Reviews of Carmen, M Butterfly and Tristan und Isolde
By Peter Alexander Aug. 8 at 10:38 p.m.
The 2022 summer season at the Santa Fe Opera features three very different operas about three very different experiences of love—Bizet’s Carmen, the word premiere of Huang Ruo’s M Butterfly, and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde—as well as two of the great operatic comedies, Rossini’s Barber of Seville and Verdi’s Falstaff. First the love stories, if that’s what they are; I will write about the comedies in a later post.
Carmen (I saw the performance of Aug. 2) is about a soldier’s obsessive love for a free-spirited woman. Don José is subject to the most violent passions over which he has no control, while Carmen remains an independent women who makes her own decisions right to the end, though it cost her her life. The score contains some of the most memorable music opera can offer. In Santa Fe the music was mostly in evidence, but the production was a confounding mishmash.
Director Mariame Clément and designer Julia Hansen had lots of ideas, but they added up to confusion more than concept. All four scenes were placed on the grounds of an abandoned third-rate carnival, with remnants of a roller-coaster track framing the stage, a solitary bumper car downstage left, randomly placed ticket booths and other suggestions of a long-forgotten fairgrounds. The costumes were somewhere between the 1970s and the present day, with Micaela dressed in bib overalls and a backpack, Carmen in drab student outfits, the smugglers in undistinguished modern dress. The soldiers were dressed in bland pale-green.
Most confounding was a solitary child dancer, unidentified in the program but actually the seven-year-old daughter of bass Kevin Burdette who appeared in two of the summer’s other productions. She appeared repeatedly, sometimes pantomiming the music as in the opening prelude, at other times engaging with the characters. She bravely did all that was asked of her and moved with winning grace, but came across as just another idea that had no obvious point.
There were other gratuitous ideas throughout—smugglers carrying their contraband in upscale shopping bags, jugglers and tumblers among the Roma band, unmotivated entrances and exits by the chorus—but the evening was redeemed by the musical performance. The standout was Michael Fabiano as an ardent, impulsive Don José. He sang with a strong, expressive voice that commanded attention.
Isabel Leonard’s Carmen did not quite match his interpretation. She has a smoky voice that suits Carmen well, but lacked fire in her scenes with José. Her best moments were the Act I habanera, which elicited a strong ovation in spite of some aimless direction, and the card scene in Act III. At other times the directors left her looking lost on stage.
Michael Sumuel has a strong, commanding voice as Escamillo. He conveys the swagger and self-assurance one wants in the toreador, although the staging did not always work in his favor. Sylvia D’Eramo sang with sweetness of tone and expression as Micaëla, but had to push to be heard. Her lovely Scene 3 aria was marred by having the chorus of Roma women crowd around her for what should be an introspective moment of courage and fear.
The other roles in the Roma band—Magdalena Ku´zma and Kathleen Felty as Frasquita and Mercédes, Luke Sutliff and Anthony León as Dancaïre and Remendado—were handled ably, with sparkling precision in the treacherous quintet. David Crawford was vocally strong as the arrogant Lt. Zuniga, bringing out his contempt for Don José and his officer’s sense of entitlement toward Carmen.
Conductor Harry Bicket kept the pace well and held all the tricky ensemble numbers together, including the quintet, just. The orchestral preludes were played with beauty and expression by the orchestra, particularly the flute and harp duo before Act III. The Santa Fe Opera chorus lent their weight and outstanding voices to their scenes, particularly before the bullfight in the final scene.
A word about the version that is being performed: Santa Fe is using the dialog that was used at the first performance in Paris, rather than the recitatives composed later by Ernest Giraud. The spoken text gives some useful background that is missing in the later version. One significant cut has been made: the charming children’s chorus that accompanies the changing of the guard has been removed. Apart from he loss of music that Carmen fans will miss, the appearance of José onstage seems sudden and unexplained.
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If Carmen is about love as obsession, Huang Ruo’s M Butterfly (Aug. 3) is about love as deception. Based on David Henry Hwang’s Tony-winning play of the same name, M Butterfly adapts the true story of a French diplomat in Beijing who carried on a multi-year love affair with a Chinese opera singer without ever knowing that “she” was in fact a man. They both were later arrested in Paris for espionage after the diplomat shared official documents with his lover.
