Monday, August 27, 2012

Neil Armstrong tribute by Songwriter John Stewart

by Rodney Punt

I'm posting something far afield from the world of classical music, but very close to our lives as Americans. The late John Stewart wrote and recorded a tribute to the moonwalking astronaut Neil Armstrong in 1969, shortly after that small step for man and giant leap for mankind. This song, framed from the perspective of a poor black boy in Chicago with "not enough to wear or to eat", looked to that day when all Americans could aspire to their own moonwalks.

Stewart glimpsed something magical in that song: our ability to accomplish big things as a nation and also work together to make a better and more inclusive world for all. The passing of Neil Armstrong, a true American hero, gives us opportunity to reconsider where we are today as a nation, and where we want to be tomorrow, next year and all the decades to come.

I hope you enjoy this hymn to our better selves.



Rodney Punt can be reached at [email protected]
Photo credit of Neil Armstrong:

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Rossini’s Maometto II at Santa Fe Opera

Review by Rodney Punt

Late in his life, an ailing Beethoven praised visiting Gioachino Rossini’s comedic Barber of Seville, but bluntly told his houseguest that opera seria was “ill-suited to Italians; you do not possess sufficient musical knowledge to deal with real drama.”

Sometimes a composer can’t get a break. Even as he met with Beethoven, Rossini was facing resistance to reforms he was attempting at the Naples Opera. His serious Maometto II had boldly propelled dramatic continuity over audience-pleasing set pieces. As reward, the Neapolitans accused the Mozart-loving Rossini of being too “German.” The composer reluctantly toned down his dramatic innovations for the later Venice and Paris productions. But the oft-revised and compromised score was, alas, soon relegated to history.

Fortunately, scholars Philip Gossett and Hans Schellevis have peeled back layers of musty and murky adaptations to restore its stunning original version. What scholarship presented as opportunity, a skillful combination of stagecraft and performance at the Santa Fe Opera has realized in achievement. Maometto II proved the most compelling of five new productions I saw at the SFO this season.

The historic Maometto II was a character to contend with. A Turkish answer to Alexander the Great, the 21-year-old was the fifteenth century warrior king who conquered Constantinople and boldly crowned himself Holy Roman Emperor. Yet he ruled wisely, enforcing religious tolerance between faiths in his new territories -- a trait Rossini and his librettist, Cesare della Valle, would retain for their story.

The opera takes place at a later siege on the very edge of Western Europe at Negroponte, capital city of an outlying Venetian island. Commander Erisso and his intended son-in-law, Calbo, contend with Maometto’s attacking forces. Erisso's daughter, Anna, in love with a man she thinks a Venetian, resists Calbo’s advances. She soon discovers her lover is actually Maometto, whom she met when he had earlier visited the city incognito to spy on its defenses.

A betrayed Anna is now at the center of a clash of wills, regimes and religions. The men may fight the battles, but Anna will shape the outcome. Having made an inadvertent wrong choice, she will contend with an unyielding father and a hasty, unconsummated marriage to Calbo while she also confronts her mixed feelings for the still ardent Maometto. Offered leniency by the Turkish conqueror in return for her love, Anna’s greater sacrifice of her life for honor, country and faith decides the day. All Maometto’s warrior skills cannot conquer either Erisso’s world or Anna’s heart. The Turkish advance is stopped short at Italian soil.

Soprano Leah Crocetto’s rich-timbered, flexible coloratura captured the requisite pathos for the ill-fated Anna (her “shame” aria was a stand-out) though girth prevented her stage movement at the same pace has her vocal passions.

Bass Luca Pisaroni’s stentorian macho-with-a-heart Maometto (his florid “conquering” aria with flutes, piccolo, and clarinet was a blazer) made for fierce opposition to tenor Bruce Sledge’s stiff-necked Erisso. Mezzo-soprano Patricia Bordon, in a trouser role, made of the the hapless Calbo a vocally opulent and credible characterization.

David Alden’s stage direction maintained forward momentum through crowded sieges, cast groupings and scenic surprises. He was aided by Jon Morrell’s two curvilinear backdrops of gray, joined for interiors and separated for exteriors. A diagonal accent of blood red color announced the entrance of Maometto. Morrell’s costumes were updated to the nineteenth century for the Venetians, with period black regalia festooning the Turkish troops.

Stage effects, intentional and unintentional, spiced the production. A brick wall burst open at a critical moment in the siege, and a triumphant Maometto later entered in a massive three-horse chariot. Even more impressive, a seemingly on-cue real life rainstorm pummeled the audience from the open sides of the seating areas just as Erisso warns the town’s women of gathering storms. Only at the Santa Fe Opera's indoor-outdoor theater could such a thing happen!

Rossini’s richly scored and dramatically linked music is revelatory. Then at the height of his career, he crafted the work with care and uncanny skill, transforming his earlier-styled florid vocal fireworks into substantive dramatic bonfires.

From its moody, romantic overture, to emotionally charged arias like Maometto’s offer of clemency, imaginative ensembles and musical exotica, including a sort of Turkish “Anvil Chorus”, the work is imbued with invention and conviction.

The first act’s continuous twenty-five minute terzettone (literally “big fat trio”) was Rossini's most impressive innovation. It was also the one Neapolitans could not stomach, conditioned as they were to vocal displays tailor-made for frequent show-stopping applause.

Rossini’s reverence for Mozart can be heard in the orchestra’s extensive use of woodwinds, especially several meltingly lovely clarinet obbligatos. Another nod to the Viennese master is seen in the compassion and civility of Maometto, mirroring Mozart’s similar treatment for his Turk, Pasha Selim, in The Abduction from the Seraglio.

In his first season as Santa Fe Opera’s Chief Conductor, Frédéric Chaslin* has already made his mark. All the season's orchestral performances, not just the two he conducted, have been characterized by cohesion and style. On this outing, Chaslin’s command of the Rossinian line and devices such as his vaunted accelerandi were impeccable, the balances well gauged, and coordination with stage business sure-footed. Special accolades are due the woodwinds, notably the solo clarinet work of orchestra principal Todd Levy. As in all five of the season’s operas, the chorus of young professional singers shined under the direction of Susanne Sheston.

Many scholars believe Maometto II to be the best of Rossini’s Neapolitan operas. It’s not hard to see why. The musical dramatization of the clash between eastern and western cultures as seen through the eyes of its four struggling protagonists was ahead of its time. The restored version remains innovative and absorbing as a music drama that still speaks to our own time.


Maometto II, opera in two acts. Music by Gioachino Rossini. Text by Cesare della Valle.

Premiered at Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, 1820. Revised for Venice, 1822. Translated into French and reshaped as Le Siège de Corinthe in Paris, 1826. Reconstituted 1820 version, edited for the Works of Gioachino Rossini Edition by Hans Schellevis, under the supervision of its General Editor, Philip Gossett.

First performances of the work by the Santa Fe Opera, and a world premiere staging of the newly reconstituted 1820 versionPerformance reviewed: August 2, 2012

* Shortly after this review was posted, word came that Frédéric Chaslin had resigned his post as the Santa Fe Opera’s Chief Conductor.

Photos by Ken Howard, used by permission of Santa Fe Opera.
Rodney Punt can be contacted at [email protected]

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Love for Sale: Strauss's Arabella at Santa Fe Opera

Review by Rodney Punt

After an absence of five years, the Santa Fe Opera has mounted a work by Richard Strauss, once the annual practice of founder John Crosby. The infrequently performed Arabella is enjoying a fine new production with a solid cast under the direction of Tim Albery. Sir Andrew Davis helms a robust and glowing orchestra, with Susanne Sheston’s chorus meeting the season’s usual high standards.

Arabella is a wise opera, wiser even (speaking now of its libretto) than Der Rosenkavalier, on which it was modeled. Two decades after that ode to an idealized 18th Century had become a blockbuster hit for Strauss and his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the two were hoping operatic lightening might strike twice. But much water had passed under Europe’s historic bridges. The collapse of the Austro-German monarchies and steep war reparations after 1918 proved disastrous for their citizens. By Arabella‘s Dresden premiere on 1 July 1933, the Third Reich had already seized power.

Under such circumstances, dangling another bauble in the manner of Rosenkavalier would hardly have impressed jaded audiences. It was Hofmannsthal who found a way to have their comedic cake and eat its bitterness too. He set Arabella in the Vienna of the mid 19th Century Gründerzeit (the Epoch of the Founders), a time of ostentation and show. Also a time of speculation and dissipated fortunes, where losers played a desperate game of catch up.

Von Hofmannsthal’s sudden and unexpected death in 1929 prevented his final touches to the libretto. Strauss received a completed Act I, but only late drafts of Acts II and III. Talky, in the manner of comedies, the libretto was full of incident and personal reflections. The composer set it as he received it, and his music seems to play a conscious second fiddle to the drama. Perhaps Strauss wanted his irreplaceable partner to take, in absentia, one last bow in the limelight.

Hofmannsthal’s Arabella is a coming-of-age story that takes place in one remarkable day, in one unremarkable hotel, where romance and fortune hunting will change lives. The aristocratic Waldner family is down on its luck. In desperation, the Count visits gaming tables but is always fleeced. His ditzy but good-hearted wife, Adelaide, seeks out fortune-tellers. Blessed with two fine daughters, the parents place hopes of financial rescue on the older Arabella making a good marriage. Levelheaded and compliant, their daughter is prepared to accomplish this but none of her current suitors seem right. Her younger sister, Zdenka, faces dimmer prospects. She has been raised as a boy because the cost of presenting a second young lady to society is beyond her family’s means.

Tobias Hoheisel’s traditional-period sets are grey-colored and curvilinear, rotating from the Waldner family’s quarters of unadorned walls (befitting their advanced state of pawning assets), to the entrance of the ballroom, and finally into the hotel’s lobby. What the sets plainly depict, David Finn’s subtle lighting animates. Albery’s stage direction keeps the action moving organically and unobtrusively.  Hoheisel's costumes are as elegant and understated as his sets.

Arabella’s journey to maturation is critical to the story. In the span of a single day she transforms from a manipulative coquette with three dangling suitors into a serious young woman who longs for just one special man. Canadian Erin Wall made an attractive Arabella, her lyric soprano floating gorgeously as she mused, “… if there is a man right for me in this world, he will stand before me one day… and there will be no doubts.” While lovely in lyric moments, Wall’s voice occasionally tightened in the extended ranges of more highly charged repartee. Convincing as the mature Arabella, Wall’s earlier flirtatious interactions lacked only a certain relish and flare.

There was no lack of relish in Mark Delavan’s Mandryka, who commanded the action from his first entrance. A burly bear of a man with boundless energy, he was tailor-made for the role of the Croatian country squire with wads of money, who instantly falls for Arabella based on her portrait and is in turn loved by her at first glance. His blustering, if mistaken, anger makes for a terrific musical dust-up later on. More often seen in Wagnerian roles or as Puccini heavies, Delevan tore up the stage in the sheer delight of being that rare baritone who gets to play it sincere and in the end also keeps the girl who signifies her love with a glass of water.

Heidi Stober’s Zdenka delivered a sparkling performance. Her youthful, bright soprano radiated the ardor and nervous energy of a severely stressed young lady who must keep her gender identity a secret as she dutifully assists the man she loves, even in his ill-matched pursuit of her sister. Stober’s beguiling vulnerability in various dilemmas was perfectly gauged and utterly disarming. In the end, the opera’s focus is as much on her safe delivery into a happy future as that of her sister and family.

Zach Borichevsky’s Matteo was all misplaced passions for most of the opera, his bright tenor a perfect match for Stober’s similar soprano as his best friend, “Zdenko”, the cross-dressed girl who’s fortuitous trickery late in the story has the capital effect of straightening out Matteo’s true affections.

Kiri Deonarine was Fiakermilli, the bubbly belle of the Coachman’s Ball -- something of an interpolated character and vocal type into the story -- whose tarty coloratura provided relief to the dramatic tension. (The opera’s creators were clearly spoofing the naughty-but-fun decadence of the era that had also produced Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus.)

