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Natalie Dessay (Violetta) [Photo by: Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera]
23 Aug 2009

Santa Fe Celebrates Two Divas

With the sublime Christine Brewer and the acclaimed Natalie Dessay on the Santa Fe roster, what more could a discerning opera-goer really want?

Giuseppe Verdi: La traviata

Violetta: Natalie Dessay; Alfredo: Saimir Pirgu; Gastone: Keith Jameson; Germont: (through Aug. 17) Laurent Naouri, (Aug. 22, 26, 29), Anthony Michaels-Moore; Douphol: Wayne Tigges; Dr. Grenvil: Harold Wilson. Conductor: Frederic Chaslin. Director: Laurent Pelly. Scenic Designer: Chantal Thomas. Costume Designer: Laurent Pelly. Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler.

Above: Natalie Dessay (Violetta) [Photo by: Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera]

 

Well, cogent, dramatically appropriate productions might have been nice. But more on that later.

Gluck’s Alceste had the great good fortune of having the aforementioned Ms. Brewer as its titular heroine. There is no warmer, richer, more beautifully deployed dramatic soprano voice before the public today. The instrument has the range, the solid technique, the stamina, and the firepower to meet every demand of this heroic role.

Temperamentally, too, Alceste is a good fit for the diva. Noble posturing, internalized grief, and stately control of motion are well within the performer’s capabilities. Since her well-publicized knee trouble began, Christine has lost a good deal of weight, and through inventive staging, she was allowed to be seated a good deal of the time (courtiers were frequently scurrying to bring their Queen a chair). If only the Met’s Herr Schenk had been imaginative enough to find similar solutions, their Ring may not have been robbed of the participation of the leading dramatic soprano of the day. Happily for Santa Fe-niacs, we got to experience a vocally towering Alceste at the height of Christine Brewer’s considerable powers.

Paul Groves was also in good form as the King Admète. Having just heard Mr. Groves as a powerful Idomeneo in Paris, I thought that perhaps he might have been slightly indisposed this night. The very top of the range seemed to be deployed with some caution at first, and he lacked his usual élan and spontaneity of phrasing at times. Nevertheless, his substantial lyric voice has taken on a bit more weight and ring over past seasons and he was a good match for Ms. Brewer, blending well with her in their duets.

Wayne Tigges sang an assured Hercules, though a little more vocal swagger and abandon (not to mention theatricality) might not have been amiss. Doubling as the Herald and High Priest, Nicholas Pallesen revealed a sympathetic and warm baritone, perfectly suited to this repertoire (his very first declarations might have had a bit more oomph). Young American Artist Tom Corbeil also did double duty as the Oracle and Infernal God, and his beautiful lyric tenor and magisterial sense of line served notice of an exciting new talent. Aaron Blake’s Evandre was securely sung, if a bit bland dramatically, while Coryphee was well-taken by Jennifer Forni. Matthew Morris posed prettily as Apollo.

_MG_3986.gifPaul Groves (Admète) & Christine Brewer (Alceste)

In the pit, Kenneth Montgomery led a reading of great stylistic pleasure, and made as good a case as is likely possible for this rarely performed piece. The chorus of (mostly) apprentices was meticulously prepared by Chorus Master Susanne Sheston. Both groups were roundly cheered at evening’s end for their nigh flawless accomplishments.

Alceste is mounted seldom enough that I wished it had been treated to a visually evocative production that was as exciting as the musical contribution. Not to say there wasn’t a good deal to enjoy here in the contemporary design. A huge semi-circular white wall, detailed with painted stones, formed the back-drop for the evening. Contained within this playing space was a curiously unattractive black “shoe box” with a beaded curtain of sorts, meant to be the chamber for the dying King.

This latter moved aside to reveal a handsome sculpture in the form of a big white globe, rent in the bottom half and revealing a blood red lining. Apollo appeared atop this ball to fine effect, especially in the isolated lighting effect by Duane Schuler (a wonderful SFO asset, he). Mr. Schuler conspired with set designer Louis Désiré to include a quirky but interesting base board of lights in the huge back walls. These same walls later closed at the front, bringing together two halves of a painting that, when joined, displayed a staircase to eternity. Nice visual image. These same walls did duty as death’s “gate” parting appropriately to reveal garish white lights embedded in the structure’s edges, and later, the entire amassed chorus, hauntingly down lit.

Overall, director Francisco Negrin’s intentions resulted in well-defined character relationships, good use of all areas of the stage, interesting pictures, and a decent amount of romantic chemistry between a King and Queen that were (it must be said) physically mis-matched. Crowd management was quite masterfully handled, although the twitchy gesticulating and pulsing the beat was self-consciously “busy.” Seeding the dance corps among the singers was a nice touch and created some real electricity, but I had the feeling we had seen Ana Yepes choreography before, derivative as it was of ancient dance posings (Martha Graham, anyone?).

There were, to be sure, some staging oddities. The ailing King, verging on death, was first helped on stage to a waiting bench, but then schlepped hither and yon in a sole attempt to create varied visuals. Mission accomplished, but to what realistic dramatic end? Hercules, who could have been such a colorful persona, seemed under-directed. A clumsy metaphor was attempted to parallel the King’s condition with the introduction of a small potted shrub, which later became a dying bush, and later still emerged again as a healthy, grown tree at the denouement.

And most curious of all, a mesh black cloth was unfurled and re-folded several times, bearing the words “La Mort.” Huh? Indeed, it was hard to make out the ending when our happily-ever-after principles sort of wrapped themselves in it and clumsily blended upstage right. Meaning, please, Mr. Negrin? Death comes for us all? Gluck is ‘deadly’ if not ‘improved?’ Plot Captioning for the Clinically Bewildered? Or?

Reservations aside, the next night’s Traviata made the Alceste staging seem a model of clarity. Laurent Pelly is one of my most favorite directors who has devised brilliant productions of Daughter of the Regiment, Platée, La Belle Hélène, to name but a few…comedies. Unfortunately, here he seemed content to continue to explore comedic, or at least downright silly elements of that laff-riot tale of a repentant courtesan who sacrifices true love and happiness and dies of consumption.

At rise, the stage is littered with a cascade of over-sized boxes (a waggish colleague dubbed it the ultimate “black box theatre”), mostly tumbling from up right to down left. Okay, okay, the lighting ultimately revealed they were subtly colored and variegated, but that did nothing to make them more meaningful or practical.

After the prelude, Violetta appears, jumping up from behind a box, in a day-glo pink ruffled number with matching high-heeled boots and garish short red-haired wig; a get-up that would have even been rejected for the Cher Comeback Tour. A long…long…pause, and then Ms. Violetta shrieked like a chorine banshee, the party music commenced, and she tenuously (if gamely) leaped down three feet to another box, and repeated the hooping and hopping and ruffle swishing. This may constitute a great start to “La Vie Parisienne.” It did little to establish the tone for one of opera’s greatest tragedies.

Character relationships sputtered to life. Alfredo and Violetta were so far apart much of the time that the growing infatuation and Brindisi went for too little. Throughout the night, the chorus appeared from hiding places with weak motivation and re-grouped on the boxes willy-nilly.

When Violetta and Alfredo did finally duet ‘privately’ they wound up reclining inappropriately on a box mid-stage, and instead of the hostess’ bidding farewell to her guests, Lady V remained prone as one big pile of tulle, until she finally sat up in this sea of pink for her aria.

Act Two’s garden raised hopes since it was more realistic with the addition of a long sloping hedge over the boxes downstage. But there were few places to sit, only one rock on which to write correspondence, and Violetta was costumed as a tomboy left-over from Pelly’s Regiment. Clad thus, when she ran into Alfredo’s arms at the top of the Act, one confused audience member whispered “I thought he liked girls?” (In a departure from tradition she remained on stage for his aria.) The great scene with Germont père found her spending an inordinate amount of time on the stage floor rolling around in grief or clutched in a fetal position.

The promise raised for more realistic settings was thwarted with Act Three’s return to those same damned boxes (designer Chantal Thomas is on the blame line), on top of which the chorus women “Gypsies” gyrated like floozies, and the chorus men “Toreadors” behaved like unruly school boys. It had all the fumbling sex play and elegance of a frat beer party in Oshkosh.

Our heroine (the red mop of hair still jarring) appeared here attired to her best advantage of the night (Pelly’s design), but it was evening wear that seemed more appropriate for an LA opening than Parisian high society. (Oddly, I found all his other costumes very elegant and attractive.)

At least the boxes were covered with white sheets for Act IV, although this made it even harder for an extraneous dance couple to leap around them and perform a rather lewd pas de deux as the revelers sang offstage.

It might be forgivable that the heroine was made to melodramatically clutch a bed sheet off a box as she staggered and sank dead to the floor, but no excuse can be made for the other characters, especially Alfredo, to have backed off stage, abandoning her to die alone in her selfless sacrifice. Show us some love, Laurent!

Conductor Frédéric Chaslin kept things very clean and forward moving, but too often he rushed through things, and his reading lacked gravitas when Verdi required it. Germont’s portentous entrance music was taken at such a zip as to handicap the set-up of that great duet scene. It was odd that Germont’s (oft-cut) cabaletta was included but not the final horrified group exhortations at Violetta’s demise. Mr. Chaslin did accommodate singers by keeping the volume of the orchestra in check, and maintained good ensemble, but overall his rendition fared better in facile party music than conveying emotional depth.

There was high interest in Natalie Dessay’s first attempt at the demanding role of Violetta, and with good reason. Ms. Dessay is a huge international star with a string of high profile successes, and a recent happy relationship with Santa Fe Opera. She is also as acclaimed for her acting as for her singing, and this role has ample opportunities to score at both.

Ms. Dessay cannot be faulted for whole-heartedly carrying out Mr. Pelly’s intentions, stage directions, and concept. Would that the talented pair had been able to do the same for Verdi.

And that our diva almost did with her vocal portrayal. She is a supremely intelligent singer and knows well what she can or can’t do. She couches her phrasing and husbands her resources to maximize her many strengths, including a solid technique second to none, thrilling work above the staff, accurate coloratura, and total submersion in the dramatic moment. These pluses are balanced against a fairly limited color palette, and a slight lower-middle register which she wisely chooses not to press too hard.

Having the ‘right’ voice for the outburst “Amami Alfredo” has been written about ad nauseum, and is over in seconds. More critically for Natalie is that so much of the great Act II confrontation — it drives the whole piece — lies ungratefully for her. Consequently, as she carefully voiced her way through it, all the while acting the hell out of it, the duet took on a conversational tone/volume that was more appropriate to Pinter than to Verdi.

This was always a wholly committed, sincere, engaging superstar performance. “Addio del passato” was truly among the finest I have heard. But, vociferous standing ovation notwithstanding, at this career juncture the role is a half-size too large for this otherwise glorious performer.

Laurent Nauori had a very fine night as Giorgio Germont bringing virile tone and pontificating presence to his assignment. He may sound more like an Albert than a Germont, and he may look too young. Still, taken on his own terms, he acquitted himself well. Much favorable press has preceded Saimir Pirgu, the boyishly handsome Alfredo. I liked the basic voice which at times had a nice squillo. At other times it seemed short on the top, such as the thin climatic note of his Act II cabaletta. He rose to deliver a fine denunciation scene in Act III, and has real promise. But in the company of seasoned professionals Dessay and Naouri, Mr. Pirgu seemed more a talented ‘work-in-progress.’

We were indeed blessed to have a wholly effective group of young American Artist soloists in the secondary roles. Wayne Tigges was back as a frisky Baron Duphol, abetted by Tom Corbeil’s well-sung Marquis and the vivacious Flora from Emily Fons. Harold Wilson (Dr. Grenvil) and Jennifer Jakob (Annina) made favorable impressions in their brief roles.

La Traviata is a co-production with Teatro Reggio Turino.

James Sohre

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