Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Magic Musical Moments at Mount Wilson Observatory

The Zelter String Quartet (l-r Carson Rick, viola; Kyle Gilner and Gallia Kastner, violins;
Allan Hon, cello) in front of their concert hall for the afternoon, the 100-inch telescope
dome at Mount Wilson Observatory.


Zelter String Quartet play Mason, Puccini, and Mendelssohn, Mount Wilson Observatory

“Why are we so lucky?” I asked Nicolette, my wife and date for the August 13 performance of the Zelter String Quartet at Mount Wilson Observatory. It was a beautiful midsummer Sunday, with sparkling clear air once we rose out of the hazy LA basin. The switchbacking path of the Angeles Crest Highway displayed the San Gabriel Mountains at the ideal time of day as we headed up the mountain for the 3 p.m. concert. Then, boom, 30 seconds after we parked and locked our car, the Mount Wilson shuttle arrived with two seats unoccupied. That was when I asked my rhetorical question, as we rode the final stretch to the 100-inch Hooker telescope and the dome where the concert would be played. 

Cécilia Tsan.
And “How lucky are we?” was certainly the right question for each member of the audience to ask after an emotive, highly satisfying concert by the Zelter String Quartet. Mount Wilson is one of the most unusual concert venues in the world. For the past several years, Artistic Director Cécilia Tsan, an accomplished and treasured locally-based cellist, has programmed Sunday Afternoon "Concerts in the Dome" at the 115-year-old observatory, sharing the stage with the "Talks and Telescopes" lecture series produced by the Mount Wilson Institute. (For the 2023 season, two more concerts and three more lectures remain. To find out more, go to Mount Wilson’s web page and click Events.)

The concert stage utilizes half of a donut-shaped balcony surrounding the great telescope that discovered the larger universe, no less. This steel floor once supported the hurried footsteps of the world’s most accomplished astronomers, mechanical engineers and telescope "fix-its." To make it into a performance space, risers are placed in an open location on one side of the telescope, abutting the dome’s interior wall. That’s for the performers. Wings of folding chairs extend to each side, perhaps 15 rows, 10 seats wide, in both directions, so it has something of a theater-in-the-round feeling.

The sightlines are good, but because there’s no elevation for the audience, seats near the front are preferred. From an audibility standpoint, there isn’t a bad seat. The acoustics are surprisingly pure considering music was the farthest thing from what it was built for. There’s a bit more reverb than is fashionable now in concert halls, but to my ears, the echo is minimal, natural, and pleasing.

Mount Wilson Institute Trustee Dan Kohne introduces the concert—and its unique venue.

Besides the opportunity to return to Mount Wilson, this concert was circled on our calendar because the Zelter String Quartet are exceptional. This would be my second time hearing them. I had no doubt they would command the Mount Wilson space, and indeed they did.

The point of a string quartet is to present a kind of real-time musical conversation among four strong voices given equal access to the ears of the audience. Joseph Haydn, the father of the string quartet, strove to embody democracy in this form, and composers since then have written quartets according to that principle. But what are the four equal voices meant to model? An idealized debate in which each unique voice is heard? Or are we meant to hear a single voice, expressed in multiple dimensions?

To be sure, every quartet and every composer of quartets exploits both capabilities. Still, Zelter’s members struck me as unusually well-connected musically. They strive, and succeed, in creating one voice: rich, soulful and alive. They accomplish this magic via a mindfulness that is palpable. You can see it in these musicians' eyes and body language, in addition to hearing it in their blend: they listen intently to each other, and use what they hear to make constant subtle adjustments so that the collective voice is as beautifully balanced as possible. From brief, post-concert conversations with Zelter members, I confirmed the ensemble’s intramural responsiveness is something they work on and are proud of. As if to underscore that egalitarian vibe, there is no “first violinist” in Zelter. Kyle Gilner and Gallia Kastner changed seats between the second and third piece.

All of this goodness came together to give the audience an unforgettable concert, with performances of music by LA native Todd Mason (producer of the Mason House concerts in West Los Angeles), the late 19th century Italian opera maestro Giacomo Puccini, and an Early Romantic masterpiece from an 18-year-old Felix Mendelssohn. It was a serious program that launched journeys into space-time, into depths of mourning, and finally into an explosion of youthful passions guided by genius.

Todd Mason.
Todd Mason’s ethereal, one-movement String Quartet No. 3 seems to have been composed precisely to be played in a monument to science, as a tribute to the heroes who undertake the work of encountering the unknown and expanding human knowledge. This might be a reflection of my own suggestibility. But to my ears, his quartet’s abstract, atonal sonics, its rapid shifts to rough bowing, harmonics, pizzicato then legato to start the piece, were the musical equivalent of telescope-captured images of stars being born alongside comets flaring through space. But these scratchy, abrupt sounds could also be sparks inside the brain; an idea’s rough birth.

