In Review > North America

Grand Duchess of Gerolstein (7/30/13), La Donna del Lago (8/1/13), Oscar (7/31/13), La Traviata (8/2/13), Le Nozze di Figaro (8/3/13)

SANTA FE
Santa Fe Opera

In Review Grand Duchess hdl 1113
Graham, in Blakely's Grand Duchess production, choreographed by Peggy Hickey
© Ken Howard 2013
In Review Duchess lg 1113
Graham and Appleby in Act II of Gerolstein at Santa Fe
© Ken Howard 2013
In Review Donna del lago lg 1113
Brownlee and DiDonato in La Donna del Lago at Santa Fe
© Ken Howard 2013

Staging nineteenth-century operetta these days is tricky. It is easy to convey the "fun" of operetta, but it is a challenge to find modern parallels for the topical satire. The new Santa Fe Opera production of Offenbach's Grand Duchess of Gerolstein (seen July 30) was certainly "fun." Director Lee Blakeley's production never stood still. It was a riot of gags and high-precision American musical routine, expertly choreographed by Peggy Hickey. But Gerolstein, first heard in Paris in 1867, is — as a program note claims — a "raucous and … ribald" piece and a satire on "the nature of power." Sadly, these attributes were less apparent. It was a clever idea to set the action in a fictional American military academy, with soldiers appearing initially as football players, but Offenbach's music is too Gallic, too tied to the rhythms of Parisian music-hall, to make the transfer to America convincing. Furthermore, Adrian Linford's set suggested a European spa, and Jo Van Schuppen's kaleidoscopic costumes breathed Ruritania and the culture of the Parisian gamin. Consequently, the satirical aim was muddied, contrasts between light and dark disappeared, and the relentless cheerfulness of the action, given, unwisely perhaps, in the uncut score, became wearisome. After all, Offenbach himself had made cuts in Gerolstein.

As the Grand Duchess, Susan Graham laid on charm aplenty, but she was the French grande dame to a tee, and there is no parallel to such a figure in American lore. Her Grand Duchess mingled sexual allure, motherliness, class and a certain dottiness that captivated all who encountered her. But something crucial was missing; nothing was at stake as she tried to balance the military and diplomatic worlds. One never felt the reality of her attraction to Fritz or for one moment regretted that he did not reciprocate her feelings. Yet the sentimental touch is crucial in operetta. It makes the audience care.

Musically, this was a resplendent evening. If Graham failed to touch emotional depths dramatically, her munificent mezzo encompassed all other aspects of the role. Paul Appleby, who played Fritz, the private who is catapulted to the rank of general only to be demoted at the end, sang with a persuasive fluency that suited the ardent lover and the soldier of blunted intelligence. The object of his love, Wanda — a name that gave rise to lots of "fish" jokes — was sung with piquancy by Anya Matanovicˇ, whose light soprano is ideal for operetta. Shtick-laden comedy was provided by Jonathan Michie as a hopelessly inane Prince Paul, Kevin Burdette as a neurotic, gun-shy General Boum, and Aaron Pegram as the ineffective politician Baron Puck. All three should, arguably, have been older (age and privilege being always the principal enemies of true love and everything else in operetta), but their numbers worked well. The chorus carries an unusually heavy burden in Gerolstein; under Susanne Sheston, the company's Apprentices pulled it off well. A high point of the evening was a conspirators' chorus skewering similar moments in Ernani, Les Huguenots and Un Ballo in Maschera; musically and stage-wise this was satire of the highest order. As is now customary in operetta, the music was sung in the original language, but the dialogue was given in English. Unfortunately it was not nearly so ribald as the director had suggested it was.

Offenbach's score is neither so varied nor so memorable as are the scores for others of his operettas, but conductor Emmanuel Villaume made a good case for it. There was a delightful lilt to many of the passages, especially at the beginning of Act II, and whenever a melody with the potential to move cropped up, Villaume gratifyingly milked it for all it was worth.

