The Santa Fe Opera Season
For years, the Santa Fe Opera has been on our bucket list. Each summer, this small-town state capital (with a population of just over 80,000) presents five operas at a beautiful performance site open to the summer weather in New Mexico, hot during the day but cool and breezy in the evenings. This year we finally checked this unique event off of our list with all five operas in this year’s season.
We started with a good production of one of Bizet’s more rarely produced operas, “The Pearl Fishers.” Unfortunately, the production was marred by a weak tenor, Ilker Arcayurek. The limitations of the Swiss tenor were amplified when he sang the opera’s most famous (and absolutely beautiful) duet with the fabulous American baritone, Anthony Clark Evans. The opera tells the story of two men deeply in love with the same woman in a mythical version of Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon. Evans has a deep and lyrically full voice. Equally impressive was the electrifying bass, Robert Pomakov. Soprano Corrine Winters brought a musically satisfying voice to the role of Leïla, the object of the two men’s desire. “Pearl Fishers” was written over 10 years before Bizet’s ever popular “Carmen,” and his death by heart attack at only 36, a few months after his popular opera premiered. Watching this splendid early work by Bizet, I wonder what he might have given us had he survived his life-long illnesses.
Our next opera was a Mozart favorite, “Cosi Fan Tuttle.” This very well sung production was an outrageous example of what opera fans call “Euro-Trash,” productions that reconceive an opera in a style that is thoroughly mismatched. It started with a promising image, America’s long-time favorite baritone Rod Gilfrey entering in a classic cowboy outfit against the breath-taking New Mexico sky at the rear of the opera’s stage. Immediately I thought this was going to be a delightful “Old West” rethinking of Mozart’s comic opera about two pairs of lovers whose faithfulness is tested when Gilfry’s Don Alfonso bets that each woman will fall for the other “best friend” in disguise. Then the men and women entered in tennis outfits and later the men appear in denim jumpsuits, later changing to silver jumpsuits. If this does not make sense to you, you’re not alone. Making a bad situation worse was a lighting design that was gloomy and ominous and made it impossible to see any of the singers. It looked like the lighting designer thought the opera was one of the darkest of Mozart’s works, “Don Giovanni.”
But the singing in this “Cosi” was as good as it gets. Tenor Ben Bliss and baritone Jarrett Ott, well established America singers, were pleasingly matched as were Soprano Amanda Majeski and mezzo Emily D’Angelo. Tracy Dahl, as the chamber maid, Despina, played for all humor in her role as Don Alfonso’s comic accomplice with a delightful (if not a particularly distinguished) voice. The real musical treat in this production was in the orchestra pit. British conductor Harry Bicket specializes in baroque and early classical music and his talents sparkled. If you closed your eyes, this would have been a wonderful evening at the opera — but you can do that with a good recording on a high-end stereo system in your living room. There is nothing so entertaining as a new take on an old opera, but this production’s “new take” was totally off the mark.
Santa Fe has been a proving ground for new operas. This summer’s world premiere is “The Thirteenth Child,” by the acclaimed Danish composer Poul Ruders and American librettists Becky and David Starobin. Based on a Grimm Brothers fairytale, the twelve sons of King Hjarne are exiled when their embittered cousin, Dorian, tells the king that his sons are plotting his assassination. Eighteen years later, Hjarne’s successor, Queen Gertrude, sets her daughter, Princess Lyra, in search of her lost brothers. When Lyra meets the youngest of the twelve, Benjamin, sung beautifully by an opera apprentice Bille Bruley, he leads her to her siblings and a happy ending.
So frequently with contemporary operas, I find the sounds coming out the orchestra pit much more interesting that vocal lines written for the singers and “Thirteenth Child” is no exception. Ruder’s orchestrations alternate between his adaptation of minimalism and rich neo-romanticism. It was fascinating how he went from an ultra-modern musical sound to sweeping melodies you might hear in a Verdi or Bizet opera. The singers are given the usual non-lyrical ups and downs, occasionally forcing the men to jump from deep baritone to their falsetto voices and then back again. Each of the eight principals met the demands of Ruder’s score and the chorus provided a rich sound. As contemporary operas go, this one was interesting enough to keep me in my seat for both of the short, 40-minute acts.
The crowd pleaser this season is Puccini’s “La Boheme.” The quality of the singing for this much-loved score was mixed. There are so many extraordinary recordings of Pucinni’s masterpiece (not to mention performances at major opera houses) that it is tough to fully appreciate performances by singers who are not at the top of their form. The singing in the Santa Fe Opera (SFO) production was generally pleasant and occasionally impressive. In the latter category were soprano Vanessa Vasquez as Mimi and Gabriella Reyes as Musetta. Ms. Reyes not only sings beautifully, but she also roller skated through the glorious second act cafe production number. Mario Chang, as Mimi’s passionate lover, has a decent lyrical tenor voice, but his limitations are quite evident in the initial duet as the two declare their instant endearment. The weakest link in the portrayal of opera’s dual romances was Zachary Nelson as Musetta’s sometimes lover, Marcello. His insecure baritone is no match for any of other three artists in the Paris garret. The standout among the four was bass Solomon Howard as Coline who shines in the famous coat aria. Baritone Will Liverman, who is a standout in SFO’s “Jenůfa,” more than meets the demands of Schaunard. The SFO chorus, made up of opera apprentices, was first-rate in all five operas, and particularly in the second act Christmas Eve Café Momus scene in this production. The structure of this outdoor opera stage places limitations on designers of scenery. So special credit goes to Grace Laubacher for inventive sets that evoked the feeling of bohemia in 19th century Pairs.
The absolute highlight of the five nights of opera was a magnificent production of Leoš Janáček’s “Jenůfa.” This was a world-class opera production with singing that you would expect to hear at the Metropolitan or Royal Opera Houses. Janacek’s first opera is starkly realistic and disturbingly focused on infanticide and mismatched lovers against the backdrop of oppressed village mill workers. The SFO production made the unthinkable actions of the characters utterly believable and the cast sang with dynamic emotion and musical perfection. As the title character, soprano Laura Wilde, a former SFO apprentice, brought strength and clarity to a very challenging role. Tenor Richard Trey Smagur was suitably repulsive as Jenůfa’s drunken would-be finance. Alexander Lewis as Jenůfa’s eventual husband has a beguiling tenor voice that gave life to a frustrated and emotionally internalized character. Veteran soprano Patricia Racette was convincing as the stepmother who kills Jenůfa’s baby to conceal her stepdaughter’s fallen state as an unwed mother and, at 54, Racette’s voice was as strong and piercing as when she was the 1998 Richard Tucker Award winner. The most striking voice in this production was Will Liverman as the foreman at the village mill. This is a singer to watch as opera musical directors discover his rich baritone and his convincing acting. Conductor Johannes Debus brought Janacek’s complex score into dramatic unity. Truly a memorable evening at the opera!
Santa Fe has many charms. Fascinating Native American artists are featured in dozens of galleries. Canyon Road is filled with a seemingly endless number of fine art galleries that feature both Native- and Mexican-American artists. There are many tasty restaurants at various price levels. And this small town has almost a dozen fascinating museums. Our bucket list served us very well!