James M. Keller on a group of late-summer performances
Santa Fe’s overstuffed summer season looked as if it should be winding down while Santa Fe Opera worked through its final evenings, and yet the calendar remained far from empty. Quite a few events clustered at the end of August this year, providing locals with a wealth of entertainment and making part-time Santa Feans think about extending their summer stays to take in a few more evenings out.
On the afternoon of Aug. 25, Santa Fe Opera teamed up with the Lensic Performing Arts Center to present “Justice at the Opera” at the latter’s digs. This was the hottest ticket of the summer, a hybrid opera-with-commentary performance in which the unquestioned star was Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the United States Supreme Court, an activist opera lover and longtime enthusiast of our local company. Fourteen of Santa Fe Opera’s apprentice singers appeared in various combinations in nine independent opera scenes, lightly staged by director Kevin Newbury — he oversaw The (R)evolution of
Steve Jobs this summer — and accompanied at the piano by Robert Tweten. Each of the scenes involved some legal matter. You might at first think it would take some scouring to find enough relevant operas, but once you start noticing, you see that the law pops up all over the place on the lyric stage. Conflicts and resolutions are not all that far behind love and familial devotion as plot motivators in opera.
Ginsburg made observations about the legal implications of each scene and often cited a parallel modern case. Her comments were serious yet entertaining, and they included a few zingers of the sort that make trials so sidesplitting. The bit from Verdi’s Falstaff in which two married women discover that the fat knight has sent them identical love letters invited thoughts on letter fraud, with Ginsburg observing a bit wistfully that technology has rendered that particular plot device obsolete. The hiring of a contract killer in Rigoletto, also from Verdi, led to an anecdote about a grisly 1993 crime in which a Detroit hit man researched his task by consulting a book titled Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent
Contractors — and then the family of the slain man sued the book’s publisher. It became a freedom-ofthe-press case, but the Court of Appeals ruled that aiding and abetting murder does not qualify under the First Amendment, so there. This evoked mostly applause from the audience. Bizet’s Carmen, in which the eponymous heroine wriggles out of imprisonment by promising a sensual reward to the corporal charged with her capture, invited a rumination on plea bargains (“97.8 percent of all federal trial court convictions were plea bargained”). Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore is rarely linked with Wagner’s Der Ring des
Nibelungen in polite conversation, but Madame Justice observed that, notwithstanding their difference in tone, both revolve around contracts. A searing aria from Philip Glass’ Appomattox invited observations about civil rights. Puccini’s Tosca yielded thoughts about the prison system. A scene from Verdi’s Aida showed nasty Amneris crafting a lie to get the heroine to reveal inner feelings (“Aida might have had a strong case against Amneris for infliction of emotional distress”). All joined for a rousing ensemble from Trial by Jury, by Gilbert and Sullivan (“A pair unrivalled for treating the law, lawyers, and Italian opera sarcastically”).
The apprentices acquitted themselves admirably, and Justice Ginsburg participated gamely in the action here and there, accepting a ticket to the masked ball (in, yes, Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera) and signing a document in L’elisir d’amore. Notwithstanding the assurance she showed as an up-and-comer on the dramatic stage, we would encourage her to stick to her current career path for the foreseeable future.
Anew stage in town is the amphitheater that sprouted during the development of Phase Two of the burgeoning Santa Fe Botanical Garden, an area devoted to plants grown for food, medicine, or other human use. We first glimpsed the space last December during the Garden’s GLOW festival, and it appeared pretty modest — just a few rings of steeply raised, rock-paved bleachers that didn’t look as if they would hold many people or be very comfortable. That, it turned out, was just the infrastructure for a good-sized theater, mostly shaded by a high ramada, with actual chairs ranged on the ground and the “bleachers” and fanning out toward the sides. Planted borders were interspersed among some of the rows, and tasseled corn plants towered next to the stage. Since all this is set deep within the Botanical Garden, which viewers stroll through to arrive at the amphitheater, attendees feel deeply “within nature.”
The Botanical Garden partnered with Shakespeare in Santa Fe and The Shakespeare Guild to present 10 evening performances of The Tempest, a play that, as Shakespeare wrote it, unrolls entirely out-of-doors. I would guess that the place could accommodate about 200 viewers, and it was sold out the night I attended (Aug. 29). Nagle Jackson directed this production, which made good use of the ample, slightly thrust stage, ornamented simply with a ship’s mast (a reminder that the players are stranded on an island) and some squat rock pillars that (appropriately) had plants spilling out from their crevices. Costumes (by Jasminka Jesic) were simple but handsome, and a trio led by Mary Kimball Outten chimed in now
“Justice at the Opera” was the hottest ticket of the summer, a hybrid opera-with-commentary performance in which the unquestioned star was Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the United States Supreme Court.
Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg