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Luca Pisaroni as Maometto II with Chorus [Photo by: Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera]
27 Sep 2012

Santa Fe 2012

The venerable Santa Fe Opera served up a richly eclectic mix of high-caliber offerings that surely is one of their best festivals in recent seasons.

Santa Fe 2012

By James Sohre

Above: Luca Pisaroni as Maometto II with Chorus [Photo by: Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera]


Rossini’s longish opera seria Maometto II seemed a dark horse to become the runaway hit of the summer but once you consider the bravura singing from highly gifted soloists, the piece swept all before it. Not even Mother Nature’s sustained torrential downpour during Act One could dampen the powerful impact.

Soprano Leah Crocetto (Anna) is on the verge of a major career. Her sizable, poised soprano has spinto leanings and showed commanding presence at forte, balanced with the ability to gently caress introspective passages. When demanded, Ms. Crocetto fired off expressive and accurate coloratura with flexibility most admirable for this size voice. She is an unmannered actress, honest and ‘in the moment,’ although she could aspire to a more graceful gait. The opera revolves around Anna, and Leah made the most of every opportunity, becoming the summer’s breakout sensation in the process.

Bruce Sledge was a revelation as Anna’s father Erisso, evoking the tone and vocal character of a very young Chris Merrit (although I am not sure Chris ever sang this sweetly). Mr. Sledge has a freely produced, warm lyric tone. His rock-solid technique allows him to zing out robust high notes, negotiate complex melismas, and spin melting legato phrases with equal success. He is a fine musician and a solid actor, and this very special combination of gifts is sure to win him wider fame in very short order.

Patricia Bardon’s ripe mezzo defines the word ‘plummy.’ Make that ‘über -plummy.’ Ms. Bardon was a bit slow to warm up and the role of Calbo demands much rangy outpouring from the git-go. But in short order she settled into a groove and was pinging high notes, belting low notes, and making short work of the florid demands. The first trio with Mmes. Crocetto, Bardon, and Mr. Sledge, was a pyrotechnical dazzler of the anything-you-can-zing-I-zing-better variety. We were all winners in this brilliant showdown.

I have greatly enjoyed Luca Pisaroni in other productions but nothing I have experienced to date prepared me for the ferocious intensity of his performance in the title role, nor for the blazing accuracy of his coloratura. Mr. Pisaroni has an uncommonly wide-ranging, virile bass baritone, and he delivered the goods in every register, at every volume. His commanding impersonation dominated his every scene, while he also proved a generous and collegial team player.

Frédéric Chaslin not only led a taut, propulsive reading of the score, but also breathed with his soloists as they essayed the fiendish florid challenges Rossini set out for them. Maestro Chaslin created a satisfying overall arc and nurtured a commendable spirit of collaboration.

John Morrell‘s clever set design suggested ancient ruins with two rounded stone walls in a sort of “S” shaped rotunda (is that architecturally possible?) with a main entrance nestled between them. These marble walls backed a black and white tiled, raked floor. Best of all, we kept getting surprised by scenic treats that got revealed as panels rolled aside, or cloths were ripped away. The coup de theatre was Maometto’s going off to battle in a chariot drawn by three sculpted horses. Also excellent was the suggestion of the ruler’s tent by a simple red diagonal cloth, with the veiled heads of his harem women poked in a row above it like chickens in a hen house.

Mr. Morrell’s costumes were colorful and evocative if perhaps a bit too eclectic. Turkish Mutant Ninja Soldiers squared off with Venetian troops with bayonets in 19th Century military get ups, the former led by Maometto in proper period Turkish garments. Still they made a statement, and looked dramatic in front of the neutral gray background. Duane Schuler proved a true company asset as he gave us eloquently detailed lighting designs for this and two other productions this summer. His beautifully considered and cued illumination with its careful choice of colors and moods is always a pleasure to see.

If director David Alden is not careful he may lose his Bad Boy status, for here his work was inspired by the text and not by some “concept.” The character relationships were telling, the plot clear, and the blocking well-motivated. His management of the large choral forces was fluid, and he was wise to allow lovely stage pictures to remain relatively still while the singers coped with complicated ensembles. If occasionally some more inventive business may have fleshed out the characters a bit, it is to Mr. Alden’s great credit that he largely allowed the piece to speak with its own voice.

It seemed as though Arabella set designer Tobias Hoheisel may have been in cahoots with Maometto’s Morrell for the Strauss had a drawing room that was defined by more curving dove gray walls with another great focus on the entrance/exit points. But for the difference in texture and the elegant molding, the two designs succeeded in parallel visions.

For Act Two, Mr. Hoheisel located the action on the second floor of the mansion, at the top landing of a grand staircase center stage that disappeared down to the floor below. This ingenious device allowed lighting designer David Finn to manufacture all manner of shadows and intrigue with the warm light emanating up the staircase from the party below.

Hoheisel also excelled at designing sumptuous period costumes that were the final word in Viennese elegance. His lavish white traveling suit for Arabella defined with black accents and accessorized with flamboyant hat perfectly announced: “Star Soprano.”

Tim Albery directed a wonderfully internalized staging that was rife with subtext. Mr. Albery also managed to reveal the substantial humor in the piece without resorting to caricature. The truthfulness of his approach was a powerful ingredient in the overall impact of what is essentially a slight yet touching character study.

Conductor Sir Andrew Davis elicited a glowing reading which didn’t miss a trick in this tricky score. The grand Straussian sweep was there to be sure, but Arabella can rise or fall on the strength of its exposed solo work, and the Santa Fe instrumentalists were virtuosic both individually and as a well-oiled ensemble.

For the opera to succeed, the title role must win us over with her first entrance or we can be in for a long sit. The moment lovely Erin Wall uttered Arabella’s first phrase, we knew we were in for a treat. Ms. Wall had a big success here a few years back with her assured performance in Daphne but how she has grown since then!

The voice has acquired a lustrous sheen and while it blooms and soars at louder volumes, it is in the delicate introspective phrases that she arguably makes her biggest impact. Not for her the cloying Art-Song-Approach as if every syllable might break if not carefully couched. No, Erin keeps the conversational utterances on the breath and floats them out over the band in lilting, Viennese-tinged German. There is nothing in the role that eludes her. Her resounding achievement puts her on the fast track as a decidedly worthy successor to Kiri, Karita, and yes, even Renee.

Arabella’s rather placid nature can be threatened with upstaging by the volatile, anguished Zdenka, and the delectable Heidi Stober very nearly accomplished just that. Ms. Stober has a radiant lyric soprano that is matched by superior interpretive gifts. Her flawless Act One duet with Ms. Wall was one of the evening’s highlights. Heidi is also a real creature of the stage and does not so much impersonate characters as inhabit them. Her trim figure and feigned manly gait in Act I gave way to the hopeful romantic young woman in Act Two with compelling urgency.

At first, Mark Delavan’s Mandryka seemed to owe more to the boorish Baron Ochs that I might have liked, marked by bark and bluster. His sizable, dark bass-baritone has been acclaimed as Wotan in recent years, but the trade-off has been that now swifter moving legato finds his voice lumbering a bit. However, Mr. Delavan won me over completely in Act Two when he settled into communicating the meaning of the text rather than the volume of it.

He was especially fine in the schizophrenic vacillation as he rationalized why Matteo was given the key to Arabella’s room, careening between acceptance and tortured outbursts of great comic variety. By opera’s end Mark had morphed into such a sympathetic Mandryka, I only wished he might invest his Act One interpretation with more of a preview of where he was going with it.

As Matteo, Zach Borichevsky seemed challenged by the higher tessitura in Act One, but then his bright, somewhat open tenor found its focus thereafter and he contributed an enjoyable performance, pairing well with his Zdenka. Victoria Livengood’s Adelaide impacted as much for her seasoned and sassy impersonation as for her no-nonsense soprano, which had an unruly moment or two. Dale Travis was a solid Count Waldner, offering a firm-voiced traversal of the delusional and compulsive paterfamilias.

Brian Jagde made a good impression with his stentorian top notes and over-the-top take on Count Elemer. Apprentice Artist Jonathan Michie displayed a pleasing baritone as Dominik and AA Joseph Beutel’s lovely baritone promises much as he contributed a good Lamoral. Fiakermilli is such an ungrateful, overly-complicated, extraneous role (but how do I really feel?) that it is high praise indeed to say that delightful Kiri Deonarine made a fine impact in the part. Her astounding ascents into the stratosphere were effortless and the tone never lost appeal as it meandered thought the insanely difficult melismatic writing. And Ms. Deonarine has an assured presence, firing off complicated figures while desporting around the stage with animation.

I have seen King Roger on two previous occasions in wildly different productions (Amsterdam, Paris) but this summer’s SF mounting was easily the finest. The piece is knotty and complex of course, with thrilling orchestral textures and awesome aural effects, but with less inspiration in the vocal writing, and a bare bones ‘suggestion’ of a libretto.

The production team turned these vagaries into an asset with an unnerving, troubling dramatic creation that was as spooky as it was oddly serene. Who is the Shepherd anyway? The Messiah? An angel? A hippie wandered in from Haight-Ashbury? Why is he fixated on King Roger? And why does he easily usurp authority and leadership of a fractured populace?

His arrival portends change and raises many questions; questions the production slyly does not aspire to answer. It is to director Stephen Wadsworth’s great credit that from beginning to end, he allows us to speculate, thereby cleverly drawing us into the moody puzzle. Freedom of the spirit seems to be the overriding message, but free to do/be what?

Mr. Wadsworth skillfully guides his ensemble as if they are slowly but willingly succumbing to the intoxicating effects of human intimacy. Their eerie commingling espouses more than its share on homo-eroticism. There is an aching, highly charged moment near opera’s end with the Shepherd and King leaning into each other, lingering without touching, that was as tense and electric as the gap between God’s and Adam’s fingers in Michelangelo’s Creation of Man. The entire evening was irresistibly unsettling.

Thomas Lynch’s spare set design featured a platform, a modest throne, some chairs, and at the very rear, a series of painted panels suspended 10 feet above the full width of the gaping upstage entrance. The first was red, orange and yellow evocations of Byzantine church iconography; the second featured hues and dabs of purple, green and blue that looked somewhat like an enlarged detail of a Monet Water Lilies; the last a vague textured wash of white and cream. Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes started out as efficient court wear and loosened and lightened up as the bacchanalian co-mingling progressed.

Mariusz Kwiecien is simply tremendous in the title role, a part he virtually “owns” at this point. Throughout the piece, he offered up beautifully modulated phrases whether hushed and understated, tinged with questioning despair, or unleashed with potent confrontation. Mr. Kwiecien’s manly, buzzy baritone is a well-known commodity on world stages but in no other opera does he deploy it with more variety and dramatic meaning. Producers, please take note and build a production around this tour de force in your venue while Mariusz is in his prime.

William Burden is a tenor who defies categorization. With his well-schooled technique, lovely lyric tone, and superb musicianship, I have seen him succeed equally well in diverse styles. He does not disappoint as the Shepherd, although he seemed to be uncharacteristically holding back on the top, clearly a choice he made. This effect did fit well with the semi-religious flower child he created. In addition to his effortless singing, Mr. Burden made bold, abandoned choices and his aggressive, unembarrassed sensuality was a key component in the evening’s success.

The third principal, Roxana, has less to sing but Erin Morley’s assured, shimmering soprano contributed a haunting beauty, especially as it glided effortlessly through several exposed, ornamented descants. In smaller parts, Laura Wilde was the sure-voiced Deaconess, Raymond Aceto was an imposing Archbishop, and Dennis Petersen made every line count as Edrisi.

Evan Rogister worked magic in the pit, his conducting finding every color and illuminating every passage of this highly atmospheric masterpiece. Indeed, I believe Maestro Rogister may have just drawn out the finest playing I have yet heard from a Santa Fe Opera Orchestra. Not to be outdone, Susanne Sheston’s chorus was coached to a fare-thee-well, and produced thrilling results.

Handsome as was Jean-Marc Puissant’s set design for The Pearl Fishers, and much as I admired many of the lovely visuals conjured by director Lee Blakeley, I had a hard time working out the concept. A huge gold picture frame bisected the stage, with the front half apparently a crumbling drawing room from a mansion in the period of the work’s composition. Upstage of the frame, the back half was a stone walled terrace of a ruined Hindu temple on the bank of the sea, in the period of the opera’s setting.

I imagined, falsely, that the picture might afford possibilities for a living tableau that might spill into the drawing room. But from the beginning, the placement of characters was inconsistent and poorly defined. At curtain the corpse of the community’s leader is borne from the seaside and placed downstage to underline how perilous a pursuit is pearl diving. Zurga is anointed the new leader. The clan and culture are well defined by Brigitte Reifenstuel’s characterful costumes.

But when Nadir arrives, inexplicably attired like Indiana Jones lost from raiding the ark, the concept gets even muddier. This juxtaposition of societies clouded the rather sweetly simple story. By the time Leïla is carried in reverentially on a litter (ravishingly costumed in red traditional Ceylonese -inspired garb), we have been distanced by the inconsistencies. Indeed, she seems more a dea ex machina to perhaps clarify and salvage the narrative, than the virgin priestess who crucially ensures the safety of the divers.

When the fragile plot gets confrontational at the end of One, the giant gold frame suddenly falls forward slightly as if to suggest, lest we miss it, ‘discord.’ At the end of Two as all is resolved, it rights itself again. Awwwwww, thanks for the help, guys, I might have missed that. Never mind surtitles, ‘helpful’ effects like this are Captioning for the Clinically Bewildered.

In spite of these staging inventions, to be fair the director and cast nailed most of the key musical moments. This is owing in no small part to the stylistically accurate, meticulously phrased, deeply sensitive conducting from Emmanuel Villaume. The Maestro and his finely honed instrumental ensemble made a potent case for this youthful score. And the stellar cast of vocalists wholly succeeded in enlivening Bizet’s creation.

As Leïla, Nicole Cabell was as vocally assured, as she was physically alluring. Ms. Cabell slightly covers her seamless, wide-ranging soprano (think: Joan-Lite) resulting in a silky tone that is plush and seductive. Her total mastery of the numerous arching and winding phrases above the staff was particularly pleasing.

Eric Cutler presented a solidly reliable Nadir, his strapping physicality and generous, honeyed tenor serving the role well. Je crois entendre encore was well crafted and wove its spell, although we were occasionally more aware of Eric’s good technique as he negotiated the aria’s perils, than of the music itself. Further experience will surely imbue more of a feeling of spontaneity from this talented young artist.

Coming back to Santa Fe after his success as last summer’s Valentin, Christopher Magiera’s Zurga has a lot going for it: a mellow, throbbing baritone with an exceptionally free and easy high register, fine musicianship, good French, and a handsome ‘physique du role.’ While the voice is not particularly large, he communicated well when downstage. Mr. Magiera’s impact was muted when he was directed further upstage, which could be easily remedied by a few blocking adjustments. He and Mr. Cutler offered a mellifluous account of Au fond du temple saint. Rounding out the cast, Wayne Tigges delivered a forceful, mature Nourabad.

As is too often the case, the bread-and-butter opera of the festival was its least effective. Considering how much I have admired Maestro Chaslin in many other outings (see “Maometto,” above) his leadership of Tosca was uncharacteristically weak. Slow passages were often too slow, faster segments too rushed. There were odd orchestral highlights of seldom heard figurations and there was weak dramatic collaboration between singers and orchestra. Ah well, to paraphrase an old saw about comedy, “Death is easy, Puccini is hard.”

Soprano Amanda Echalaz has all the goods to make for a successful Tosca, including an enjoyable spinto that is responsive and ample. Her beautifully couched “Vissi d’arte” earned a deserved enthusiastic ovation. Young Brian Jagde assumed the part of Cavaradossi on short notice when the originally scheduled performer withdrew. He brought many assets to the show, including Corelli-worthy top notes of ringing splendor. His large-voiced, take-no-prisoners approach was unsubtle at times, and he tired a bit after his Act Three aria, but Mr. Jagde is a major talent making an auspicious role debut. While his Italianate music-making falls easily enough on the ear, I wonder if his future might not lie in the lighter Wagnerian roles.

Thomas Hampson is such an intelligent , conscientious artist that he was able to bring a good deal of craft to bear essaying Scarpia, which is not a natural fit for his vocal gifts. On this occasion, there was little bloom in the upper register, but he did bluster his way through the heavier passages effectively enough. Never uninteresting, always highly musical, I nevertheless thought Mr. Hampson was miscast as the malevolent Baron.

Dale Travis was a coarser than usual Sacristan, although his booming voice and aggressive search for the punch line did earn more than a few chuckles (or was it the surtitles?). Stefan Biller’s Shepherd was well-tutored, Dennis Petersen was a distinctive Spoletta, and Christian Bowers did all that was required as Sciarrone. Zachary Nelson was not only one of the youngest Angelotti’s I have ever seen, he also lavished the part with one of the most wonderfully warm, rolling bass-baritone’s I have heard in this small but crucial role.

In attempting to do something different with the physical production, set designer Yannis Thavoris offers a series of rather deconstructed impressions of some of opera’s (and Rome’s) most famous locales.

The focal point of Act One’s church is a huge raked platform occupying the middle third of the stage, which is actually a giant work-in-progress, framed painting of the Magdalene. Yes, that’s right, it’s like the Face on the Bar Room Floor, with Mario painting it there, Tosca obsessing about it there, and the amassed chorus tromping all over it in the Te Deum. The focal problems with this idea are complicated by having the platform proving a real obstacle to sensible blocking, with every movement having to go around it, or worse, over it.

The upstage image was a forced perspective look up at the cupola, with brass gates and fences in real perspective stage right and left. After the vocal cut-off at the act’s end, the front third of the platform flipped up, isolating Scarpia in front of a painting that turned out to be the Farnese Palace, probably unknowable to all but scholars of Italian art.

For Act Two, the obligatory window, torture chamber door and office entrance were added, with Scarpia’s desk the only other decoration in the vast expanse. The top of the Castel Sant’Angelo found us stuck again with the raked painting of Act One, the Magdelene image replaced by a hole in the floor for Mario’s entrance and some added architectural components hung upstage. Duane Schuler’s lighting really came into its own in this setting with dramatic hot light coming up from the cells, and glowing illumination of the suspended back-drop. Mr. Thavoris had considerably more success designing the apt and glamorous costumes.

I have to applaud many of director Stephen Barlow’s intentions. The first scene between Tosca and Mario was exceptionally coquettish, teasing, and flirtatious, with a good chemistry generated between the two. But MIA were the depth of passion and fierce jealousy that really drive the action. There needed to be more at stake, but after a fashion the scene was engagingly different.

The great cat-and-mouse confrontation of Act Two found Scarpia and Tosca somewhat stymied by tepid blocking. Having her dispatch her tormentor by stabbing him in the neck with a hatpin was, well, unusual to say the least. I didn’t so much mind Scarpia staggering and dying just inside the torture room door, although we were then robbed of the powerful melodramatic business dictated by the stage directions and underscored by the music.

The Shepherd’s solo starts offstage but then he appears with a broom to sweep Scarpia’s office, now devoid of the desk, and oh, BTW, the lad discovers the body after he sings. Where is there one bar of body-discovering-music in the score? After Cavaradossi had to sit rather awkwardly on the stage to write his farewell letter, the rest of Three picked up to provided the opera’s best moments, including Mario’s death as he first fell to his knees, then pitched to the side landing hard as a ton of . . .um, tenor. . .on the stage, provoking a palpable reaction in the house.

At first I thought that Spoletto was going to merely handcuff Tosca and (oh no) simply lead her away. But then she roughly pushed him down, ran to the upstage end of the rake, sang her famous final line, turned upstage chillingly backlit (thanks, Duane!), held high her shackled hands and in silhouette, violently hurled herself into the abyss.

It took them most of the night for the team to get us there, but ultimately we were riveted by the old familiar Tosca thrills.

James Sohre

Maometto II

Erisson: Bruce Sledge; Condulmiero: Matthew Newlin; Calbo: Patricia Bardon: Anna: Leah Crocetto; Maometto II: Luca Pisaroni; Selimo: Michael Dailey; Conductor: Frédéric Chaslin; Director: David Alden; Set and Costume Design: John Morrell; Lighting Design: Duane Schuler; Choreography: Peggy Hickey; Chorus Master: Susanne Sheston


Fortune Teller: Susanne Hendrix; Adelaide: Victoria Livengood; Zdenka: Heidi Stober; Matteo: Zach Borichevsky; Arbella: Erin Wall; Count Elemer: Brian Jagde; Count Waldner: Dale Travis; Mandryka: Mark Delavan; Welko: Christian Sanders; Dominik: Jonathan Michie; Lamoral: Joseph Beutel; Fiakermilli: Kiri Deonarine; Djura: Ryan Milstead: Jankel: Matthew Newlin; Servant: Edwin Vega; Conductor: Sir Andrew Davis; Director: Tim Albery; Set and Costume Designer: Tobias Hoheisel; Lighting Design: David Finn; Chorus Master: Susanne Heston

King Roger

Deaconess: Laura Wilde; Archbishop: Raymond Aceto; King Roger: Mariusz Kwiecien; Edrisi: Dennis Petersen; Roxana: Erin Morley; Shepherd: William Burden; Conductor: Evan Rogister; Director: Stephen Wadsworth; Set Design: Thomas Lynch; Costume Design: Ann Hould-Ward; Lighting Design; Duane Schuler; Choreographer: Peggy Hickey; Chorus Master: Susanne Sheston

The Pearl Fishers

Zurga: Christopher Magiera; Nadir: Eric Cutler; Leïla: Nicole Cabell; Nourabad: Wayne Tigges; Conductor: Emmanuel Villaume; Director: Lee Blakeley; Set Design: Jean-Marc Puissant; Costume Design: Brigitte Reifenstuel; Lighting Design: Rick Fisher; Chorus Master: Susanne Sheston


Angelotti: Zachary Nelson; Sacristan: Dale Travis; Cavaradossi: Brian Jagde; Tosca: Amanda Echalaz; Scarpia: Thomas Hampson; Spoletta: Dennis Petersen; Sciarrone: Christian Bowers; Shepherd: Stefan Biller; Jailer: Christopher Remmel; Conductor: Frédéric Chaslin; Director: Stephen Barlow; Set and Costume Design: Yannis Thavoris; Lighting Design: Duane Schuler; Chorus Master: Susanne Sheston

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