Bass Dale Travis’ Count Waldner was the tattered, much put upon pater familias who is reduced to bartering his daughter for survival. Victoria Livengood was his shrill, desperate wife. The two conveyed a fading aristocracy prone to foolish acts and feeble superstitions. If the opera had a fourth act, we would expect the Count’s unreformed bad habits to plague his son-in-law unendingly.

Brian Jagde was the suave leading contender of the three effete suitors to Arabella; his paler clones were Jonathan Michie and Joseph Beutel. The fatuous but accurate fortuneteller was Susanne Hendrix.

Strauss’s music is always serviceable and frequently more than that. It shifts between major and minor to convey the quicksilver mood-swings of hope and despair that propel this drama, often in Zdenka’s dilemmas. Its “parlando” technique moves the action along, with few musical daisies to smell. And as always with Strauss, the woodwinds have a field day and blurting brass signal comedic bits. In sequences where Mandryka believes he has been cuckolded, horns jeer in mockery. Folk tunes suggest the rustic energies of Mandryka’s eastern Slavonia region in Croatia.

Great musical scenes fly by almost as throwaways: the “Right Man” soliloquy, the tender interaction of the two sisters, Zdenka and Matteo’s exchanges, and Arabella’s betrothal scene with Mandryka. Nice as these are, the lack of extended musical indulgences so remarkable in Rosenkavalier may explain why few pick Arabella as a favorite among Strauss operas. But the score keeps its complicated plot moving along without fuss or fanfare and escapes the earlier opera's occasional longeurs. 

Bittersweet Arabella has often been labeled both old-fashioned and cynical, but its roots are clearly in the enlightened and insightful humanism of Mozart’s comic operas. There are no villains, grudges or deaths, and all the characters end up blaming their own foibles for their misfortunes.

In that sense, Arabella is a still an opera for modern times.


Arabella, opera in three acts, premiered 1 July 1933 at Dresden
Music by Richard Strauss, Libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal

A new production at the Santa Fe Opera
Reviewed: July 28 & August 6
Additional performance: August 23

Photos by Ken Howard, used by permission of Santa Fe Opera.
Rodney Punt can be contacted at [email protected]

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Szymanowski’s King Roger at Santa Fe Opera

Review by Rodney Punt

Part of the fun of Karol Szymanowski’s King Roger is figuring it out. Forget primal-action verismo. We’re in Symbolist opera in the Age of Freud, where everything is mysterious, internalized, and dream-like.

In its American premiere production (with a major company) at the Santa Fe Opera, nearly a century after the work’s 1926 Warsaw debut, King Roger’s three tableau-like acts of decorative inaction left some audiences  perplexed, but its luscious score and the fine performances of principals, chorus, and orchestra more than compensated for the work’s oratorio-like stasis.

The story is a mythical take on a real 12th century Norman who inherited the Kingdom of Sicily. The arrival of a mysterious shepherd unsettles the court and the kingdom. The young man with golden locks  is a wannabe prophet who describes his God “as youthful and beautiful as I am.” Conservative courtiers demand the apostate be put to death, but many in the realm are attracted to him. King Roger’s wife, Roxana, and his trusted scholar Edrisi urge a fair trial. Joyless and without pleasure himself, Roger agrees to the trial in his quarters, where later everything begins to spin out of control -- for the king, his wife, and most of his subjects.

Like his wife, Roger is attracted to the shepherd, but early on he sees a danger for license to become licentiousness. (If you notice this shepherd’s similarity to free-love gurus in the Age of Aquarius, you won’t be the first.) Roger's ensuing struggle is one of mind over matter, a choice between the duties of leadership and the distractions of sensuality.

Director Stephen Wadsworth sets the action in the traditional time-period, signaled by Ann Hould-Ward’s brocaded Byzantine costumes, but with the king wearing an anachronistic early 20th century business suit, a nod to that era's repressed sexuality and possibly also to composer Szymanowski’s real-life closeted torments. (Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella, Death in Venice, had explored a similar theme.)

