Cold Mountain (8/5/15), Salome (8/6/15), La Finta Giardiniera (8/8/15), Rigoletto (8/4/15), La Fille du Régiment (8/8/15)
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In Review > North America

Cold Mountain (8/5/15), Salome (8/6/15), La Finta Giardiniera (8/8/15), Rigoletto (8/4/15), La Fille du Régiment (8/8/15)

Santa Fe Opera

In Review Cold Mountain Santa Fe hdl 1115
Gunn and Leonard, Inman and Ada in Cold Mountain
© Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera

THE MAIN EVENT of this year’s season at Santa Fe Opera was the world premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s first opera, Cold Mountain (seen Aug. 5). An incisive sense of danger and instability suffuses the entire opera, based on Charles Frazier’s best-selling 1997 novel about rural life in North Carolina near the end of the American Civil War. Gene Scheer structured his economical libretto around W. P. Inman’s journey home to Cold Mountain after deserting from the Confederate forces; all events prior to this were told in flashback. Given Higdon’s eminence as an orchestral composer, it is not surprising that the orchestra is prominent, but it works always in the service of the action and its characters. In Higdon’s neo-Romantic score, violence constantly simmers, erupting during brutal skirmishes in brass-laden turbulence. The grimness of the action is leavened by beguiling poetry in the pastoral passages on the farm; in these passages, Inman’s beloved Ada and Ruby Thewes, her farmhand, develop close emotional bonds. Higdon’s music accompanies and often impels a continuous flow of dialogue and action, but at several points the flow abates and formal numbers with clearly discernable structure emerge. Some of these have a delicate beauty, representing moments of epiphany for the characters, as when Ada and
Inman fall in love; others highlight the major themes of the action, as in the Act II quintet in which the characters contemplate their fates, allowing us to recognize the utter waste of war. Three powerfully elegiac choruses serve as requiems for all those devastated lives. 

The entire cast acted and sang with dedication to detail. Nathan Gunn was a humane, vulnerable and nonheroic Inman. Isabel Leonard played Ada as a woman with unshakeable confidence in the richness of her inner world. Emily Fons’s finely observed Ruby grew from a feral tomboy into a mature adult who learns both the tragedy and joy that life entails. Jay Hunter Morris was uncannily frightening as Teague, the vindictive hunter of deserters. Kevin Burdette provided a welcome comic touch as Ruby’s wayward father, Stobrod Thewes. Anthony Michaels-Moore managed to give presence to the soft-headed Pangle, and Roger Honeywell’s Solomon Veasey provided a distasteful portrait of lechery and confused piety. 

Director Leonard Foglia staged the multiple plot lines and the action’s temporal and spatial shifts with clarity and understanding. Robert Brill’s set of broken beams was a fitting metaphor for war, though it looked difficult for the singers to negotiate. David C. Woolard’s costumes caught the Civil War period well. Miguel Harth-Bedoya conducted with an enthusiasm that hinted at a dark magic in the score; one hopes that it will be further explored in future productions.

In Review Santa Fe Hdl 2 1115 
Vocal splendors: Penda as Salome
© Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera

THE MOST INTERESTING and startling offering of the season was Daniel Slater’s belle époque staging of Salome (seen Aug. 6), which was crammed with sex but devoid of Eros. As Slater explained in his Freud-inspired program note, the focus of the action was not on Salome’s body but on her “naked mind.” This approach threatened to be too cerebral at first; Slater’s static staging made Salome’s advances to Jochanaan seem strangely impassive. But the reason for this became stunningly clear in the dance of the seven veils, during which Salome enacted her memories of the death of her father and the abuse she had suffered as a child. Her final ecstasy over Jochanaan’s severed head was an exorcism of the psychic demons that had crippled her emotionally and sexually. Leslie Travers’s set included a large revolving cube used as an inner stage, first for Jochanaan’s cell, then as the place where Salome confronted the terrors she faced as a child. These innovations gave specificity and dramatic immediacy to the entire opera.

The movement from surface calm to psychic disorder was complemented by David Robertson’s carefully judged approach to the score. The opera began unusually slowly: we could hear each theme separately and had time to savor the complexity of Strauss’s music and enjoy its heightened lyricism. It was only when Salome came to terms with the terrifying unconscious forces within her that all trace of lyricism vanished. Strauss’s clashing harmonies, wild orchestration and disruptive intervals were felt with more impact because they had been muted earlier.

