In Review > North America

Maometto II (8/2/12), King Roger (8/3/12), Les Pêcheurs de Perles (7/31/12), Arabella (8/1/12)

SANTA FE
Santa Fe Opera

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David Alden’s Maometto II production, with Bardon, Crocetto, Pisaroni and Sledge
© Ken Howard 2012
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Pisaroni as Rossini’s Maometto
© Ken Howard 2012

At a time when received wisdom advises opera companies to program a safe repertoire in this troubled economic climate, Santa Fe Opera successfully bucked the trend. Rossini was represented at Santa Fe this past summer by the company premiere of one of his most serious, infrequently performed works. If evidence is needed that bel cantoopera was as much concerned with dramatic as with musical values, Maometto II, first heard in 1820, offers it. The intrigue of this baleful tale of national pride centers on Anna, a Venetian general's daughter, who is in love with Maometto, leader of the enemy Turks. Her inability to act upon her desire provides the militaristic action with a powerful subtext of racial prejudice. The desolate atmosphere of Maometto was strengthened on August 2 by a massive thunderstorm that raged throughout Act I, to be followed by gale-force winds in Act II. The completion of the performance was itself a heroic act. But the combination of the weather, the music of war and an alarmingly confrontational production by David Alden made for thrilling experiential theater. Jon Morrell's forbidding sets anchored the action in a Mediterranean necropolis, while his costuming drew on a variety of nineteenth-century modes, giving the production a panoramic quality. This Maometto was about war in general, not a specific conflict. Alden's imposing blocking, aided by Peggy Hickey's inventive choreography and Duane Schuler's stark lighting, created a thoroughly fearsome atmosphere. This archaic bel canto work represented the horror of war with an urgency that spoke effectively to our time.

Although Maometto II is partly grounded in opera seria, its extended ensembles, lengthy arias and continuous music anticipate grand opera and even music drama. All these elements contribute to the creation of complex character, best exploited by Luca Pisaroni as Maometto. Pisaroni's mighty bass-baritone conveyed the overweening brutality at the heart of military and political power, but he also emphasized romantic longings in the character, hinting at the noble humanity and sensuousness that undermined his military posturing. The objectivity with which Rossini observes his characters veers toward modern psychological drama, and Pisaroni, who is as much at home in tormented love scenes as he is in melodramatic confrontation, realized the ambivalence of the title character completely. 

Anna was sung by Leah Crocetto, whose slightly unwieldy soprano had an uncertain hold on the vocal line and pitch early in the evening. But there is nothing like adversity for sharpening the concentration — and voice. As the assault of the elements on the theater increased, so did Crocetto's confidence, and the final colossal scenawith chorus, in which Anna expounds her tragic dilemma, earned rapturous, well-deserved applause. Bruce Sledge's flexible tenor was ideal for Erisso, Anna's father, who rallied the troops with invocations to honor and glory but privately was slippery. Mezzo Patricia Bardon sang Calbo, Anna's Venetian, "legitimate" lover. This character is sidelined most of the time but delivers a memorable showpiece toward the end of the opera, in which Bardon's voice descended into depths even contraltos rarely visit. Santa Fe Opera apprentice Matthew Newlin was a sweet-toned Condulmiero, who appears in the opening scene then, regrettably, disappears. 

The performance was prepared from a new critical edition of the score to be published in 2013; several minor cuts, amounting to some twenty minutes' worth of music, were employed. Frédéric Chaslin resisted any temptation to hurry the performance along: on the contrary, while he whipped up his own storm in the pit, he lingered in quieter passages, highlighting moments of lyrical calm and cheerfulness, so Rossini's score sounded as subtle and sympathetic as it did monumental. Susanne Sheston's choral forces defied all attempts by the elements to render them mute.

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The king goes forth to Santa Fe: Wadsworth’s King Roger staging, with Burden, Kwiecien and Morley
© Ken Howard 2012

Karol Szymanowski's 1926 opera King Roger (seen Aug. 3), another of the Santa Fe season's company premieres, is a fairly straightforward adaptation of Euripides's Bacchae until the ending. While Euripides's Pentheus falls prey to Dionysus and his worshippers, Szymanowski's Roger embraces the powers of the Sun radiating from the Shepherd and emerges as a Nietzschean Apollonian hero. This optimistic reversal of classical myth, in accord with much post-World War I opera, asserted the perfectibility of humankind.

