before resolving into the famous sextet. In any case, that ensemble unrolled gloriously once it began.
Visual interest comes less from the abstracted sets than from the 1840s-era costumes, which are stunning in the wedding scene — women in subtly shimmering taffeta gowns of muted tones (plum, moss, light eggplant), the groom and his gentleman friends arrayed in gorgeous black coats richly embellished in gold. This should be your destination wedding for the summer.
“Lucia di Lammermoor” continues with performances at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 8, Aug. 12, Aug. 16, and Aug. 24.
Tsar power THE GOLDEN COCKEREL
Santa Fe Opera’s radiant production of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel, overseen by Paul Curran, conveys its folkishness with loopy charm and visual splendor before going off the rails trying to underscore its relevance to today’s international politics.
Its two basic stage sets are born of the same Futurist Constructivist sensibility. The first, towering high on the audience’s left and sweeping down to the area of the main action, resembles the three-dimensional graph of some advanced mathematical function; the second looks more like a roller coaster. They support a gauze covering onto which landscape details, private dreams, and the cockerel itself are projected. The costumes are stunning: vivid folk-inspired dresses, cloaks, and headgear sprung from a lavishly chromolithographed children’s book.
Some operagoers may find in this tale a moral that resonates in the United States today: a vain, childish king (with two bungling sons) who proves easy prey to a wily foreign sovereign who wrests control of the country through strategic guile rather than military force. Curran’s occasional directorial underscoring would have seemed sufficient — Tsar Dodon using his golden scepter like a golf club, for example — but in Act 3 he turned the tsar into an essentially new character. He struts among his storybook courtiers wearing a red necktie and a pin-striped suit unflattering to his overweight figure, with his eyecandy Queen at his side in a glamorous, up-to-date ensemble. Its aesthetic dissonance distracted from what was otherwise a clearly presented staging of a fable.
Most of the singers favored forward vocal production and strapping timbres, which fit well with Russian operatic tradition and with Rimsky-Korsakov’s music. Tim Mix, as Tsar Dodon, boasts a solid baritone but not the sonorous bass the composer called for. He joined the cast as a replacement for a deeper-voiced singer who withdrew, and he assumed the part worthily, proving an appropriately birdbrained leader.
Soprano Venera Gimadieva, as the Queen of Shemakha, walks onstage for the first time in Act 2 and has to dominate the ensuing 35 minutes, which are filled with leaps and roulades. She took a good while to find her center, but once she did her voice assumed appealing richness and impressive elasticity.
Barry Banks’ potent voice scaled the Astrologer’s stratospheric “tenore-altino” heights with absolute security. Contralto Meredith Arwady imbued the part of royal housekeeper Amelfa with amusing bonhomie, her reedy voice booming out most impressively in its lowest register. The Golden Cockerel is not a perfect opera — Act 2 seems to have not enough substance to fill its expanse, and Act 3 not enough expanse to work out its substance — but it has a beautiful score. Emmanuel Villaume elicited lovely playing in the pit, and the company’s vocal apprentices served as the topnotch chorus.
Performances of “The Golden Cockerel” continue at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 9, and Aug. 18.
Inside Jobs THE (R)EVOLUTION OF STEVE JOBS
If opera is going to grow as an art form in the 21st century, it’s going to need more than directors imposing quirky concepts onto familiar repertoire or composers retracing well-worn tracks of neo-Romanticism. It will need the kind of musical and dramatic persuasiveness that enthralled the Santa Fe Opera’s audience at the world premiere of The
(R)evolution of Steve Jobs, a bracing opera by composer Mason Bates and librettist Mark Campbell.
This is an American tale told with American bravado. Both adored and vilified, Jobs was the visionary behind the Apple computer empire whose iGadgets
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became defining artifacts of modern life. The opera’s scenario extracts 20 seminal chapters from his life story, casting him as both hero and villain, a man at war with himself. Librettist Campbell shuffles these cradle-to-grave episodes and arrives at a nonlinear narrative that nonetheless unrolls with a sense of clarity and momentum.
Director Kevin Newbury seems to have made Jobs’ “simple, clear-cut, uncluttered, and clean” design goals his own watchword. The imagery of Jobs’ life is projected onto background sets, often in energetic juxtaposition (circuit boards, press clippings, Zen calligraphy), and a scene where he does LSD in an apple (!) orchard gets woozy indeed.