When we first saw Alex Penda as Salome, she was attired as the pampered princess of a fin-de-sièclecourt. As the opera progressed, Salome shed her multilayered costume, so that at the end, standing in only her bloodied shift, she seemed to have cast off all inhibitions. Penda has the enviable combination of the fully mature voice and the youthful looks needed for the Judaean princess, but vocally she did not seem completely at ease; there were patches of inaudibility throughout her range and at different places onstage, so the continuity of the role was not easy to follow. But there were true vocal splendors at those exciting moments in which Salome realizes the horror of her past and begins to become a vengeful monster. Ryan McKinny’s secure Jochanaan, far from being a thundering prophet, was, refreshingly, a wild-eyed student, fresh from the pages of Dostoyevsky. Robert Brubaker’s Herodes was somewhat constrained by the disciplined staging, but below his trim, medal-bedecked costume, hysteria grew. Michaela Martens was a matronly Herodias. Brian Jagde, last seen at Santa Fe as Cavaradossi, sang the small role of Narraboth with exhilarating conviction.

In Review Santa Fe Finta lg 1115 
La Finta Giardiniera in Santa Fe, with Prieto and Phillips
© Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera

FEW MOZART OPERAS are as tricky to stage as his early comedy La Finta Giardiniera (seen Aug. 8). The eighteen-year-old Mozart’s skills were still developing: his sense of character was deepening, he could already use the orchestra to clarify complex action, and he was beginning to understand how ensemble can unify a complex, layered plot. But in 1775, Mozart had yet to find his ideal librettist. Giuseppe Petrosellini, to whom the libretto of Finta is attributed, was no Lorenzo da Ponte. Petrosellini’s text is a conventional comedy of romantic intrigue, but it can boast neither fresh plotting nor the sharp, often eccentric characterization that marks the best of Mozart’s work.

The shortcomings of Finta became glaringly obvious in Santa Fe’s first production of this opera — ironically, because Tim Albery’s production was so good. Jon Morrell’s costumes set the action firmly in the late eighteenth century. Hildegard Bechtler’s elegant design incorporated a stately hall and Sandrina’s garden and was half dismantled toward the end of Act II, so that, in expressionist fashion, it represented the madness of Sandrina and Belfiore. There was much to enjoy in the evening’s entertainment, but in opera, a sound libretto is as important as the music. In Finta, the librettist’s repetitive recourse to clichéd situations, along with the absence of internal growth in the characters, makes it difficult for us to care about what happens. Despite Albery’s imaginative attention to dramatic interchange, the long sequence of arias in Act II diluted the action and challenged the audience’s attention, while Sandrina’s and Belfiore’s descent into — and recovery from — madness lacked dramatic conviction. The ending was an arbitrary patching up. 

The music displayed sweetness, wit and, toward the end, exceptional beauty. Santa Fe’s chief conductor, Harry Bicket, is clearly developing a rapport with the orchestra, which played with both warmth and gusto and, in those passages where Mozart calls upon the sounds of nature, with beguiling magic as well. 

The singing by an attractive, accomplished cast was ravishing, and the acting was precise and spirited. Heidi Stober brought the right amount of pathos and humanity to Sandrina, lending warmth to a role that can be chilly. Susanna Phillips, as Arminda, ran a comic gamut from finely nuanced satire to vulgar farce in superlative style; Laura Tatulescu’s commonsensical Serpetta deflated the pretentions of her masters, who were clearly not her betters. In the trouser role of Ramiro, Cecelia Hall sang with a purity and evenness of tone that unexpectedly summoned up the tragic aura of opera seria. William Burden, the one veteran in the cast, turned the potentially dreary and sentimental figure of Don Anchise, the Podestà, into a sympathetic, aging fop. Joel Prieto caught precisely the interplay between Count Belfiore’s self-pity and his genuinely romantic feeling; the forthright Joshua Hopkins made Nardo, the one character fully in control of his feelings, the bedrock of the action.

In Review Santa Fe Opera Rigoletto hdl 1115 
Kelsey and Jarman, Rigoletto and Gilda in Blakeley’s Rigoletto staging
© Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera

LEE BLAKELEY'S ANTIROMANTIC production of Rigoletto (seen Aug. 4)provided a bleak vision of Verdi’s opera. All order, wealth and happiness in Mantua was obliterated by the Duke’s utter dedication to depravity and the humiliation of women. Designer Adrian Linford set the entire action in what looked like either a condemned tenement building or the broken properties and scenic fragments of a theater long since abandoned; his costuming, which ranged from shabby Renaissance finery to modern punk (but was apparently centered in the mid-nineteenth century), accentuated the random messiness of a degraded world.