Director Stephen Wadsworth was specific as to what King Roger is about. His production was set in late-nineteenth-century haute-bourgeois Europe rather than medieval Sicily. The performance began impressively, as members of the large chorus — the Santa Fe apprentices and the Desert Chorale — individually entered in silence to take their seats in the cathedral; their elaborate costumes, meticulously designed by Ann Hould-Ward, established a society of convention and respectability, a world inimical to artists of Szymanowski's generation. The energies of life had drained from their king, Roger. The action was one of regeneration, the discovery of spiritual and natural forces to energize a lifeless world. Salvation comes, unassumingly, in the figure of the Shepherd, clad in a fur-trimmed coat of Asian rural origin. As the repressed king surrendered to the seductive power of the Shepherd, Wadsworth abandoned any attempt at realism, instead adopting a staging akin to performance art, in which the stage represented change within Roger, highlighting how his obsession with power and class can be dissolved by embracing the body and cultivating a rich inner life.

Many styles of the early twentieth century can be heard flowing through Szymanowski's score, in particular the post-Wagnerian composers of central Europe. The orchestral music pays only limited attention to the specifics of dramatic action. Rather, the massive and lush orchestration, teetering constantly on the edge of atonality but never plunging in, provides a carpet, as it were, upon which the singers can sing. On the podium, Evan Rogister displayed a firm hand, eliciting climaxes of formidable power but still allowing the unsupported vocal lines of the singers to be clearly heard. 

As the king, Mariusz Kwiecien exercised a tense charisma, whether representing doubt or weakness or climbing to new heights of strength, as in the impressive final moments when he becomes the Apollonian hero. Queen Roxana, who abandons her husband for the Shepherd, was sung by Erin Morley in an understated performance that exuded quiet but irreversible determination. William Burden, whose soft charisma equals Kwiecien's in impact, skillfully sustained the illusion that joy in life and dedication to the glories of light and the natural body will render humanity indestructible. Dennis Petersen played Roger's companion, the philosopher Edrisi, with great sympathy. Thomas Lynch's set was composed primarily of a wall of three-sided periaktoi situated high above the stage, which revolved to show different symbolic landscapes, thereby providing some guide as to what was happening.

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Complex meditation: Les Pêcheurs de Perles at Santa Fe
© Ken Howard 2012

Lee Blakeley's production (seen July 31) of Les Pêcheurs de Perles treated Bizet's early opera as a meditation on the complex relationship among the need for beauty, the demands of labor and revolutionary currents in nineteenth-century Europe. In Jean-Marc Puissant's design, the back half of the stage comprised a set à la Alfred Roller, depicting a heavy, temple-like environment, seen through an ornate gold frame. In front were pieces of furniture suggestive of European colonialism and to the sides ruined façades of buildings, once erected for trade or government. This could stand for Ceylon, a Mediterranean classical temple or a grim Parisian workplace. These multiple references were complemented by Brigitte Reiffenstuel's costumes for the chorus, which alluded to Ceylonese pearl fishers but were constructed of coarse materials associated with European workmen's clothing. The golden frame provided beautiful and stirring tableaux that evoked orientalist fantasy and, toward the end, revolutionary mobs who, deprived of their need for idols of beauty, turned ugly. By the end, all reference to an idealized Asia had been obliterated, to be replaced by the devastated Parisian streets of 1830, 1848 and 1870.

For some, Blakeley may have overloaded the slight action of the piece, but he enlarged it too, so the opéra comique idiom of the music acquired an unfamiliar weight and tragic presence. The cast was up to the momentous burden laid upon them. Nadir, a traveler from foreign climes, became, in the hands of Eric Cutler, a hero alienated from his homeland by his love for Leïla. He sang "Je crois entendre encore" with supreme elegance, moving smoothly from middle range to falsetto without a hint of break within the voice. In her first appearance as a goddess, Nicole Cabell's Leïla looked and sounded like an orientalist cliché, but magic flooded the stage as she removed her veil and, in the cavatina "Comme autrefois," regaled us with her erotic yearnings in a silken voice, colored by darker tones that endowed these longings with an alluring eeriness.

The conflicted Zurga was sung energetically by baritone Christopher Magiera, who met the melodramatic expectations of the role, but whose upper register displayed some fraying. Nourabad, sung by the powerful-voiced Wayne Tigges, was a vindictive brute, driven by dogma and hatred for human life. But the main agent of oppression was the chorus, composed of the company's apprentice singers, rigorously trained by Sheston to whip up paroxysms of atavistic fury. Emmanuel Villaume conjured rich, idiomatic playing from the orchestra and did not hesitate to highlight the borrowings, mainly from Gounod and Wagner, that show how Bizet explored contemporaneous opera music to find his own voice. 

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Delavan and Wall, Mandryka and Arabella in Santa Fe
© Ken Howard 2012

Richard Strauss, whose works were once an annual presence in Santa Fe, returned to the company after five years with a new production of Arabella (seen Aug. 1) — never an easy opera to pull off. As Arabella and Mandryka, Erin Wall and Mark Delavan managed to sustain interest over the three-hour span of a not-especially-interesting action. Delavan had the easier job. His Mandryka was a delightful creation; not only did he fight with bears, he was one — a fur-clad countryman who, despite his wealth and power, was a fund of generosity ill-suited to city life. Delavan's vast voice, which we are used to hearing in more conflicted roles, projected the impression of a giant teddy bear capable of bringing comfort to all. Delavan's significant achievement was to show how Mandryka's outburst of jealousy is a product of his goodness. Arabella is a static figure; she searches for her ideal man, finds him, and that is that. Wall elevated Arabella's concern for romantic integrity in her emotional life to the level of the sublime. Her voice has gained in warmth and resonance since she first appeared at Santa Fe in the title role of Strauss's Daphne, in 2007. It now articulates mature emotions, allowing Wall to portray a generous, stable young woman unscathed by the potential of scandal.

The future, as Arabella insists, is what matters, and Tim Albery's production focused on this. Albery expressed no nostalgia for the age of the Waltz King; he avoided even a hint of Viennese schmaltz, setting the action not in the Gründerzeit but in homogenized modernity still rooted in the Empire. Tobias Hoheisel's sets were modernist in Act I, with touches of classicism and Sezession in Acts II and III, while his stylish costuming referred to modes from fin-de-siècle to the age of the flapper.

As Count Waldner, Arabella's gambling-addicted father, Dale Travis was pleasantly genial, but this quality was offset by his abrasive, self-serving disposition; Victoria Livengood made of the mother, Adelaide, a minor monster of vulgarity. As Zdenka, Heidi Stober had to cope with an ambiguous role that does not play up to her natural flair for virtuoso display; Zach Borichevsky, as her unwitting lover, Matteo, gave life to a role that can all too frequently be simply annoying. Arabella's suitors, sung by Brian Jagde (Elemer), Jonathan Michie (Dominik) and Joseph Beutel (Lamoral), embodied epigonic aspects of Viennese society, while Kiri Deonarine sang brilliantly in Fiakermilli's cabaret-like turn. Andrew Davis conducted with formidable energy and precise attention to detail, but even he could not hide the fact that the score primarily repeats, admittedly with breathtaking beauty, Strauss's past triumphs.

The most popular title of the season, Tosca,failed to catch fire. In Stephen Barlow's disjointed production (seen July 30), the anti-clerical implications of Yannis Thavoris's surreal sets and the director's own bland staging seemed at odds. Amanda Echalaz and Brian Jagde were mismatched as Tosca and Cavaradossi. Both produced ringing sound at the top of their registers but lost clarity and audibility in the middle. Echalaz sang in fitful, unfocused bursts, while Jagde's tone became thin, lacking in color and warmth, all of which deprived the lovers of sensuality. Raymond Aceto was an abrasive Scarpia with telling touches of vulgarity, but this could not save a lackluster production. Even the pit lacked presence, as Chaslin seemed unable to elicit anything larger than a chamber-quality sound from the orchestra. spacer 

SIMON WILLIAMS 

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Current Issue: August 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 2