Ruo’s score skillfully keeps the voices prominent at all times, so that the text—thanks to the careful diction throughout by the excellent Santa Fe Opera cast—is always understandable. Credit is especially due to baritone Mark Stone in the huge role as the French diplomat, named René Gallimard in the opera, and countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim as his lover, Song Liling in the opera. Both their dialog and their individual arias were clearly sung.
Ruo sets the text with expressive vocal lines that are supported emotionally and musically by the orchestra. The result is a score of eloquent melodic speech, effectively exploring the leading characters’ emotional journeys and Gallimard’s self-deception in fascinating depth. Choruses add drama, and arias by the two leading characters add emotional depth without lingering in the memory.
There are missed opportunities in the score. For example, Song’s “I am your Butterfly” is an emotional turning point, and could be occasion for musical emphasis, but simply repeating the phrase is not enough to make the moment climactic. The pair of arias by the two lovers in the second act are memorable, but they are eloquent without reaching lyrical beauty. While Ruo does not shy away from atonality and dissonance, the music is always in service of the text, so that the opera remains “accessible” to all but the most hidebound conservatives.
The powerful exploration of human interiority and capacity for self-deception make M Butterfly an important new opera. The reveal of Song’s true gender is a shattering moment. My one criticism of the score is that the musical texture is so unvaried that it approaches monotony. Individual voices move in heightened speech over well-crafted orchestra support; every chorus is set with all parts in rhythmic unison. While this aids intelligibility, it does not add variety to the texture.
The opera opens with a headline projected on the stage, “France Jails Two in Odd Case of Espionage” while the chorus, representing stunned Parisians at a cocktail party, mock Gallimard for his sexual gullibility. This virtuoso setting of gossip and laughter sets the stage for the following story and shows off the Santa Fe Opera chorus. The rest of the story is told in flashback, with Gallimard in prison recalling the course of his affair with Song. A series of connected scenes, effectively evoked by projections and moving panels, carry the story from Gallimard’s arrival in Beijing, to the Chinese Opera, to Song’s apartment and back to Paris and the courtroom where the lovers are convicted of espionage.
As the title suggests, both the story and the music contain references to Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, representing the history of Western objectification of all Asian women, regardless of nationality. Ranging from direct quotation of the familiar aria “Un bel di” to subtle evocations of harmony and texture integrated into Ruo’s contemporary style, these Puccinian “Easter eggs” can be found throughout the opera, all the way to the very end when Gallimard chooses self-delusion over reality and envisions himself as Butterfly.
Various musical gestures recur through the score and help guide the listener through the labyrinth of emotions. Particularly striking was a nervous figure in the brass that appeared repeatedly as Gallimard fell into delusion, both as a lover and simultaneously as a diplomat trying to serve French interests in China.
The direction of James Robinson and designs by Allen Moyer (scenery) and James Schultz (costumes) kept the various locations and the plot line clear and supported the emotional arc. Dancers under choreographer Seán Curran made outstanding contributions to the opera both as Chinese cultural revolutionaries and dressers assisting Gallimard in his opera-ending transformation into Puccini’s Butterfly.
Conductor Carolyn Kuan managed the difficult task of evoking strength and power from the players where needed while keeping the orchestra subordinate to the voices. She maintained tight ensemble and evoked a rich orchestral sound while maintaining momentum to the very final chords.
Stone has by far the largest part. This is a major role for any baritone, not to be undertaken lightly. Singing with a resonant sound and conviction he made Gallimard a sympathetic character. Kim negotiated the countertenor register with both beauty of sound and enough strength to match Stone’s sound. His “Un bel di” announces his skill in the soprano register from the outset, and he never flags to the very final bars.
Kevin Burdette sang with an edgy sound that underscored the French ambassador’s distrust of Gallimard, equally appropriate when he appears later as the judge in Gallimard’s trial. Joshua Dennis made an effective brief appearance as Gallimard’s disdainful childhood friend, Marc, in a scene that illuminates Gallimard’s insecurity. Hung Wu struck the right tone of arrogant command as the communist party cadre Shu Fang.
There can be a special magic in the Santa Fe Opera’s open-air theater when music, drama and the capricious high desert weather work together. During the two lovers’ first night together, Song declaims “Ah, beautiful night.” And it was.
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Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (Aug. 5) is not really an opera about romantic love. The subject that inspired the composer and inhabits the opera from beginning to end is Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophical notion of physical love as a yearning for oblivion—the “love death” with which the opera ends—and the corollaries of night as the realm of love and day as the realm of shallow reality. That was the opera’s underlying subject, but that said, there is enough action to provide a dramatic framework on which Wagner hung his lengthy monologues about day, night, love and death.