Time and place are suggested by Thomas Lynch’s initially pictorial but later abstracted panels in back and above the stage, reinforced by Duane Schuler’s mood lighting. The first act’s Byzantine cathedral is bathed in golds and reds, the second act’s royal quarters in a blue-green of Arabic-Indian sensuality, and the final act’s Greek theater in the ultimate clarity of sky-blue.

Szymanowski, a lover of distant lands, invested his score with luxuriant music, notable for Klimt-like colors that capture the flavor of these exotic locales. His personal stamp of voluptuously stacked harmonies and dissonances are in the Wagner-Strauss tradition, with influences from the Impressionists and contemporaries like Franz Schreker, who’s Symbolist Die Gezeichneten had premiered eight years before. The score was well-served by the orchestra under Evan Rogister's nuanced shaping; the chorus well-prepared by Susanne Sheston.


Wadsworth’s narrative focused more on the thoughts and person of King Roger than the erotically charged shock values that could have spiced the production even more but also overwhelmed its internal drama. Peggy Hickey’s choreography in the bacchanal (in which King Roger himself participates) was likewise on the tame side, given the super-charged music Szymanowski clearly modeled after a certain dance in Strauss' Salome. The work’s heaving, pleading and sighing vocal declamations lack the rhythmic thrust of action opera, and as a result reinforce its dream-like state.

In the central role of Roger, Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien was to the manner born. Magnificently bringing to life the king’s nobility, he shaded the role with a searing vulnerability that made its elusive internal dilemma credible. In a treacherous journey of self-discovery and reconciliation, the king’s state of mind shifts between anxieties of a fading hold on his people, self-doubts of his own masculinity, and desires he is compelled to resist. Though Kwiecien’s stentorian baritone might have been modulated down in some of the more intimate scenes, his focus on this complex character never faltered.


William Burden’s shepherd was the plangent-voiced object of Roger’s repressed desires and a powerful lure drawing his people away. As a seductive golden-locked youth, however, Burden is a tad long-in-the-tooth to fully convince, but his shepherd did manage as an imperturbable, otherworldly presence of sensual liberation. His third act transformation from prophet to a goat-legged Dionysus was the image that strengthens the king’s resolve to reject him, even as most of the king's subjects, including his wife, follow the shepherd away.

Erin Morely’s youthful, silvery soprano had Roxana transforming from a loyal wife to one increasingly enthralled by the visitor to the court. As the shepherd's lure insinuates itself into Roxana's soul, her vocalizations shift from conversational advocacy to trance-like melismas importuning her flummoxed husband to come to the other side. It is some of Szymanowski’s most beguiling music.

In the midst of all the king’s inner turmoil, Dennis Peterson’s Edrisi was the faithful, non-judgmental mirror to his master’s mind. As the forces of immutable stability, Laura Wilde’s Deaconess and Raymond Aceto’s Archbishop pulled the other way.

In the end, is King Roger a historic myth, a composer’s autobiographical therapy, or a fervid dream? It may be all three, but Wadsworth saves the final scene for what is most likely his own answer.

As King Roger awakens with only the trusted Edrisi at his side, the latter declares the dream is dead, the illusion over. The battle had ultimately been more about a mental state than the affairs of state. Roger has found peace. He crowns his head with a Dionysian wreath and drapes his kingly robe over his shoulders. His northern nature has reconciled with his southern nurture.

Roger can finally be both man and king.



King Roger, opera in three acts, based on The Bacchae of Euripides
Music by Karol Szymanowski, text by Szymanowski and Jaroslaw Iwaskiewicz

Premiere of the work in a new production at the Santa Fe Opera
Reviewed: July 25 & August 3
Additional performances: August 9 & 14

Note: King Roger received a staged production at the Long Beach Opera in California in 1988. It also received a partially staged performances by Bard College in New York in 2008. 

Photos by Ken Howard, used by permission of Santa Fe Opera.
Rodney Punt can be contacted at [email protected]

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers at Santa Fe Opera


Review by Rodney Punt

The Santa Fe Opera’s revival of Bizet’s early The Pearl Fishers is a handsome new production in a season full of winners. A charming work by a young composer of unmistakable talent and promise, it abounds in good tunes, winsome vocal lines, clear orchestrations and stunning choruses. At its premiere in 1863, no less a critic than Hector Berlioz praised it as having “beautiful, expressive pieces full of fire and rich coloring.” Yet it is a work that also reveals the still-forming composer’s tendency toward prolixity and foursquare phrasing. (Bizet’s naturalistic style and unerring narrative flow would arrive thirteen years later with Carmen).

The first two acts of Pearl Fishers showcase the 24-year-old Bizet’s innate gift for melting lyricism, even as his set pieces go on a bit long for optimal pacing. The third act’s dramatic-action score, effective as it is, contains writing least characteristic of the mature Bizet, while exhibiting a clear debt (also a kindred spirit) to Verdi’s well-honed techniques.

The story, set in ancient Ceylon, centers around two old friends, Zurga and Nadir, who meet up in a fishing village after a number of years’ separation caused by their rivalry for a young lady named Leïla. Zurga has just been selected as king and granted full authority for major decisions. Nourabad, the High Priest of Brahma, imports a virgin to the village to help protect it from the natural disasters prone to all divers for pearls. As fate would have it, the virgin is Leïla, whose presence rekindles old passions and jealousies between the two reunited friends.

Baritone Christopher Magiera, as Zurga, had the flexy pecs if not quite the dusky chops to claim leadership in this village (it took a spell for the voice to loosen up). His was the most complex character, one who ultimately achieves nobility as he wrestles with threats to his village and copes with the jealousy he feels in Nadir’s pursuit of Leïla. Eric Cutler’s gleaming lyric tenor, as Nadir, was powerful and ardent in a love that could not help betraying a best friend for the one who would not be denied. Their duet, "Au fond du temple Saint," is the show-stopper (recycled throughout the opera) that became more famous than the opera itself.


As Leïla (aka Priestess of Brahma), the girl they fight over, Nicole Cabell was a perfectly cast exotic beauty whose relatively large-sized soprano wandered a bit in the first act, but warmed, brightened, and focused later into a gorgeous lyric sound, full of passion and drama. Imposing bass Wayne Tigges, as Nourabad, the High Priest of Brahma, was the stern voice of eternal authority and amatory unforgiveness toward Leïla.

Lee Blakeley’s sure-handed direction, aided by Jean-Marc Puissant’s gorgeous unit set of a stage-wide and opened picture frame, allowed for a free flow of a large cast of fisher folk -- from the current action in front of the frame to the remembrance of things past behind it. Not incidentally, the back of the set was wide open to Santa Fe’s cloud-filled skyline, in perfect synchronization with the unfolding saga of life at a seaside with its stormy weather.

Rick Fisher’s lighting evoked a fairy-tale setting and bathed the action in the saturated hues of a Maxfield Parrish painting. Its chromatic intensity nicely complemented Bizet’s clear-bright orchestral colors, prominently in the woodwinds.


In a large cast of fishermen and their ladies, Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s fanciful costumes cannily showed off a profession’s muscularity. The buff torsos of the men, as they bent and flexed while hauling in their trophies and victims, were complemented by the exposed midriffs of their slender, comely women. (And here, we must praise the SFO’s training program that recruits young vocalists who know that today’s theatrical opera productions require lithe bodies in addition to luscious voices.)

Conductor Emmanuel Villaume and his crack orchestral charges illuminated the work’s ever-shifting colors, allowing breathing time in Act I’s languid reveries, picking up the pace in Act II’s passionate declarations, and thrusting the orchestra into the center of the action in Act III’s dramatic conflicts. 

Susanne Sheston’s chorus was well prepared for the idiomatic, clearly delineated, and powerful choral passages that rival those in Il Trovatore and Nabucco, and provide a prescient foretaste of like work in Britten’s sea operas. The ever-present singing fishers so animate this opera they collectively become another protagonist in the action. Bizet’s marvelous choruses alone justify the revival of Pearl Fishers.


The Pearl Fishers by Georges Bizet
New Production of the Santa Fe Opera
Reviewed: July 31, 2012
Remaining performances: August 10, 13, 22, 25

Photo by Ken Howard, used by permission of the Santa Fe Opera
Rodney Punt can be contacted at: [email protected]