We spent August 9-15 in Santa Fe, this time attending four of the five operas (Roméo et Juliette, Don Giovanni, Capriccio, Vanessa, and La Fanciulla del West) instead of our usual three. Because we had already seen Roméo et Juliette in San Diego with the Santa Fe stars, Stephen Costello and Ailyn Pérez, for reasons of time and budget we chose to skip it. Here are my comments on the other four:
Don Giovanni. Mozart’s Don Giovanni, is of course, a great operatic masterpiece, and was generally well staged in Santa Fe. Nevertheless, this particular production was a bit of disappointment to me, although very enjoyable. For one thing, despite the giant glowering Death’s Head serving as a backdrop to all the action, the production chose to emphasize the lighter and more comic aspects of the opera, which is a legitimate choice, but not the one I prefer. In that regard, I will say that the comic scenes were genuinely funny, dominated by Kyle Ketelsen’s hilarious Leporello. Daniel Okulitch, of whom I have fond memories as The Last Savage, projected too light a voice and was insufficiently demonic as the Don, another reason for my disappointment. I am, perhaps, spoiled after having seen Mariusz Kwiecien and Ildebrando D’Arcangelo in the role. Edgaras Montvidas and Jarett Ott were as fine Don Ottavio and Leporello respectively, and Solomon Howard an impressive Commendatore. Speaking of which; however, I was disappointed in director Ron Daniel’s choice to have the Commendatore, in the penultimate scene, simply walk onto the stage, looking like the living Commendatore, and not all like a statue. This made the whole scene a bit pedestrian.
Among the women, Keri Alkema stood out as Donna Elvira, singing with genuine emotion and power as she struggles with her irrational and futile love for the “alma ingrata” who has betrayed her. Leah Crocetto and Rhian Lois were fine as Donna Anna and Zerlina respectively. The minimalist scenery, which mainly consisted of a huge glowering Death’s Head (based on one, we were informed, found in a Barcelona cemetery) was designed by Riccardo Hernandez, and John Nelson conducted briskly.
Capriccio. I approached Richard Strauss’s last opera with a combination of curiosity and dread. Curiosity because I had never seen it live, but dread because I had, many years ago, viewed at least part of a VHS tape recorded from a television presentation of the opera, and found the first three quarters of the opera, in which characters debate the primacy of words and music, way too conversational and frankly boring.
I still say the first part of the opera is too conversational, but this production, directed by Tim Albery and conducted by Leo Hussain, did a good job of livening things up, and there are, in fact some musical highlights in that first three-quarters, including the lovely melody composed by Flamand as a setting for Olivier’s poem. Ben Bliss and Joshua Hopkins were excellent as the “friendly rivals,” who argue over and the importance of words and music and vie for the affection of the Countess. In fact Olivier’s reaction at hearing his poem “ruined” by the addition of music was a highlight of the evening. Susan Graham, in a unflattering checked sport coat, (the action was updated to some time in the Twentieth Century was a fine Clairon, an actress, although the role did not allow her voice to bloom, and David Govertson, was excellent as the impresario, La Roche, who is mystified by operatic reform. This brings me to Amanda Majesti, as the Countess. She carried herself well and nobly on the stage, acting the part well; however, I was not pleased with the sound of her voice, which was too nasal and reedy for my taste. Despite this, the last scene, in which the Countess debates her choices, with Strauss’s gorgeous music, worked its magic.
Vanessa. My first experience with Samuel Barber’s 1958 (Rev. 1964) opera, (Lib. Gian Carlo Menotti) Vanessa, was attending a performance in San Diego in 2005. At that time, I thought it was a fine opera with some good music and a moving story. Many of my friends disagreed, finding the music too harsh. Because I knew I would be attending the opera in Santa Fe, about a month ago, I listened to the 2004 Chandos recording, conducted by Leonard Slatkin, with libretto in hand, the best way to get to know an opera. I found the work somber, compelling, and beautiful, and wondered why it was not performed more often. Perhaps there was something missing from the San Diego performance, but in any case, I looked forward to seeing it in Santa Fe. I was not disappointed, and in fact, for me, it was the best production we attended.
Finding his inspirition in early films of Ingmar Bergman and 1940’s Alfred Hitchcock films, (lots of smoking) director James Robinson’s presentation was masterful. The sets, designed by Allen Moyer, were all white and silvery and light gray, emphasizing the northern setting of the opera. A huge broken mirror dominated the back of the stage. Perhaps not everything worked perfectly - Anatol’s first appearance looking like a very tall Humphrey Bogart may have been a bit much, but as whole, the concept worked brilliantly. The cast was pretty much perfect. Tenor Zach Borichevsky’s Anatol was tall, dark and handsome, one you can imagine seducing the isolated Erika on first acquaintance. Anatol is a charming cad, but refreshingly honest with Erika about his desire for money, and his inability to provide lasting love. Borichevsky exuded some, but not too much, sleaze. (He does have good taste in wine, taking full advantage of the Montrachet and Romanée-Conti.). Erin Wall was an excellent Vanessa, expressing well her changing emotions from misgiving (“Do not utter a word, Anatol”) to deluded happiness. The main focus, of this opera, however, as Maria Callas realized, is Erika, here played powerfully by French mezzo-soprano Virginie Verrez, who was moving in her aria, “Must the winter come so soon?” and although at times a bit strident when singing loud and high, exuded great pride, but also resignation in her unwillingness to accept anything but true love. Veteran James Morris, years ago a favorite Wotan, was touching in the semi-comic role of the Doctor, Helene Schneiderman, an excellent Baroness and Andrew Simpson a fine Footman.
Leonard Slatkin, the conductor of the Chandos recording, conducted for this production. He obviously knows the score well and brought the music to a great climax in the wonderful quintet. I feel fortunate to have seen this production, which makes a great case for more stagings of this opera.
La fanciulla del West. Puccini’s 1910 Western, La fanciulla del West, is another rarity, though not to the extent of Vanessa, performed by Santa Fe Opera. For some reason, probably due lack of perceived memorable set pieces, this opera has never caught on with the opera-going public the way such Puccini operas as La Boheme and Madama Butterfly have. As with Madama Butterfly, Fanciulla is based on a now unstageable David Belasco play, The Girl of the Golden West. It has primarily been appreciated by opera cognoscente for its masterful orchestration and integration of text and score. Again, Santa Fe Opera has made a good case for staging it more often.
As it turns out, there are some tuneful moments in this opera, for example, the moving lament in the first act in which the miner’s long for home. I mean “will my dog recognize me,” how could you not be moved by that? (At the pre-opera lecture, we were informed this melody was based on a published Zuni lullaby, but Puccini at least deserves credit for using it). I also noted the well-known “Music of the Night” tune, and of course, the in the last act, Dick Johnson’s “Ch’ella mi creda” and Sonora’s moving farewell are classic. One does need, of course, to get used to some oddities, such as lots of shouts of “hello!” followed by “buona sera.”
This production served as a star vehicle for Santa Fe resident Patricia Racette in the title role. At this point in her career, her voice wobbles a bit under pressure, but all-in-all, her performance was well done. San Diego Opera’s last Cavaradossi, Gwyn Hughes Jones, played the leading male role of Dick Johnson (actually the outlaw Ramerrez, an obviously misspelled version of Ramirez) acting the part well, and hitting all the notes, although not the ideal Pucciniesque tenor. Baritone Mark Delavan turned in the best performance as Sheriff Jack Rance. He sang beautifully and powerfully, (the best I have heard from him, actually) and despite his gruff exterior, he played Rance as truly in love (not just in lust) with Minnie. Craig Verm was a fine Sonora and Allan Glassman excelled as Nick, the bartender. This, of course, is a big opera, with a large powerful male chorus, and a big orchestra, all under the direction of Emmanuel Villaume, Music Director of the Dallas Opera. The production, which originated with English National Opera, was directed by Richard Jones, who did a fine job of moving large cast around and creating memorable stage pictures.
Apprentice Scenes. Because we were still in Santa Fe, Sunday night, August 14, we chose to attend the scenes staged by Santa Fe apprentice singers and stage personnel. This cost only $15.00 per person, and was well worth it. Who knows? We may have caught a rising star.
Pre-Opera Lectures. We caught all the enjoyable pre-opera lectures by Santa Fe local Oliver Prezant. His shtick, so to speak, is singing or humming the tunes and themes and getting his audience to do the same. Although this may sound silly, I find it does focus my memory on these themes and I highly recommend attendance at the lectures, whether by Oliver Prezant or otherwise.
Next Year. Next summer, Santa Fe brings us The ( R ) evolution of Steve Jobs, Alcina, The Golden Cockerel, Lucia di Lammemoor and Die Fledermaus. I am interested in all but Die Fledermaus.