La Donna del Lago is normally considered Rossini's major venture into Romanticism; the evocative Scottish landscape, the primacy of romantic love, the veneration of country life, clan warfare and the story's source in Walter Scott's poetic novel are all markers of Romantic culture. But director Paul Curran had nothing of this in the first Santa Fe staging of Rossini's opera (seen Aug. 1), a coproduction with the Metropolitan Opera. In place of a panorama of the Trossachs, Kevin Knight's minimal set presented a bare, rocky mountainside; country life, represented by Elena's stone hut, was harsh; and clan warfare offered nothing but brute slaughter and vicious superstition. The pastoralism of the opening was undercut by the terror the shepherds felt for the hunters, which set the tone for the entire production. Clans hated royalty, women were abused by men, children by parents, and religious sages fomented violent discord. This was a Scotland at war with the world and itself. This unromantic vision provided the basis for a rough-hewn but immensely engrossing production that ironically highlighted the bel cantoquality of the music. While the mighty choruses and the turbulent spectacle established an ambience of raw aggression, much of the solo singing, especially by Elena, Giacomo and Malcom, expressed longing for peace. This friction between music and setting gave a fruitful edginess to the action that was resolved only in the final spectacle of the court of a civilized, specifically British king.

Romantic action took place more in the longings of the characters than in the physical world, nowhere more fully than in the Elena of Joyce DiDonato. Perhaps no other singer today so completely captures the spirit of Rossinian bel canto, with technical precision intact, as does DiDonato. As with her great nineteenth-century predecessors — Colbran, Pasta, Malibran — DiDonato's voice is not limited by categories of vocal type. It soars like a lyric soprano and explores depths normally assumed to be the realm of the contralto. There is a warm patch of vibrato in her middle range that, aligned with her formidable powers of characterization, she uses to ground her character in the reality of human experience. Her opening aria was impeccably presented, perfectly conveying the Romantic longings of a young girl; in her duets with Malcom and Giacomo, she displayed serenity in conflict with burning desire, which was fully germane to the conflicts at the heart of the opera; her finale, delivered to an audience still rapt after three demanding hours, offered some of the most glorious bel cantosinging I have heard. Opera­goers live for moments like this.

If DiDonato is the Rossinian female singer supreme, Lawrence Brownlee might one day be in line for the male equivalency. He has an unusually sweet tenor, pliable and appealing, which expressed a nobility perfectly fitting the royal position of his character, though, in a rare directorial misstep, he had a moment of sexual violence with Elena. Brownlee was making his Santa Fe debut; so was Sicilian mezzo Marianna Pizzolato, who sang the dispiriting role of Malcom Groeme with impressive evenness of tone and negotiated with fortitude coloratura that is not suited to a voice as low as hers. Another debutant was René Barbera as Rodrigo, a character who appears toward the end of Act I and departs the action in the middle of Act II, having been killed in battle. Nevertheless, Barbera, who has an intensely focused, clarion voice, made the most of his time onstage, creating in Rodrigo a fanatic of withering intensity. A welcome returnee was Wayne Tigges as Duglas, Elena's father, a complex mess of political ambition, craven obeisance to power, crude bullying (mainly of his daughter) and neurotic terror of the world. His eventual transformation into a loving father was not entirely convincing, but it made the ending that much warmer.

This wonderful evening was capped by Stephen Lord, who conducted with unusual sensitivity to the line and rhythm of Rossini's melodies. He never rushed, and he found details of orchestration and dynamics that made it abundantly clear why La Donna del Lago ranks among Rossini's most beautiful scores. The Santa Fe Apprentices formed a chorus, under Sheston's assiduous tutelage, that gave as rich an account of this masterpiece as could be heard anywhere.

In Review Oscar hdl 2 1113
Santa Fe's world-premiere production of Oscar, with Daniels, Stober and Burden
© Ken Howard 2013

The new opera this year was the eagerly awaited Oscar (seen July 31).But why would the creators of such a promising project so deliberately shoot their new work in the foot — twice? Composer and co-librettist Theodore Morrison and librettist John Cox had a worthy aim — to make a tragic hero out of Oscar Wilde. Whether this needs to be done is questionable; the idea of Wilde as supreme wit, sexual rebel and hapless victim has made him into the model of an antihero that has done us sterling service over the years. However, as Act I proceeds, one begins to appreciate this aim. The action begins on the day before Wilde's sentencing for gross indecency, and in a long scene between Wilde, his devoted friend Ada Leverson and Frank Harris, the newspaper editor, Wilde decides not to flee to France but to stay and take what is coming to him. It is a brave, exhilarating moment and raises him in our esteem; he is a hero. But immediately after this, our entire regard for Wilde is sabotaged when the nursery in which the scene has been laid is turned into a trial room, in which the jurors are animated toys and the judge a jack-in-the-box. The metaphor is clear — the law is a farce — but the sudden lack of seriousness felt like a slap in the audience's face, as if we were being told that the establishment Wilde faced was not to be taken seriously. Any concern with tragic heroism was obliterated.

The second instance of foot-shooting was worse. Act II is devoted to Wilde in prison. We witness the transformation, which is moving and well told, of a self-indulgent individual into a man of compassion. From this, it is implied, might come a new literature of social consciousness and soul-stirring poetry. Just when one is eager to see the results of this transformation, the stage is flooded by the "Immortals," a weird chorus of men and women dressed in white — escapees, it would seem, from some masque at a Victorian garden party. They welcome Wilde into their midst. It is a fatuous ending. The historical Oscar would have had a worse word for it; he would have called it "sentimental." Again, the good work done in the course of the act is erased. I left the theater embarrassed to have been there.

Morrison's score works well, despite the missteps of the libretto. Using an idiom reminiscent mainly of Britten, with orchestration indebted to Ravel (woodwinds especially) and Shostakovich, with passages of lyrical effusion from an earlier Romantic era, Morrison paints an emotional landscape in which every detail is clear and, in melodramatic rather than tragic style, guides our sympathies toward the good and the true. Sadly, the good and the true turn out to be trivial.

For a new opera, Oscar had an immense cast. David Daniels was a dead ringer for Oscar; it was a shock to hear his high countertenor in such modern music, but this strangely ethereal voice endowed Oscar with a superior presence, which earned our respect, even devotion. After this was rudely shattered by the toy-trial, it took some time for Daniels to reestablish the gravity of the character; it was only toward the end of the opera that his voice seemed to rise effectively above the grim action. Heidi Stober was a warm Ada Leverson, and William Burden's firm but ultimately soft and appealing tenor made Harris into a warmer figure than his outspoken historical original. In the prison scenes, there were memorable cameo appearances — Kevin Burdette as Colonel Isaacson, the brutal governor of Reading Gaol; Ricardo Rivera as a deeply sympathetic warden; and, in the best scene in the opera, David Blalock and Benjamin Sieverding as patients in the prison infirmary, whose singing, with Daniels, of a musical-hall song happily recalled Kurt Weill. As the non-singing representation of Lord Alfred Douglas — Wilde's beloved "Bosie" — Australian dancer/actor Reed Luplau danced throughout the opera, eerily personifying the forces of corruption and death that brought Wilde down. Dwayne Croft provided choric comment as Walt Whitman and led the awful "Immortals."

The Oscar production, designed quite impressively by David Korins, was set in Reading Gaol, even in Act I, which led to some stylistic inconsistencies in Kevin Newbury's production — especially when it came to staging the nursery scene, which awkwardly imposed domestic realism over a more symbolic style of presentation. Evan Rogister conducted with vigor and enthusiasm, so each act concluded with a stirring musical climax, even though one could be appalled at the dramatic inappropriateness of the piece's shifts in mood.

In Review Traviata hdl 3 1113
Rae and Fabiano, Violetta and Alfredo at Santa Fe
© Ken Howard 2013

This year, there were two revivals at Santa Fe Opera. The first was of Laurent Pelly's 2009 production of La Traviata (seen Aug. 2). This desolate rereading of Verdi has lost none of its power. From the opening funeral, Chantal Thomas's abstract, boxy set is associated with the cemetery. Act II has been redesigned to unify it stylistically with the rest of the show; the white-draped stage in the final scene continues to be among the most effective evocations of death on the modern opera stage.

What made this revival memorable was the Violetta of Santa Fe debutante Brenda Rae. An American still at the start of her career, Rae is already making waves in Europe. She played Violetta in very pale makeup, so that even in comparatively happy moments we felt she was wasting away. She oscillated between the extremes of hysterical hyperactivity and the fear of death, adoration of Alfredo and wracking depression. Rae's soprano is contained, well-focused and flexible; "Sempre libera," whose coloratura she mastered with ease, was musically a showstopper and dramatically a frightening display of emotional abandon. Violetta's death was a genuine horror; "Addio, del passato," especially, was a painfully graphic depiction of life ebbing from a body devastated by poverty, dissipation and collapsed morale. There have been more pathos-laden Violettas, but few so centered on the process of physical decay or acted with such mastery. 

Michael Fabiano gave an interestingly divided Alfredo. His is a warm, confident voice with a heroic timbre, but his acting emphasized Alfredo's doubt, inexperience and confused innocence and so engaged our sympathies that we cared as much for him as for Violetta. Roland Wood, a British baritone, made his U.S. debut as Germont. He sang with impressive authority but was too stiff and deadpan. Yet another debutant was Leo Hussain in the pit. He favored slow tempos, so the livelier passages ("Libiamo," for example) dragged, but this was compensated for later during Violetta's gloriously extended Act II farewell and the entire death scene, in which no nuance, no aspect of death, went unexplored in the music. 

In Review Figaro hdl 1113
Oropesa and Phillips in Santa Fe's Nozze di Figaro
© Ken Howard 2013

The second revival was of Jonathan Kent's genial, poetic production of Le Nozze di Figaro, first seen in 2008 and restaged this season by Bruce Donnell (seen Aug. 3). During a hot, stormy summer, it was a pleasure to see again Paul Brown's flower-laden set and enjoy the fusion of Enlightenment themes with an early-Romantic sense of nature as a nourishing force.

The chief distinction of the revival was the high level of ensemble playing by a young, attractive cast brimful of vitality, sensitive to each other's vocal and mimetic characterization and totally at one with Mozart's music. If there was a leader in the pack, it was Lisette Oropesa, whose Susanna was a potent combination of charm and beautifully articulated wit, with telling touches of peasant common sense. She was a child of the people; so was her Figaro, played by Zachary Nelson as an amiable intriguer, with just enough slow-wittedness to attract our sympathy. This was a couple for whose happiness we cared. There was a touch of genius in Daniel Okulitch's Count; he was a fundamentally decent man but incapable of resisting his sexual urges, too easily caught up in the everyday life of his servants, and genuinely contrite at the end. Surprisingly, this softer reading strengthened the revolutionary tone of the action, as the aristocrat became increasingly marginalized in his own domain. Susanna Phillips, a holdover from the 2008 Nozze cast, employed her rich, dark-toned voice to carry the tragic burden of the piece, though a delight of the evening was seeing her Countess shed years of sorrow as she became caught up in the game of love. Emily Fons was a credible Cherubino, equally adept in both male and female roles; indeed, at times one was uncertain as to the performer's gender. Dale Travis was a huge, hen-pecked Bartolo, and Susanne Mentzer, as Marcellina, was a housekeeper who knew her rights and insisted on them; Keith Jameson was a scuzzy Basilio. Santa Fe apprentices Adam Lau, Rachel Hall and Jonathan Winell gave nicely judged cameos as Antonio, Barbarina and Don Curzio, respectively. John Nelson conducted a brisk and always lively performance, though he brought everything to a breathless hush for the Countess's bestowal of forgiveness on her wayward husband. This movingly ended an evening of engaging comedy with a brief glimpse of how we might create a better world. spacer 

SIMON WILLIAMS

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