The Santa Fe Opera has long wanted to produce Tristan, a goal finally reached this summer. The only previous Wagner opera at Santa Fe was Flying Dutchman in the 1970s and ‘80s. Continuing this trend, the company has announced Dutchman again for the 2023 season.
Most Tristan productions today, including Santa Fe’s, feature abstract sets—no ship, no sails, no rocky cliffs. This lack of specific place helps bring the deeper subject to the surface, serving Wagner’s underlying purpose. Here the well-engineered set by Charlap Hyman & Herrero comprised large panels that fold, shift, and open to create the spaces in which the action takes place.
So far so good, but abstract sets can create dramatic problems. In the first act, Tristan sings “If I left the helm, who would guide us to King Marke’s shore?”—while strolling across an empty stage with no helm in view. Other scenes that seem to contradict the text occur during the opera’s 4 1/2 hours.
A critical element of the production was John Torres’s lighting design that reinforced the text’s emphasis on light and dark, effectively tying libretto and set together. Most dramatically, as day breaks in the second act while Tristan and Isolde remain in the raptures of love, they remain enveloped in a penumbra of shadow while the dawn, threatening their imminent discovery, gradually fills the rest of the set.
Santa Fe has assembled an exceptionally strong cast. The three largest roles, Tristan, Isolde and Brangäne—all in their Santa Fe Opera debuts—were uniformly strong and well matched. Tamara Wilson brought a soaring, powerful voice to the role of Isolde. Her vocal expression ranged from palpable anger and fierce hatred at the outset to intense passion and her crucial transformation to ecstasy.
Simon O’Neill is a true heldentenor, with just the heft and edge to cut through the orchestra. The love duets with Isolde rose to the heights of passion. He sang expressively throughout, although his onstage presence tended to be wooden. His best moments were in his lengthy monologue as he faces the coming of night and death in the final act; ironically, he was more alive in his death scene than in the earlier acts.
Jamie Barton was outstanding in the crucial role of Isolde’s maid Brangäne. Whether resisting Isolde’s despair, warning of betrayal, or embracing her own despair at having disobeyed her mistress, she was dramatically solid and vocally splendid.
Nicholas Brownlee, a former SFO apprentice who sang Mozart’s Figaro here in 2021, filled the role of Kurwenal. Solid, imposing, he rarely sang below forte. While this reveals the character’s strength, more nuance would be welcome. Eric Owens brought dignity to the betrayed and forgiving King Marke. He was somber and rich-voiced in his Act II monologue, but sometimes blurry in pitch.
Tristan provides a real challenge for stage directors: the pacing is not theatrical. In fact, the score is often more like a tone poem with voices, as action that only needs a moment is stretched into long reflective musical passages, virtual whole movements on betrayal, passion, or death. In that respect, it resembles Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette (which Wagner knew well, and from which he borrowed several ideas including the music for the consumption of the love potion) more than any previous opera.
One good example is King Marke’s lengthy monologue when he discovers Tristan and Isolde’s betrayal. This passage is an eloquent reflection of his emotional state, but all he really says (to Tristan) is “I raised you from childhood, and yet you betrayed me!” The musical expression is powerful, but dramatically nothing happens for ten whole minutes.
Limited by the pace of Wagner’s score, the stage direction by Zack Winokur and Lisenka Heijboer Castañón was necessarily more stately than dramatic. Nonetheless, they kept the focus on the important characters and made the action clear.
James Gaffigan led the Santa Fe orchestra with a welcome sense of direction. The music never lagged, and the orchestral sound was as exciting as Wagner requires. Two members of the orchestra deserve special notice: Michael Taylor Eiffert played the numerous bass clarinet solos with surprising delicacy (disclosure: as a clarinetist I was especially enthralled by his playing); and Julia DeRosa played the extensive Act III English horn solos with flowing beauty.
The moment that everyone awaits—those hardy enough to stay to the end—is of course the Liebestod when Isolde undergoes transformation by grief and ecstasy. Wilson sailed through the carefully paced scene, ending as she should on the crest of the wave before literally disappearing into the night and Wagner’s metaphoric oblivion.
NOTE: Remaining dates for the 2022 season at the Santa Fe Opera can be found on the SFO Web page.