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23 Aug 2005

SANTA FE — Second Thoughts

For an opera company that boasts a $30-million endowment, and has scheduled funding efforts expected to bring that largesse to $50-million by 2007, its fiftieth anniversary of summer opera performances, plus $10-million more for capital improvements, the question comes up: Santa Fe Opera can afford top quality, but are they providing it? The answer seems to be, sometimes.

The just-concluding season offered one memorable success, Benjamin Britten's haunting 1945 tragedy Peter Grimes. Everything about it worked, from a spare but imaginative production to first rate singing and acting, with quality throughout the big cast. Anthony Dean Griffey, today's specialist in madman tenor roles, excelled in the name part and soprano Christine Brewer presented her role of schoolmarm Ellen Orford with luxurious tone and understated but effective acting. The huge choruses were magnificently done, much honor going to SFO music director Alan Gilbert for his leadership and choral director Gregory Buchalter. Considering the SFO chorus also had major duty in Turandot, and individual members (the opera apprentices) also took part in two evenings of scenes with piano, the young artists had a vigorous work-out over summer 2005. They came through brilliantly.

Mozart's youthful (he was 15) Lucio Silla enjoyed an elegant, stylized production and superb singing from sopranos Celena Shafer, Anna Christie and Susan Graham, as well as tenor Gregory Kunde, but the score holds little of interest, and none of Mozart's mature melodic genius. The adequate conductor was Bernard Labadie from Canada.

The much-booted Ainadamar, a 'new' (read revised) 'opera' (read play with music) by Osvaldo Golijov proved to be 75-minutes of tedium - excessively wordy; most action reported or recollected (difficult as a technique unless you are an ancient Greek master), and a score that dwelt in the land of Latin dance rhythms, but no such steps were ever taken. It was a weird evening considering the talent involved: composer Golijov, librettist David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly) and director Peter Sellars. Maybe there was just too much talent to come up with one unified artistic vision. I found the effort diffuse and almost entirely ineffective, yet some critics gave it a rave. Perhaps one can charitably say, succes d'estime.

For the record, "Ainadamar" means something like "fountain of tears," in this case at Granada, Spain, where the gay revolutionary poet Garcia Lorca was shot by fascists in 1936 in the Spanish civil war. The central role of actress Margarita, an old, dissolute, lesbian friend to Garcia, was taken by the spruce, coiffed, scrubbed, prettily-singing Dawn Upshaw, in an example of serious mis-casting. With a different singer in the key role, matters might have improved. Since the entire effort was electronically amplified, often to excess, it is hard to say how much contribution was made by music director Miguel Harth-Bedoya, as compared to sound engineers Gustavo Santaolalla and Jeremy Flower. Better luck next time!

Turandot was treated as fairyland kitsch, with 80-year old Willa Kim's imaginative costumes and radical, young Douglas Fitch's goofy set of plastic steps and platforms, variously colored from lighting within their Plexiglas structures, and it was all fun - but it was also mainly nonsense. A routine cast and only so-so conducting from Gilbert contributed to a forgettable performance. I am not much of an advocate for Puccini's final opera - it's a lot of recycled tropes and ideas from the master's earlier, better days. There are more interesting ways for an opera company to spend its Puccini budget. Amidst all the hubbub was the sweet, little lyric Liu of Patricia Racette - the one element of Italianate opera over the evening. Jennifer Wilson, loud through not thrilling, took the title role but did not own it, while beefy Carl Tanner shouted a bit as the Calaf and seemed short on romance. Hard work!

And then there was Stefano Vizioli's take on Rossini's The Barber of Seville. It was frantic - over produced, over acted, over the top and with no memorable singing. Yes, Barber should be fun, but with prissy, unidiomatic conducting from Ken Montgomery and principal singers camping their way thru the show, little pleasure was found. Most surprising was Ana Maria Martinez as Rosina without low or top notes and entirely given over to mugging and dashing about the stage, no doubt as directed by Vizioli. Even last summer as Elvira in a splendid Don Giovanni at Santa Fe, Martinez was eliciting rave reviews from this and other critics, and she was a superb, vocally accomplished Fiordiligi in Cosi fan tutte the year before. Somewhere along the way Martinez seems to have gotten off the track; I hope she soon returns to the main line.

With its lovely new theatre, a first class orchestra, the ambience of Santa Fe abounding and fine mountain evenings to enjoy, not to mention its mounting assets and strong box office (by some accounts over 95% for this season), America's premiere summer opera festival needs to improve artistically. Glimmerglass is hard on the heels of Santa Fe, and often doing a better job. I wish them both great success, but the artistic vision in New Mexico needs to be sharpened.

Santa Fe repertory for 2006 is Carmen, Salome, The Magic Flute, the Massenet Cinderella and the American premiere of Thos. Ades's The Tempest, only the last two promising much of interest.

J. A. Van Sant
Santa Fe, New Mexico
© 2005

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