At first, the abstract, atonal effects seemed out of character for Mason, who can be counted on to bend and stretch tonality, but seldom break it. As it unfolded, his plan became clearer as the music cycled through moments of chaos followed by a fragile sense of order before breaking apart again—a metaphor not just for science but all creativity, with an underlying, poignant question: “Is order just an illusion?” Mason set up interesting contrasts between the two violin parts, with Gilner handling a series of virtuosic, almost frenzied statements, only to be answered sorrowfully and emotively by Kastner. The array of string sounds and varying dynamics Mason asked Zelter to perform also served as a kind of acoustical test for Mount Wilson, which the building passed without difficulty.

Puccini’s Crisantemi (1890) was next. Do opera fans know what beautiful chamber music their icon wrote? You can find what little there is on streaming services, and it’s worth the hunt. This piece, whose title translates to "Chrysanthemums," was said to be composed in one night, and captured the composer’s grief over the death of his friend, the Duke of Aosta, who ruled for three years as King Amadeo I of Spain and was part of the Italian royal dynasty known as the House of Savoy. It’s unclear why Puccini loved the Duke so much. A quick review of his bio suggests he was not especially worthy of the depths of emotion evoked in this brief composition. But love is love, right? Plus the Duke was very wealthy.

Giacomo Puccini, c.1890.
The connectedness of the Zelter Quartet was especially on display in this piece. The experience was like being guided by them through a dark night to a place of peace and perspective: a timeless journey, that only lasted five mesmerizing minutes.

Neither the Puccini nor Mason pieces conformed with the usual expectations for a string quartet concert. Hearing them back to back at the beginning of the concert had the effect of expanding our awareness of what the quartet form could be, which proved to be the perfect set-up for Zelter’s performance of Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2 in A minor (1827). It’s an extraordinary composition, and not just because he was only 18 when he wrote it. While it largely adheres to the classical string quartet structure, by the time the Zelter Quartet got to it, we in the audience were ready to hear it without too much regard for stereotypes.

When you’re young, certain years take on added drama because of a confluence of new experiences that can both inspire and overwhelm the developing mind. For the young Felix Mendelssohn, 1827 apparently was such a year, when two events affected him deeply. First, he fell in love with someone whose name is lost to history, but who inspired him to write a song entitled Frage, with a lyric that began: “Is it true that you always wait for me there in the leafy path by the grape arbor and ask the moonlight and the little stars about me?"

"Beethoven nears the end."
At the same time, Mendelssohn also fell in love with the newly published last five quartets by Ludwig Van Beethoven, who had just died. Composed as his health was failing, they are among his most complex, emotionally challenging, and profound compositions, as well as controversial for contemporary aficionados affronted by their sheer daring and seeming abandonment of tried-and-tested procedures. When I listen to them, I find myself sometimes straining to feel what Beethoven is feeling, and it is just out of reach. But somehow teen-aged, love-struck Felix found keys to expressing his youthful angst and desires by writing sounds inspired by Beethoven’s obsessive, brooding final statements on fate.

Felix Mendelssohn.
The Zelter Quartet’s approach conveyed compassion and understanding of the deep feelings young Mendelssohn captures. They embraced the full range of his keen emotions in their playing, from the agitation and yearning of the first two movements through the loose-limbed recollections of joy that emerge surprisingly in the third movement, to the melodrama and intensity of the final movement. For those of us who have raised or lived around precocious adolescents, this mix of naïve feeling and heady complexity seems familiar; but not so easy to capture as evocatively as Mendelsohn does, in a piece of music for the ages.

Each of the quartet members were given moments to display their individual tone, but what excited me most is what they created together, in twos, threes and fours; in rounds and ensembles and passages charged with dance rhythms; and in solemn moments of regret and loss. They gave us an emotion-filled concert, a deeply satisfying artistic journey that was enhanced by the Mount Wilson dome, and transcended it.

In his opening speech, Mount Wilson Trustee Dan Kohne hoped to encourage the audience to be judicious with their camera-phones. It was tempting to try to capture the experience, the unusual visuals accompanied by beautiful music, but it could be distracting and ultimately would be futile. These magical moments with the Zelter Quartet defy the virtual world. “Be here now,” Kohne said, “for these particular wavelengths of sound that will never happen again.” Talk about luck.


100-Inch Telescope Dome, Mount Wlson Observatory, Sunday August 13 2023,
3 p.m. and 5 p.m.
Images: The performance: Todd Mason; Beethoven: Oswald Charles Barrett, for The Oxford Companion to Music; Puccini and Mendelssohn: Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

High Tech Meets Myth in Seattle Opera Rheingold


REVIEW: Seattle Opera

McCaw Hall, Seattle


Opera fans in Seattle have double cause for celebration this season. For the first time since 2013, Seattle Opera is presenting Das Rheingold, the first of Wagner’s epic Ring operas, on the stage of McCaw Hall, as the initial production of its 60th anniversary season. To her credit, General Director Christina Scheppelmann deemed Wagner an important part of the festive year.

Opening night of this grand occasion delivered on its promise of excitement. With inventive high-tech staging and a number of company debuts, including distinguished singer of worldwide reputation Denyce Graves, as well as the return of such favorites as Greer Grimsley and Seattle Symphony Conductor Emeritus Ludovic Morlot, the production was a winner. The large cast was the undisputed star of the show: consistently strong and, as SO scholar in residence Dr. Naomi André has pointed out, standing out for its diversity by including many people of color.

Greer Grimsley
Philip Newton

Bass-baritone legend Greer Grimsley, the equivalent of an operatic rock star both around the world and in the city of Seattle, and synonymous with the role of Wotan, looked and sounded better than ever. With his commanding presence and vocal power, he ruled over Valhalla with an iron fist—despite the efforts of his Fricka, Melody Wilson, to take the wind out of his sails. In this all-important divine duo, Wilson stood up to Grimsley, performing with security. But for the most part Grimsley carried the show, projecting a vocal and dramatic strength that built steadily to the end.

Katie Van Kooten (Freia) and Peixin Chen (Fasolt) joined Denyce Graves (Erda) in making their debuts. Graves has had a long, illustrious career on every prominent stage on the planet, and her experience showed in her authoritative presence in this production. Her commanding performance as the prescient earth goddess made Wotan’s awed reaction all the more convincing.
Denyce Graves
Philip Newton

Peixin Chen, Kenneth Kellogg
Philip Newton

Chen made a robust impression with his giant-like presence, countering his violent brother Fafner, Kenneth Kellogg in his role debut. Both had rich, deep voices that played off each other, and both succeeded in dominating the action when onstage, especially on the neon-lit platform that grabbed attention as it moved up and down. Van Kooten’s tones were clear and golden, appropriate for the innocent Freia. Viktor Antipenko sounded appropriately heroic as Freia’s protective brother Froh.

Returning artists Frederick Ballentine, Michael Mayes, and Martin Bakari, gave impressive performances. Ballentine’s Loge stood out, not only for his wily characterization of Wagner’s ultimate, maddening trickster, but for his unique ability to sound like a true lyrical tenor in what is purely a character role. Mayes was an outstanding Alberich: violent, nasty, terrifying and powerful, both vocally and dramatically.  

Michael Mayes
Sunny Martini
Bakari made the most of the relatively small but pivotal role of Mime, cowering from his vicious brother, but adding subtle hints of his shrewd ability to fend for himself. He sang with appropriately Mime-like tones, never wavering, and piquing one’s curiosity as to his potential rendering of the character in the third Ring opera, Siegfried.

Frederick Ballentine, Martin Bakari
Philip Newton

Michael Chioldi, who gave a lasting impression as Germont in the company’s recent La Traviata, made his role debut as Donner. Chioldi made the most of the relatively small role, relishing every note and heightening the characterization, building steadily toward his moment of glory in his finale-launching thunder bolt aria, which was captivating and exquisitely done.

Viktor Arkipenko, Michael Chiolid
Sunny Martini
Sarah Larsen (Flosshilde) and Shelly Traverse (Wellgunde) in their role debuts as the first two Rhinemaidens, were joined by Jacqueline Piccolino as Woglinde. Together and separately, they sounded as lovely as three voices could be. High notes were strong and crystal clear, and harmonies resounded beautifully throughout the house. Their playfulness together in the river was hugely appealing.

Jacqueline Piccolino, Sarah Larsen, Shelly Traverse
Philip Newton

Stage director Brian Staufenbiel brought his 2016 Minnesota Opera production to the SO stage. Visually spectacular and undeniably thought-provoking, the staging combined the perspectives of Wagner’s ancient mythical context with a modern technological spin. Most singular was the placement of the orchestra onstage, turning the orchestra pit into an extended stage and using the pit as a split-level representation of the Rhine River and Nibelheim. The integration of the orchestra into the stage action as an active player in the drama is an interesting concept. It worked at times, and it’s always fascinating to watch the ensemble work their magic in Wagner’s ingenious score. Granted, a Wagnerian-sized orchestra will not fit into all orchestra pits. But on some level the presence of the orchestra onstage reminded one of the reasons why the composer built his own opera house with a pit that was covered over so as not to distract the audience from the all-important drama unfolding onstage.

Morlot is no stranger to Wagner, having helmed the company’s 2021outdoor non-staged Welcome Back Concert: Die Walküre. Fulfilling the demands of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk concept, combining music with drama and integrating them as a perfect whole, is no walk in the park. Morlot managed not only to hold everything together impeccably, but he also showed an intense understanding of what the composer-conductor had in mind. As always, Morlot’s conducting was fluid, connecting phrase to phrase as if to reflect the everlasting flow of the Rhine River and the cyclical nature of the work. The orchestra responded as one instrument, organ-like in its wash of sound.

Philip Newton
The creative team included three Seattle Opera debuts. David Murakami’s projections balanced exquisitely with Mextly Couzin’s lighting, both of which served to maximize the dramatic upheaval as it played out. Incandescent projections superimposed on the performers added to the overall impression of tech meeting traditional mythology. At times the lighting verged on brilliant, as each scene built toward the combination of light and projection in the earth tones of Erda’s spectacular entrance toward the end, which filled the entire house with eye-popping splendor. The Rainbow Bridge symbolizing the flow of the Rhine River, combined with the dazzling light that led the way to the gods’ entrance into Valhalla, made a striking last impression.

Each character looked his or her best in Mathew LeFebvre’s stunning costumes, from Wotan’s blindingly golden accoutrements to Erda’s tree branches growing from her head. The space-age headgear for the two giants, which could have seemed over the top, worked wonderfully. Even the props, from the golden helmet to the eponymous ring, stood out splendidly.

The outstanding cast and provocative production, merged with Wagner’s indisputably monumental music and drama, made this Rheingold a de rigueur happening well worth experiencing, and hopefully an entrée into subsequent Ring operas for the company. 

Philip Newton

Photo credits: Philip Newton, Sunny Martini 
Ticket information: https://www.seattleopera.org/performances-events/das-rheingold/


 Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

Friday, August 11, 2023

Santa Fe Opera 2023: "Pelléas" and the "Dutchman"

Huw Montague Rendall and Samantha Hankey as Pelléas and Mélisande in Santa Fe Opera's production of Debussy's only completed opera.



Wagner, 1840-1842.
Richard Wagner’s early Romantic opera, Der Fliegende Holländer WWV 63, written in 1840-41, has a ship captain fated to sail the seas until he is released from his eternal wandering by a faithful woman. With a stormy northern climate as its backdrop, Wagner created this foreboding work in primary musical colors. The journey from his Wagnerian darkness to Debussy’s delicate Pelléas et Mélisande L 93, composed between 1893 and 1898, is a transition of qualities, from heavy and dark to light and lighter. Debussy’s ethereal work seems infused with touch-me-not action, its soft music drawn at times in barely discernible pastels.

Claude Debussy.
Performances of these two works at the Santa Fe Opera this summer, conducted respectively by Thomas Guggeis and Harry Bicket, suggested no obvious relationship between them. But there is an embedded developmental connection in their 60-year compositional timespan. Take a walk on successive Wagnerian operatic stepping-stones: Tannhaüser, Lohengrin, the tetralogy of Der Ring des Nibelungen, Tristan und Isolde, and reaching the last, Parsifal. Wagner is ready to hand over the reins to Debussy, who admired and learned from both Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal and expressed his debt in Pelléas et Mélisande.


Nicholas Brownlee as the Dutchman, silhouetted against the Crosby Theatre's open backdrop
of New Mexico hills at sunset.

Review of Der Fliegende Holländer, August 5

A Dutch sea captain is cursed to live forever, but allowed to come ashore once every seven years to look for a woman who will be faithful to him until death, which, with her steadfast pledge, will release his eternal curse, and let him die in peace. At sea, the Dutchman meets Norwegian Captain Daland, open to any means of gaining wealth, and whose best bargaining chip happens to be his unmarried daughter, Senta. She, in turn, has been avoiding her most ardent suiter, a local hunter boy named Erik, who is madly in love with her. The Dutchman gives his portrait to Daland who later gives it to his daughter, who is immediately taken with the Dutchman, at which point the end game of this work is set in motion.

The men of Santa Fe Opera chorus at sea.
Originally conceived as a short opera by Wagner, the final product, still short by Wagnerian standards, is fleshed out with a sailors’ chorus at sea and, as balance, a similar women’s spinning chorus in the port city. These two choral numbers provided the best opportunity this season to hear the phenomenal choral work of Santa Fe Opera’s young artists, by a good measure the fullest choral presentation of the five-opera season.

Daland (Morris Robinson).
Bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee’s voice filled the Crosby Theatre stage with the dark and foreboding prognostications of his Dutchman’s fate. In the past seven years, this Dutchman has amassed a king’s ransom of lucre with which to pay a dowry for the faithful wife he seeks to release him from his eternity at sea. Bass Morris Robinson’s Daland, in craven greed, grasps the opportunity to accept the Dutchman’s dowry for Senta. Their bargain scene was well choreographed, with Brownlee and Robinson on opposite sides of the stage giving ominous portent of their pact.

Another townsman, the grief-stricken Erik (tenor Chad Shelton, replacing the originally scheduled Richard Trey Smagur), emotes genuine anger and panic at losing Senta, the village girl he had loved for so long. (A tenor’s loss at love is relatively rare, an operatic role reversal symbolic of the normal order of this story being out of whack.)

Senta (Elza van den Heever) with the women of Santa Fe Opera chorus.
Soprano Elza van den Heever’s Senta, a good match vocally for Brownlee, has in some ways the most interesting stage treatment here. She is made up to look plain, almost butch, suggesting a possible twist on her own motivations to avoid the usual village female role of sewing contentedly for a lifetime at home. She may intuitively embrace the sacrifice of her own life to escape physical love inherent in her expected role as housewife... or may secretly be excited to trade the insignificance of sea village life for a larger good, something more important, that motivates the spontaneous jump off the cliff after the Dutchman has set sail.

When he realizes that the Senta he has fallen in love with, and agreed to marry, must die as part of the curse on himself, the Dutchman has last-minute qualms and tries to escape again on his ship in order to save her life. But Senta, true to her promise, and perhaps to her secret pact with herself not to marry, still jumps off the local cliff, at last releasing the Dutchman to break the curse and himself die in peace and deliverance.


Netia Jones' production design for Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande

Review of Pelléas et Mélisande, August 3

As mentioned, Debussy’s innovative score owes a musical debt to the spiritual world of Parsifal and the love-triangle of Tristan, yet, in his search of another musical path, Debussy resisted the seductive influence to directly imitate Wagner’s style. This work looks to the Far East, notably Japan and Indonesia, for its coloration as well as a certain delicacy. The East’s pentatonic scales and gamelan hues—along with unusual instrumental combinations and the use of parallel triads, and unorthodox 7th and 9th chords—produced exotic, hothouse sounds that gave the composer an original musical voice perfectly suited to the play (and one that would go on to influence composers like Stravinsky and Ravel).

Susan Graham as Geneviève
in the Santa Fe production.
Debussy’s ethereal, indeterminate music, with Maeterlinck’s touch-me-not drama of the mind, has challenged stage directors for generations since the work’s 1902 Paris premiere. For Los Angeles audiences, the 1995 staging by Peter Sellars at LA Opera in the Chandler Pavilion tried to break the obscurantist mold by tailoring the drama to a modern setting of homeless lovers on a beachside in Malibu. Alas, the intriguing concept had them groping on a dim stage with fluorescent lights inconveniently shining in the audience’s eyes.

Golaud (Zachary Nelson).
Santa Fe Opera’s production avoided such extraneous statements. Stage director Netia Jones, also responsible for scenic designs, costumes, and projections, let the action tell the story and the music provide much of the inner tension. She avoided the kind of distracting high concept production that had Sellars smothering the pastel subtlety of this fragile work of Debussy, which needs to quietly work on an audience’s inner emotions.

Yniold (Kai Edgar).
The protagonists forged an ideally strong and idiomatic team. In the tenor role of the fated Pelléas, the English lyric baritone Huw Montague Rendall sustained just the right ethereal French nuance in accent and stage manner. Samantha Hankey’s more open and generic soprano did not have quite the French nasality that would have made this pairing ideal, but she did convey Mélisande with a fatal purity that chimed with Debussy’s unchanging musical motif at her every entrance. Baritone Zachary Nelson’s increasingly unhinged Golaud added, step by step, to the inexorable fatalistic power of extracting jealous revenge.

Seasoned mezzo-soprano Susan Graham provided a sympathetic and resonant Geneviève to soften the tragedy, along with Raymond Aceto’s Arkel, even as the two were powerless to stop the unfolding tragedy. In the role of the boy, Yniold, was the sweet Kai Edgar. The misuse of his character by Golaud to spy and report on a potential love scene is one of the more tragic moments in this work. Ben Brady’s Physician reinforced the role of helpless bystander to tragedy. All in all, this was a Pelléas et Mélisande that did not force the action, but let the story unfold naturally.

The lovers about to meet their doom at the hands of Golaud.


Crosby Theatre, Santa Fe Opera, 301 Opera Drive, Santa Fe, NM, Thursday, August 3, and Saturday, August 5, 2023, 8:00 p.m.
Images: Wagner and Debussy: Wikimedia Commons; the productions: Curtis Brown.

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Santa Fe Opera 2023: "Orfeo" and "Rusalka"

The Santa Fe Opera chorus cavorting on and around the grassy hill set for Act II of
Monteverdi's Orfeo.



Monteverdi, c.1630.
Discontent with one’s lot may be the mother of personal reinvention, but the pursuit of human happiness can also set off a struggle with the rules of those who rule the heavens. The gods of mythology don’t cotton to humans breaking the boundaries they have set. Mythological gods “up there” are, in fact, stand-ins for natural and societal boundaries. Two operas this Santa Fe Opera season work on an attempt to break boundaries, Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo and Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka.

Dvořák in 1901.
When Orfeo’s new bride, Euridice, dies shortly after their marriage, he questions the judgment of the gods and sets out on a journey to restore her to life and to himself. And he makes a bargain with Greek god Plutone to do so. Likewise, Rusalka, a water nymph, longs to be human, and defies the advice of her father Vodník, Spirit of the Lake, not to transform herself into a human. Neither Orfeo’s nor Rusalka’s willful journeys go as planned.


Review of Orfeo, August 2

Claudio Monteverdi’s L'Orfeo, SV 318, in a prologue and five acts, was premiered in 1607. It was not quite the first opera to be composed, but it is the earliest to remain a somewhat viable theatre piece into the modern era. Its early Baroque-style invention was an astonishment in its day, and holds up well for modern audiences, if modern ears can adjust to the many similar harmonic cadences in the work’s formal structure, the standard practice of the early Baroque era. 

The Santa Fe Opera’s production tells the story of Orpheus (Rolando Villazón) who loses Euridice (soprano Amber Norelai), shortly after their wedding, and his determination to travel to the underworld to bring her back to life. He almost does so, but his impulsive nature leads him to violate the edict of Plutone (solid baritone Blake Denson), guardian of the underworld, that he should not look back until they have returned to the land of the living.

Orpheus (Rolando Villazón) guided to the underworld by Speranza (Lauren Snouffer).
But when Orfeo, to make sure he's not being tricked, impulsively looks back anyway, he loses Euridice forever. He is later consoled by his father Apollo, the god of music (stentorian bass-baritone Apprentice Singer Luke Harnish), who invites him to look down upon her from his starry heavens for all eternity.

Director Yuval Sharon and “Visual Environment” designers Alex Schweder and Matthew Johnson created, as their most imaginative stage set-piece of the season, a huge, inverted bowl covering most of the stage. First seen in Act I as a heavenly cloud all in white, its Act II iteration becomes a grassy hill for Orfeo’s earthly wedding. For this celebration, the performers (as gracefully as they could) pranced up standing and slid down (carefully) sitting on the steep green inclines.

La Messaggera (Paula Murrihy).
But all too quickly La Messaggera (mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy authoritative in a black cape) arrives to announce Euridice’s death. As she does so, the long black extensions of her dress cover the green lawn in deathly black.

Acts II and III see the dome rise to the stage’s lofty altitude, opening the murky regions of the underworld for Orfeo to recover Euridice. The goddess Speranza (spirited soprano Lauren Snouffer) spurs his journey on with hope. The dome returns to stage level in Act V for Orfeo’s heavenly consolation prize. Orfeo’s self-indulgence may have lost him his Euridice, but he is not destroyed by Plutone. At the invitation of Apollo, Orfeo may gaze down upon Euridice from Heaven.

With 14 named actor-singers, the cast on this evening was the largest of the season, one advantage being that apprentice artists gained solid stage experience in this logistically complicated production. Kudos are also particularly due for tenor Rolando Villazón, back on stage despite sustaining a minor injury in a supporting harness during the final dress rehearsal.

Euridice (Amber Norlai) in the underworld, with eerily-haloed chorus.
The Schweder and Johnson staging concept earned high marks for its imaginative integration of many locales in depicting the traditional tripartite Hellenic worldview of heaven, earth, and underworld. Kudos also to conductor Harry Bicket for keeping the orchestra’s musical delivery cohesive and lively (in a version of the score for modern instruments prepared by the New York composer Nico Muhly), while the huge cast and stage action moved in all directions.


Lydia Yankovskaya conducts the Santa Fe Opera orchestra in front of Leslie Travers' set design
for Dvořák’s Rusalka.
Review of Rusalka, August 4

The impression one gains from the dramatic score of Antonín Dvořák’s 1901 opera Rusalka Op. 114 is its incredible melodic flow. Its folkloric cautionary tale is gorgeously conveyed in Slavic post-Wagnerian orchestral style, full of exotic atmosphere, glinting instrumental colors, and sensuous textures.

Vodnik (James Creswell).
The story focuses on the delusional quest of the title character, a water nymph named Rusalka (the radiant Ailyn Pérez, soprano), who has fallen in love with a human prince. Not able to find the fulfillment she seeks in the lake that confines her, and having taken a fancy to the human prince who swims in its waters, Rusalka is determined to pursue her fantasy attraction on dry land. Virtually every incident in the unfolding story is seen through her eyes.

Raehann Bryce-Davis.
Though her father Vodník (plangent bass James Creswell) is aghast at such a prospect, he agrees to help. On her behalf, he enlists the skills of the witch Ježibaba to make Rusalka human. (Raehann Bryce-Davis’s Ježibaba -- Czech for witch -- seems literally bigger than life in her very effective scenes.) Though warned of ominous consequences, including losing her voice on land, Rusalka ignores them, and her reluctant enabler forges ahead. Rusalka literally then becomes the fish out of water she thinks she desires, in her Faustian bargain to gain what she has no right to. At this point, delusion and regret set in.

Not surprisingly, living on land in her prince’s home is a far worse reality than the seeming loveless world of Rusalka’s native water. Her prince (a hilarious waddling and waffling, also hen-pecked, Robert Watson) is a philandering fool who has glass-cased countless former short-term mistresses and does so temporarily with Rusalka. A certain “Foreign Princess” (a haughty Mary Elizabeth Williams) has commandeered the prince’s attention and amatory behaviors.

Rusalka (Ailyn Pérez) and the prince (Robert Watson).
So, how to get back? Though offered a knife, Rusalka refuses to stab the prince with it, and throws it in the water. But the prince now realizes he genuinely loves Rusalka and appears by the lakeside to seek her. Rusalka joins him, and gives him the kiss he asks for (above), knowing it will now kill him. Shortly after, she returns to the lake she had no business leaving in the first place. 

... and thus a parting warning from the cautionary tales of both Monteverdi’s Orfeo and Dvořák’s Rusalka: be careful what you wish for. Some things are, and must always be, beyond our human desires.


Crosby Theatre, Santa Fe Opera, 301 Opera Drive, Santa Fe, NM, Wednesday, August 2, and Friday, August 4, 2023, 8:00 p.m.
Images: Monteverdi: Wikimedia Commons; Dvořák: eSbírky.cz–cultural heritage on-line; The productions: Curtis Brown.

Thursday, August 3, 2023

Santa Fe Opera 2023: Goodbye Covid & Hello "Tosca"

Santa Fe Opera's Crosby Theatre interior/exterior.


Introduction—Opera production in a time of pandemic

Santa Fe Opera’s 2023 season is at its mid-point as this report is written. LA Opus will review all five productions in three installments. We'll begin here with some thoughts on opera production in the era of Covid, followed by a review of Tosca. The second installment will review of Monteverdi’s Orfeo and Dvořák’s Rusalka, and the third, Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer and Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande

All performing arts enterprises, including Santa Fe Opera, have suffered anxious moments in this third decade of the 21st century due to the worldwide Covid pandemic. A plague of biblical proportions, it has already taken the lives of over a million Americans. The very modus operandi of opera production has been threatened. While televised or filmed performances might be of value temporarily, they are neither as visceral an experience nor the inherited norm for appreciating this art form. Media broadcasts are important, but more supplement than solution.

Opera is a labor-intensive enterprise, and, in the circumstance of a communicable disease, hazardous. Every live performance involves singers and musicians interacting in proximity, with singers emitting mouth fluids on stage and at each other in the act of singing. Wind and brass players have similar issues in the orchestra pit. Audiences for opera sit in theatre seats designed to pack them in close proximity. Strangers next to each other may or may not practice safe protocols for live attendance.

Coping with the Covid pandemic in such an enterprise has not been easy. National politics collide with personal preferences amongst our country's heterogeneous population, and tensions between the two have skewed how we collectively deal with that pandemic. Remedial precautions are all over the map from disciplined to cavalier.

Forced  to cancel the Santa Fe Opera’s 64th Festival Season in 2020 (the first summer in company history without live opera), General Director Robert K. Meya assembled a team of experts, in epidemiology, sanitization and public health, to plan for a safe reopening in 2021 with simulcasts of productions, and in 2022, live performance with mandatory masking, followed by optional masking when later conditions permitted. Frequent performer tests were and are continuous, with limited runs of productions until this season.

Happy to report, the current season is the closest to normal company operations in four years. During my attendance this year, it seemed to run even smoother than before the pandemic. That the company has survived and is thriving again is a tribute to the grit of its performers, its management and staff, and to the extraordinary generosity of its donors.


Scarpia (Reginald Smith, Jr.) gloats over his plan at the end of Act 1 of Tosca.


"Tosca" by Giacomo Puccini, Crosby Theatre, Santa Fe Opera

Giacomo Puccini around the
time of Tosca's composition.
So here we were, back on the first day of August, for another production of Tosca (the company's eighth) at Santa Fe Opera’s Crosby Theatre, its open side walls greeting the arriving audience with skies of accustomed Technicolor glory, right up to curtain time, after which those skies soon would transition to cooler colors on a warm evening, and Puccini’s "shabby little shocker" (Joseph Kerman's famous words) would commence in fiery, melodramatic conflict. There would be surprises in the unfolding action, by now almost too familiar to opera lovers.

It was a pleasure, on this first evening's return here, to again enjoy the remarkable acoustics of the Crosby Theatre. Puccini’s orchestra establishes an oppressive emotional climate in this work, his musical metaphors alternating between the warm affections of lovers and the cold brutality of authoritarian power. The motifs and harmonies emanated clearly from the SFO orchestra under the direction of John Fiore. Puccini's orchestrations are a large part of why this shocker still shocks.

The actual basilica of Sant'
Andrea della Valle in Rome.
He composed Tosca in 1900, setting its action exactly a century before, when Rome was a police state and Napoleon still the admired liberator of authoritarian regimes. Tonight’s action, however, was moved up to early 20th century Fascist Italy. We are clued into this change of eras in the first act, when a floor-polishing machine and its operator clean the historic church of Sant’Andrea della Valle.

Baron Scarpia’s authoritarianism will now mirror the fascism of Benito Mussolini. Reinforcing this oppressive climate are the set’s high rows of uniform arches in Acts 2 and 3, invoking both the historic power of ancient Imperial Rome and this story’s early 19th century wannabe revival of it by an ambitious strong man.

The bold neo-fascist scenic design by Ashley Martin-Davis, with lighting design by Allen Hahn.

In an evening of great singing, the most dramatic stage entrance must be awarded to baritone Blake Denson. The first singer on the scene, he made his SFO company debut as the on-the-lam Angelotti. From high up in the rafters, he shimmied down a dangling rope, as his character seeks asylum with best friend Cavaradossi. In the latter role, tenor Joshua Guerrero made memorable his own final season appearance. From his opening aria, comparing Tosca’s brown eyes to the blue eyes of his painting (apt drama in this casting), to his last one praising Tosca’s sweet hands, his every moment bristled with passion. (For the rest of the season, Freddie de Tommaso will take on the role.)

Leah Hawkins.
Soprano Leah Hawkins was originally scheduled as Tosca in the first and last segments of a long run from June 20 to August 7, with Angel Blue relieving her in the middle of it. However, Blue cancelled, so Hawkins has the whole run. At mid-season, her plangent voice remained remarkably fresh. Possessing a bright upper register, she also has the powerful middle range so essential to this dramatic role. With it she conveyed the full gamut of emotions in this echt melodrama.

The large-framed Hawkins, dressed to the Tosca nines for her every appearance, was somewhat less than agile in her stage movements. The cramped working quarters of Cavaradossi in the first act, more cluttered and dank than other productions I've seen, certainly didn't facilitate much movement anyway. She seemed more comfortable standing and singing gloriously than navigating a cramped stage.

l-r: Spencer Hamlin (Spoletta), Reginald Smith, Jr. (Scarpia),
Dale Travis (Sacristan), Ben Brady (Sciarrone).
Fine turns in supporting roles were also delivered by Dale Travis as the Sacristan, Ben Brady as a sycophantic Sciarrone, Spencer Hamlin as the executioner Spoletta, Kai Edgar as the sweet-voiced Shepherd boy, and Dylan Gregg as the jailor.

In an imagined competition between stage villains, Scarpia must be accounted the most loathsome arch-fiend in opera. Reginald Smith Jr.’s cavernous and dark baritone was the personification of evil here, confirming Scarpia’s dreaded hypocrisy, lust, and deception, in cynically invoking Catholicism to entrap and eliminate Cavaradossi. This, while he pursues his carnal lust for Tosca. Scarpia’s chambers, updated to a fascist Italy, sharpened the cynical cruelty. But stage director Keith Warner had some tricks up his sleeve for Scarpia and the audience this evening.

While in the original libretto Tosca stabs Scarpia to death, in this evening’s horror-show, as he sits smugly in his chair, she lunges at him from behind, strangling him with a cord. Soon suffocated, Scarpia's limp body signals the monster’s death, but as Tosca later passes by him, he suddenly awakes to grab her arm, causing the biggest collective gasp I’ve ever encountered in the Crosby Theater. It may be horror show boilerplate, but in an operatic setting this clever film interpolation one-upped the by now clichéd stabbing that has lost its shock value in conventional stagings. (Consider the upside: strangling Scarpia here saves a lot of post-performance washings of his blood-stained shirts.)

Cavaradossi (Joshua Guerrero) and Tosca
(Leah Hawkins) in the final scene.
Another surprise was in store. With Tosca having planned an escape for her and Cavaradossi after his “fake” execution in a deal she cuts with Scarpia (just before she strangles him), she is caught completely unaware when Spoletta actually executes Cavaradossi by firing squad on Scarpia’s earlier orders. Tosca is now suicidal, but there would no traditional jumping off the parapet in this production.

In a trance from this final shock, she quietly exits stage left, perhaps to jump after the curtain falls, while her devotional double, gowned in white and blood red, walks off the rear stage in the diagonal corner from the live Tosca, a spiritual if undramatic deliverance from her pain into a higher realm.

Where the unexpected Scarpia death scene had stunned the audience, this anticlimactic gesture for Tosca left the audience puzzled. But this interpolated finale was certainly a practical decision, given the chance for injury when a performer attempts a stage jump. The double human image of Tosca also offered a hint of heavenly redemption for her.

Postscript: This author took in a Tosca
Birgit Nillson as Tosca.
production a half century ago at the Los Angeles Chandler Pavilion. Produced by the New York City Opera, it was a last minute replacement opener for the company's 1974 season in L.A. In those days of the NYCO, its productions could uncharitably be characterized as rough-and-unready. Starring as Tosca was Birgit Nilsson, then age 56, substituting for an ill Beverly Sills (and enjoying singing Italian as she so infrequently had the chance with a career centered in Wagner and Strauss). Starring with her was a young tenor by the name of José Carreras. All of 28 years old, he looked like a skinny boy next to the stout Ms. Nilsson in their scenes together.

Known by the Chandler's production crew, I was able to sneak into the back stage area, in those more innocent days, to see how Nilsson would jump off the Castel Sant'Angelo's parapet. Just below and backstage, behind the façade of the parapet, was an elevated pinewood frame at head-level height, on top of it a floppy old mattress. I was a foot away from this contraption, near where Nilsson would jump. The moment came and she made the leap facing toward me and landing first on her knees, then like a pro all the rest of her came forward on her forearms. Her head was then about 18 inches from mine and her flop on that mattress kicked up a huge cloud of dust, enveloping the two of us now staring at each other. We were both spontaneously laughing until the stage hands arrived to help her down. I made a hasty departure to get out of the way. Though we had that moment of amusement together, we never spoke and I never had a chance to meet her again.


Crosby Theatre, Santa Fe Opera, 301 Opera Drive, Santa Fe, NM, Tuesday,
August 1, 2023, 8:05 p.m.
Images: Theatre interior/exterior: Robert Godwin; Theatre entrance: Regina N. Emmer; Puccini: Wikimedia Commons; Sant'Andrea della Vale: colosseumrometickets.com; The production: Curtis Brown; Birgit Nillson: Facebook opera page.