So overwhelming was the brutality of this production that Rigoletto and Gilda had the odds stacked against them; it was difficult to accept the notion that anyone in this bleak world could nurture as intense a love as Rigoletto has for his daughter. Quinn Kelsey’s Rigoletto was a striking interpretation.
There was a Dickensian quality to him, as if he had just come from hobnobbing with Fagin and Bill Sykes. His hump caused him constant agony, and his sore-laden body seemed an icon of the sewers in which he lived. Gilda’s main concern was to ease his pain by spreading ointments and unguents on his body: the father came to be more dependent on the daughter than the other way round. Kelsey was subdued vocally — “Cortigiani” did not have the raw power it should have — but toward the end of the night his voice gained strength, and Rigoletto’s final cries rang out with earth-shaking power. Gilda provided the only positive presence in the opera, and in Georgia Jarman’s captivating reading of the role she was no longer a passively innocent girl but a young woman ready to take on whatever life had to offer. Jarman’s voice combines sweetness and power, with the capacity to sustain high tessitura with little apparent strain. “Caro nome,” delivered with breathtaking accuracy, charted the awakening of sexual joy, making the betrayal that she suffered crueler.

The disastrous confrontation of genuine love and callous disregard could have been felt more strongly had the staging given more attention to details of character. Bruce Sledge’s agile voice suited the role of the Duke, and we instantly warmed to him; but the tenor is a passive, inexpressive actor, and he executed the director’s demands, particularly as regards flinging women about the stage, without conviction. Sledge delivered “Possente amor” with marvelous panache, but by the time it came to “La donna è mobile” his voice showed signs of strain. Sparafucile, costumed as a Beckett-style tramp, was sung with threatening resonance by Peixin Chen. Robert Pomakov made the most of his two brief appearances as Monterone.

Rigoletto was led by the young Italian conductor Jader Bignamini, who sustained that fine balance between light music and darker melodrama that makes Verdi’s score so compelling and engaging.

In Review Santa Fe Fille hdl 4 1115 
Shrader, Christy and Burdette in Fille du Régiment
© Ken howard for the Santa Fe Opera

THE SEASON'S LIGHTEST entertainment was provided by Donizetti’s Fille du Régiment (seen Aug. 8), another work that had never been performed at Santa Fe. As if to compensate for this omission, the work was given an elaborate staging under the vigorous direction of Ned Canty, who, by framing the action with a proscenium arch in the style of the mid-nineteenth-century theater, accentuated the vaudevillian aspects of the show. Allen Moyer’s set for Act I consisted of a clutter of props and furniture, suggesting both the Tyrolean mountains and revolutionary barricades; in contrast, the castle of the Marquise de Berkenfield was stately, spacious and elegantly furnished, just waiting for the soldiers of the twenty-first regiment to wreak merry havoc in it. Moyer’s Napoleonic costumes evinced the class divisions that drive the action, while their color and flamboyance intensified the carnival atmosphere. Canty, who wrote the spoken English dialogue, played the comedy for all it was worth, coming up with one or two delightfully scurrilous jokes.

Riotous as most of the action was, it did not lack a serious side. Anna Christy, as Marie, was irrepressible in Act I; her light, agile soprano enabled her to deliver cascades of bel cantoroulades, generally in a satiric vein, and to throw off the regimental songs with exhilarating abandon. But the high point of her Marie was the aria “Par le rang et par l’opulence,” in which Donizetti’s plangent melody led her to touch emotions far below the busy surface action of the comedy. Her Tonio, Alek Shrader, must be in the running for the goofiest clown on the opera stage today; the tenor’s ability to sustain Donizetti’s lively vocal line while wrapping himself around whatever furniture was available was delightful. In Act II, Shrader’s Tonio was a distinctly older and wiser man whose rapt declaration of love for Marie, “Pour me rapprocher de Marie,” was moving and intense. The rest of the knockabout comedy was provided by that resourcefully droll comedian Kevin Burdette as Sergeant Sulpice, who caused much hilarity with his malingering over his “wounded” leg in Act II. Phyllis Pancella made the Marquise de Berkenfield into an attractive (rather than repellent) figure who had designs on Sulpice. It was her recognition that the prime imperative in human life is romantic and sexual happiness that caused her to free Marie to marry Tonio. So it all ended in love and riches. What could be better?

A great pleasure of the evening was the conducting of Speranza Scappucci, making her debut at Santa Fe. The orchestra responded to her with enthusiasm, even fire. She invested the substantial overture with surprisingly expansive Romanticism, followed by an opening chorus of Tyrolean peasants, trained by the estimable Susanne Sheston, whose broad melody quivered with anxieties, hopes and fears more familiar from grand opera. —Simon Williams 

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