Bates’ music tends to be powerfully optimistic, trading to some degree in sustained transcendence. The score’s vivaciousness owes much to high-energy rhythms, often repeated in a post-minimalist way, and a vivid sonic palette. Electronic sounds weave in and out of the orchestral texture with a sense of inevitability. Michael Christie conducted with pizzazz, and a couple of orchestral interludes truly got the adrenaline pumping.
Baritone Edward Parks presented the title part intimately, as a lieder singer might, with exemplary diction. Amplification underscored all the singers — a logical use of electronic technology in a score such as this. As Jobs’ wife Laurene, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke’s rich, warmly covered tone was put to finest use in her climactic aria “Humans are messy,” an anthem to empathy that may become embraced as a standalone piece. A similarly touching performance came from Wei Wu, as Jobs’ Buddhist mentor Kobun Chino Otogawa. His velvety bass infused a role that encompasses both wisdom and wry humor with a feeling of profound comfort. Garrett Sorenson conveyed substantial character development as Jobs’ fellow inventor and business partner Steve Wozniak, his bright tenor letting loose fully in the tenseness, and then fury, of his aria “Goliath.”
The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs will surely appeal to millennials, thanks to its dynamism in harnessing the technology of today to tell the story of technology’s yesterday. But more traditional opera-lovers are bound to embrace it, too. Like all the finest operas, it is animated by a stimulating plot, it is brimful with compelling music, and — not less important — it has an ample heart.
There are additional performances of “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” at 8 p.m. on Friday, Aug 4, Thursday, Aug. 10, Aug. 15, Aug. 22, and Aug. 25.
Enchanted isle ALCINA
George Frideric Handel’s Alcina is a fantasy about how people distinguish deception from reality when they are enchanted by love and magic. The composer crafted this piece to capitalize on surprising stage effects, and at its premiere in 1735, the audience tacitly agreed to suspend realism and go along for the ride to the magical island of a sorceress.
Director David Alden asks the same of today’s operagoers in his hyperactive, lightly surreal interpretation. The principal stage set — a miniature proscenium theater on one side, a mural of Hokusai’s The Great Wave Off Kanagawa on the other — signals the intersection of the enchanted isle of Handel’s opera and the theater in which Alden’s conception unrolls.
The object of sorceress Alcina’s affections is Ruggiero; under her spell, he has neglected his fiancée Bradamante, who (disguised as her own brother) arrives pursuing him. Alcina’s sister, Morgana, has a crush on the cross-dressed Bradamante, and subplots present further entanglements. Unless viewers cement the narrative in their minds beforehand, they may find themselves wondering what on earth is going on. In that sense, they will be handicapped much as the characters are, forging on through uncertainty and hoping to find solid footing.
The stage is almost never devoid of extraneous action. Among the attractions are a half-skeletonized hippo to ride on, beasts eating bananas, an ape with a disco ball, and so much more. By the time this long opera ended, three hours and 40 minutes after it began, I found the visual onslaught diverting but exhausting.
Mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy was superb as Ruggiero. She brought the total package to the part both vocally and dramatically: beautiful timbre, gorgeous phrasing, sophisticated technique, sensitivity to Baroque style. She impressed in both sustained and florid singing, even inflecting some challenging coloratura with surprising staccatos.
Soprano Elza van den Heever drew on an unusually broad dynamic spectrum, her voice becoming piercing at high volume. She managed her fast music well, although it was difficult to focus on her performance of the aria “Ma quando tornerai” with an onstage crowd jerking about as if infected by Saint Vitus Dance. Soprano Anna Christy brought pert soubrette singing to the part of Morgana and acted the role vivaciously.
There was much to admire in the supporting cast — mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, tenor Alek Shrader, bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, and soprano Jacquelyn Stucker — and Harry Bicket led the orchestra with stylistic insight and attention to instrumental balance. It was, however, Alden’s stage direction that was front and center all evening. Things about it annoyed me as it was going on, but after the house lights went down I found myself obsessing about it and perhaps liking it more. There was probably too much to take in at one sitting.
“Alcina” continues at 8 p.m. on Aug. 11, Aug. 17, and Aug. 23.
Susan Graham, Die Fledermaus; all images Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera, 2017
Venera Gimadieva and Tim Mix in The Golden Cockerel; top right, Brenda Rae in Lucia di Lammermoor
Daniela Mack and Paula Murrihy in Alcina; top left, Edward Parks in The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs