Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Santa Fe Opera: Beguiling Singing, Compelling Drama


by Rodney Punt 

The Santa Fe Opera’s top laurels for the 2013 season were not necessarily won by its most anticipated productions. Of the five works staged, three were fashioned around star singers -- a world premiere tragedy, an Offenbach farce, and a rarely performed late work of Rossini. Of those, it was the Rossini, with ensemble revivals from Mozart and Verdi, that most impressed.

Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, Rossini’s La Donna del Lago and Verdi’s La Traviata revealed in their proximate stagings how the art of lyric drama developed independently from Wagner’s theories on opera as drama. They trace a line that veered away from the Baroque-pedestaled heroes that Mozart inherited and toward flesh and blood characters who captured the hearts of ordinary people. That progression led Italian opera, via Rossini and his bel canto followers, through Verdi and toward Verismo, Puccini and beyond.

Figaro's revival at SFO was notable for solid (in one case stolid) casting. Zachary Nelson’s Figaro was the stolid entry, well sung but too maturely masculine for the wily, quick-on-his-feet valet. Standouts, however, were Lisette Oropesa’s Susanna, of wiry stage animation and pleasingly rapid vibrato, and Emily Fons’ scene-stealing trouser role of Cherubino, one of the finest versions of adolescent male mannerisms I’ve ever seen.

Daniel Okulitch and Susanna Philips as Count and Countess Almaviva were both tall and of regal bearing. Even with Phillips suffering vocal control issues, her Countess was the soul of long-suffering love for Okulitch’s noble but philandering Count. Dale Travis and Susanne Mentzer, as the sketchy Doctor Bartolo and his conniving Marcellina, were every bit up to their naughty but redeemable natures.

Bruce Donnell’s staging had comical dazzle reigning over reflection. Busybody servants, flower picking and scurrying about, added a touch of the surreal to the proceedings. Paul Brown’s costumes were stylized traditional and his compatible sets slid efficiently from scene to scene. After an overture that skipped along a little too fast for the comfort of the woodwinds, conductor John Nelson relaxed the pacing; his orchestra, however, exhibited occasional rough textures.


Mozart’s Da Ponte operas had their greatest impact not in nationalistic trending Austria and Germany but in Gioachino Rossini’s Italy. Born a year after Mozart’s death, and revering him, the Italian master is most identified as the spinner of brilliant opera buffas like The Barber of Seville, a sister work to Figaro and one of three Beaumarchais social satires prophetic of Europe’s fracturing social structure. But trends in the lyric stage north of the Alps favored greater dramatic cohesion. During his late career management of Naples’s Teatro di San Carlo, the Italian master responded with similar reforms, even as he catered to a stubborn demand for vocal pyrotechnics. These hybrid works are now often revived.

SFO General Director Charles MacKay is doing for the neglected Neapolitan works of Rossini what founder John Crosby used to do for the works of Richard Strauss. Last year’s Maometto (better known in its later version as The Siege of Corinth) was a triumph. This year’s La Donna del Lago may not quite match that achievement, but it was plenty good.

Lago was the first of many operas to be based on the works of Sir Walter Scott, who inflamed nineteenth century imaginations with brooding stories of Scotland’s colorful and violent history. It finds Rossini’s creative powers churning out musical moods and colors far north of Italy’s sunny skies. In the manner of Shakespeare’s late plays, the work is a melodramatic romance. Happiness in the end is won only through much anxiety in the beginning and a couple near tragedies in between.

Paul Curran’s production was dark and moody, befitting its Scottish setting. There was no lake per se, but the back of Kevin Knight’s stage was open to Santa Fe’s billowing skies and all was dark attitude and accommodating storm on the evening I attended. The story takes place amid a power struggle between King James and his independent minded Highlanders. It offers opportunity, fully exploited by Rossini, for atmospheric music and extended vocal ensembles that shorten traditional number arias in favor of long musico-dramatic segments. Many anticipate later operatic scenes in the nineteenth century.

The story has famous beauty, Elena (a radiant Joyce DiDonato), daughter of Highlander Duglas of Angus (the dark-voiced Wayne Tigges), in love with Malcom Groeme (passionate mezzo Marianna Pizzolato in a trouser role). King Giacomo V (a noble Lawrence Brownlee), their antagonist posing as Uberto to gain entrance behind enemy lines, also pursues Elena. Complicating matters, Angus wants his daughter engaged to warrior chief Rodrigo di Dhu (an impetuous René Barbara). The love quadrangle twists frequently, with harrowing episodes of war, betrayal and misunderstanding, but it resolves amicably under the political and personal astuteness of Elena, aided by the authority of a royal ring “Uberto” had early on given her for protection. The King’s forgiveness and forbearance echoes the enlightened humanity of Mozart’s singspiels.

All the principals contributed to a moving performance. DiDonato’s performance, however, was no less than stunning, as she retained coloratura freshness and heft throughout the long evening and had energy and spirit to spare for her breathtaking parting aria, ‘Tanti affetti’ (so many emotions). Stephen Lord’s orchestra captured the brooding atmospherics splendidly, especially within the delectable woodwinds led by the grace of clarinetist Todd Levy.


Verdi’s hot human emotions are not typically compatible with cool minimalist stagings, but the revival of Laurent Pelly’s Traviata was an exception. Chantal Thomas’ cascading monochrome cubes ably shifted attention from colorful decoration to character definition. Its controversial 2009 premiere at the SFO had Natalie Dessay leaping precariously from cube to cube. But the choreography was toned down here and the scheme’s simplicity became a virtue in the intense interaction between Violetta’s courtesan, her lover Alfredo and his father Germont.

The symbolic identity of the tubes is heralded by the prelude’s funeral procession bearing a coffin across the stage. First act partiers use them as platforms, unwittingly dancing on their own graves. The lovers’ escape to the country has their lids open in sky-blue projections. Shut later, as the mood darkens, the principals are arrayed on them in a power-competing pyramid, with Germont on top. Closing the circle, the cubes are crape-draped in the last act’s reprisal of the funereal mood.

As Violetta, Brenda Rae’s fresh, resplendent voice imbued her fine portrayal with shattering vulnerability. She seems to have emerged from nowhere but has in fact been working in Europe to ever increasing renown. Her pathetic Alfredo, the ardent Michael Fabiano, was a worthy match vocally and dramatically. Veteran Roland Wood’s wooly-voiced Germont was not the willful tyrant as is sometimes (incorrectly) rendered, but the reluctant enforcer of an immutable social code. Leo Hussain’s orchestra surrounded its singers with meticulous sympathy.

If I have ever seen a better Traviata, none ever so moved me. It is believed that Verdi saw in Violetta a blend of the two most important women in his life: his tragically early-deceased wife and his gossiped-about, faithful lover (and later wife) Giuseppina Strepponi. Verdi poured out his big heart in a long string of poignant melodies in this immortal masterpiece. Those in the theater that evening felt in the presence of a rare artistic achievement.


Verdi’s supreme dramatic powers were nowhere in evidence at the world premiere of Theodore Morrison’s much anticipated first opera, Oscar, based on the tragic last phase of Oscar Wilde’s career. With gay rights achieving significant breakthroughs, its timing had been propitious. Wilde’s brilliant theatrical success, ending in sudden persecution and an early death would seem tailor-made for dramatic treatment, not to mention opportunity for a retrospective martyr’s crown. Casting Wilde as a countertenor (a Baroque era voice-type), with no less than superstar David Daniels in the title role, might also have proved a daring move for modern music drama. 

Yet the opportunity for significant dramatic statement was fumbled, due not so much to the solid if episodic score as the tepid drama the 75-year-old Morrison co-wrote with veteran stage director (and Wilde scholar) John Cox. The work focused solely on Wilde’s after-trial guilty verdict and jail time for sodomy. Its large doses of rumination and regret lacked conflict, not to mention enough appearance of Wilde’s vaunted wit. The principals sang well, especially a resplendent Daniels, and the staging was elaborate, inventive and well executed. But with little opportunity for Wilde’s personality to emerge or engage, Daniels’ star power could not prevent the work’s launch as stillborn. (Full review here.)

The premiere was preceded by several panel discussions on Oscar Wilde organized by the SFO at the Santa Fe Woman’s Club. Among the distinguished panel of academics was also the informed presence and commentary of Wilde’s grandson, Merlin Holland. The Santa Fe REP presented a bracing reading of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde by Moises Kaufman, a verbatim enactment of the trials. With its rousing urgency and the transcribed repartee of Wilde himself, it might admirably have served as Morrison’s libretto. File that lost opportunity under “What Might Have Been.”

Oscar Wilde once observed that “America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.” His words had resonance in nineteenth century America and in certain areas at certain times they may even resonate today. Wilde may have regretted uttering them when he found out what confronted him back in “civilized” England just a few years later. After his prison time was served, he longed to return to the States but was never able to make it back. More's the pity for him and us.


Where the SFO’s advocacy of Rossini has been charmed the last two years, its recent productions of Jacques Offenbach have operated under a cloud. Christopher Alden’s 2010 Tales of Hoffmann commendably reconstructed that great work, left incomplete at the composer’s death, but his staging was over-conceptualized and excessively cluttered. The new production of The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein -- designed as a star vehicle for eminent mezzo and New Mexico native Susan Graham -- was cleaner than Hoffmann but the work itself is weak and dated. The cast sang in French and dialogued their gags in English.

Graham’s Duchess is a cougar on the make. Ruling by whim, she demotes a general and replaces him with the private in whom she has a taken a certain interest. In love with another, he squirms his way through the plot. The program notes would have us believe this an anti-war satire, but that literary conceit proves hollow when the private-cum-general defeats the enemy and brings home glory at seemingly no cost. Director Lee Blakeley’s relocation of the action from Europe to a Midwestern military academy allowed a parade of period American costumes as seen in classic film musicals, combined with the awkward logic of a Midwestern town “Duchy” in a shooting war with its neighbor. (On second thought, that may just be where we as a nation are headed.)

With bun dress and top hat, Graham resembled a camped-up version of Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis. Adding to the in-joke stickiness, the glancing girls and prancing boys surrounding her tried to sustain this airy-fairy soufflé with too many empty-calorie jokes and not enough satirical protein. (Lackey to Duchess after an inspection in ranks: “Did you see how they looked at your privates?”) The fully restored score made for a long evening and felt padded with second-drawer musical numbers. Graham’s voice took some time to warm up and her usually effervescent presence appeared to be paced with at best an obligatory cheeriness. Ditto for the rest of the cast. The operetta may be enduring but on this evening it was anything but endearing. It was a Gerolstein badly in need of Geritol.

It has become customary for the SFO to sponsor a vocal recital each summer. Last year’s featured a beaming Susan Graham in a selection of idiomatic French opera arias. This year’s had dramatic soprano Christine Brewer, with pianist Joseph Illick, in Britten’s Cabaret Songs and Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, with her encore the “Liebestod” from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. The latter allowed a nostalgic look back to repertoire that was once a staple of Brewer’s operatic career.

Despite a couple of less than stellar productions, the 2013 season proved the Santa Fe Opera once again in the top tier of the USA’s preeminent summer destinations to savor the lyric muse.


Rodney Punt can be contacted at [email protected]

Performances reviewed
Marriage of Figaro, August 3
La Donna del Lago, July 26
La Traviata, August 2
Oscar, July 27
The GRand Duchess of Gerolstein, July 30
Christine Brewer recital, August 4

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