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Santa Fe Opera: Carmen
09 Aug 2006

SANTA FE OPERA: Golden Oldies

Carmen and The Magic Flute have finally made it onto my calendar, a nice way to end the summer opera festival at Santa Fe.

Both shows badly needed a better viewing here, for over the last decade or more each has been ill served, either by bad singing, poor productions or both. Not so Season 2006.

The appearance of Anne Sophie von Otter as Carmen is said to have derived from Santa Fe Music Director Alan Gilbert’s friendship with her in Sweden where, during the winter season, he is music director of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. We should have more conductors with such resources! Von Otter was immediately tagged “a thinking man’s Carmen” by local cognoscenti – a good description. She is entirely into the role; she’s in charge of it and presents it for its musicality and not its sluttish tossing about; of that there was none. Von Otter’s Carmen was single minded – she wanted what she wanted, period. She was calm and self-assured; she looked well but not extravagant or deranged. The tall slim mezzo could simply stand still and smile, show her eyes, and her thoughts were immediately clear. Best of all, von Otter sang with the crystalline precision and expressiveness of a fine lieder singer, or in this case a singer of mélodies. The voice was always easy, well-supported and colorful; her diction precise, and even quietly spoken dialogue was heard. This Carmen was good humored and had fun – right up to the final scene. Who could ask for anything more? Well, one thing, a return engagement.

The other chief interest of the August 1 performance, was the role assumption by Laurent Naouri, Paris-born baritone appearing as Escamillo with easy assurance and authority, in his American debut. Naouri had everything needed: the right age, a trim build, a well produced bass-baritone that moved evenly through the scale, and plentiful masculine charm. Needless to say, his language was idiomatic, his singing with von Otter of the Act IV duet was a meeting of high professional equals – thrillingly so. Naouri sang the Toreador song freshly and without manner; for once, the right approach! Carmen has been waiting for a Toreador of this caliber.

The balance of the cast was of lesser stripe and I wont dwell on it, except two young smugglers, Remendado and Dancaire, sung by Keith Jameson and David Giuliano, respectively, both excellent and deserve recognition. The production was agreeable in a mild sort of way, the naturalistic stage direction by Lars Rudolfsson. Action was updated to Spain of the 1960s, which did nothing special for the grand old piece, but at the same time did no harm. If Franco’s fascism were just around the corner, I never saw it. The smugglers’ mountain pass became a transportation staging area filled with freight containers in process of unloading – not illogical. But it counted for little. Frankly, I’ve seen Carmen played on an empty stage and it was fine. It’s that kind of well-stocked operatic masterpiece. Some in the audience wanted more gypsies and more color; I was so content with the fine singing and music making, little else mattered.

The Santa Fe Opera orchestra is playing better this season than I have heard them, and August 1 was no exception. Alan Gilbert’s tempos were mainly just (one or two spots dragged), and he had good ideas about clarity and balance. This is a Carmen for Santa Fe to repeat.

The good news does not stop there: The Magic Flute, sung in German, spoken in modernized English, returned for the first time since 1998 in an innovative and charming new production by Tim Albury. Mozart’s thrice-familiar tunes and set pieces are hard to keep fresh, but the one true way to do so, is to play them honestly and with confident musicality; here honors must go to music director William Lacey, who has conducted at Houston, Utah and his native England. He was the spark plug of this Flute, which he kept brisk and clear as a cup of tea (lemon, please).

He was much assisted by Tim Albury’s clean natural direction and an innovative production concept the hallmarks of which were simplicity and elegance. Magical props and refreshingly dynamic lighting (by Jennifer Tipton who has worked well before at Santa Fe with Albury), graced an always-lively and engaging show. I’ll not give away the stage events, but the audience was at one point applauding the scenery, unusual at Santa Fe. Tobias Hoheisel’s visual designs were another strong element of this Flute’s success.

Added to all this excellence, Santa Fe assembled a cast of splendid equals to sing and play Mozart’s near-vaudeville entertainment: Toby Spence and Natalie Dessay as the young lovers, fresh and lyric and enjoying themselves; Andrea Silvestrelli’s full mellow basso and his kindly avuncular persona graced Sarastro; Heather Buck was a spot-on Queen of the Night (who reentered the action on Sarastro’s arm at the every end – a novel if controversial touch); young baritone Joshua Hopkins won hearts with his winsomely comic Papageno, the snarly Monostatos of the engaging David Cangelosi whose bark was worse than his bite – these and many others in the large cast betokened quality casting throughout.

Some voice aficionados wondered how California soprano Heather Buck could manage to sing Queen of the Night’s great vengeance aria with Natalie Dessay standing near her on the same stage, Dessay having been a reigning Queen of the Night only a few years ago? The answer: Buck sang confidently, brilliantly – the singers’ juxtaposition, with the slender young-looking Dessay as her daughter Pamina, lending a certain frisson to the occasion. It is always nice to play from strength, and this Magic Flute had it!

©2006 J. A. Van Sant
Santa Fe, New Mexico

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