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Commentary

Richard Gaddes
20 Aug 2007

Santa Fe Opera in Changing Times

Santa Fe Opera’s announcement August 10 that English-born impresario, Richard Gaddes, General Director of the company since 2001, will retire at the end of season 2008, took the local opera community by surprise.

Above: Richard Gaddes

 

His departure, regardless of who succeeds him, suggests a significant order for change in the 50-year-old New Mexico opera festival, for Gaddes was trained in the traditions of founder John O. Crosby, and has essentially continued the Crosby management.

To his credit, Gaddes improved general quality, especially in musical matters, for he retained several competent new conductors, a reform Crosby never managed. Eminent critic Martin Bernheimer long since pointed out that the quality of musical direction under Crosby, especially including his own prosaic efforts in the pit, was the main reason SFO never reached the level or repute of a Salzburg or Glyndebourne. A telling point.

It is important, also, to acknowledge that several of Gaddes’s seasons have offered the finest evenings in the opera house I have experienced with this company. Among the best shows of the Gaddes years were: The quirky, but memorable and beautifully sung La clemenza di Tito (2002) — a remarkable and elegant achievement; the innovative, dramatically devastating Wozzeck (2001), and the daring and creative production of Ades’ The Tempest (20006), stand-outs in a succession of good shows. These productions out shown anything seen during the Crosby years, and I have been attending SFO since 1969.

Improved orchestral performance was much apparent when Amsterdam-based maestro Kenneth Montgomery lifted his baton on Richard Strauss’s Daphne. The large orchestra bloomed beautifully, filling the 2200-seat auditorium with authoritative, indeed authentically lush, German opera sound. If Montgomery did not give the shape and nuance to Daphne’s score that a Boehm or Sawallisch would have, the reading was competent and solid. Such quality did not entirely encompass the stage, unfortunately. Plump tenors with slim voices can be rather off-putting, and in the case of Garrett Sorenson singing Leukippus and Scott MacAllister as Apollo, both unbecomingly costumed, the result was a drag on the show. Happily, comely Erin Wall, with a far-reaching, bright soprano, easily delivered the goods as Daphne, and Matthew Best and Meredith Arwady, as her parents, sang well and true. Allen Moyer’s simple raked stage, a unit set furnished with a few boulders and clump of laurel trees at center, was low-keyed but effective; the dull-toned, colorless costumes of Jane Greenwood evaporated. I would have preferred Strauss’s more interesting Capriccio over Daphne (a shepherd girl who transforms into a laurel tree rather than submit to the lusty Apollo), if one must do his rarities. But SFO is known for this opera, having played four productions since giving its North American premiere in 1964.

Excellent musical direction continued with Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 1745 near-vaudeville, Platée, under the baton of the English baroque specialist Harry Bicket. It turned out to be best of the summer in a boundlessly inventive and amusing production by the brilliant French director-designer, Laurent Pelly, who has enjoyed several other successes at SFO. Platée is a farce of mis-behavior of the Greek gods, and hence of human nature. Never mind the plot; it was a charming series of splendid, energetic dance numbers, largely of modern style, achieved by fourteen talented young dancers, the best I’ve seen on the Santa Fe stage, inter-mixed with vocal numbers and ensembles in good French baroque mode. Jupiter was able over the evening to prove to his wife Juno he had not been unfaithful (bit of irony here!), by taking up with a decided plain-favored ‘swamp nymph,’ one Platée, who believes herself to be beautiful and irresistible to men. By show’s end, she found out otherwise and retired to the swamp to mend her feelings.

The stand-out star of Platée was French comprimario tenor/actor Jean-Paul Fourchécourt – a minor voice, but a major comic talent; he brought off the difficult title role with panache. One was able to laugh at him/her (he was in drag as the frog lady), yet find sympathy in the end for Platée’s misery in being rejected. The other artists will forgive me if I cannot mention them all, but it would not do to overlook Laura Scozzi, the French choreographer, who gave us a top quality dance show. Music director Bicket’s 34-piece orchestra included period instruments such as recorders, a small guitar and a theorbo, a deep voiced lute that lent authenticity to orchestral sound. Bicket lately conducted Handel at the Metropolitan Opera and will do the same in season 2008 at Santa Fe. He is an uncommonly talented conductor, and one could see (and hear) the orchestra’s pleasure in performing with him.

Puccini’s La bohème received thirteen performances over the summer, healing the box office, and pleasing full houses. I heard the second cast August 14, the tenth performance; it seemed to have fallen into routine. Much of the problem was the lack of voltage from the pit, where the orchestra sounded a bit bored under the direction of Corrado Rovaris, a conductor from Italy who had done well conducting Simon Boccanegra three seasons ago. The singers were adequate but unexceptional. Mimi was a sympathetic lady from Lucca, Serena Farnocchia, perhaps a shade mature for the part, but she knew her business and was touching in an understated death scene; good Italian provincial. Tenor Dimitri Pittas displayed a lovely vocal quality as Rodolfo, but looked like a sack of potatoes with bad posture and far too much avoir du pois to be a romantic lead. A much publicized recording artist, the sprightly soprano Nicole Cabell, had generous high-B’s as Musetta, though her mid and low voice had little weight. A smallish young man with a big name, Alexander Vinogradov, as Colline, displayed a considerable bass voice, warm and dark. He needs maturity, but bears watching, as does a tenor who sang the tiny part of Parpignol, Ryan Smith, who sounded bright and interesting. Other singers were Markus Beam, Timothy Nolen (an expert comic as Benoit), James Westman and Wilbur Pauley. The elderly audience applauded scenery and stood to cheer the cast at the end of the show.

The recent season was not one of Santa Fe’s best (we have already reported on Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte and Tan Dun’s Tea: Mirror of the Soul). Next year’s list is more interesting, with masterworks of Britten, Mozart and Verdi, as well as Handel’s Radamisto and admired Finnish-French composer Kaija Saariaho’s Adriana Mater, in its North American premiere. Beyond that, with new management coming in, Santa Fe Opera may take a different tack. One has to recall the aborted plans of New York Philharmonic-designate Alan Gilbert, who had worked as Music Director for three years to bring festival Wagner and other innovations to SFO before he was, apparently, dismissed. Gilbert’s debut at the Metropolitan Opera next season conducting Adams’s Dr Atomic has lately been announced.

© 2007 J. A. Van Sant

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