“Thoroughly enjoyable” Don Giovanni and “rare, noteworthy” Vanessa among the pleasures
By Peter Alexander
It’s an unusual year at the Santa Fe Opera.
The company, known for producing premieres, has no new works this year, nothing from the current century, nothing from the past 50 years. The most recent work on the 2016 season is Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, a conservative piece of neo-Romantic melodrama even when it was written in 1958. (Santa Fe is producing the now standard 1964 revision.)
This is not to imply that the current season at Santa Fe fails to live up to the company’s enviable standards. Even without new works, there is much to enjoy, appreciate and admire at the Santa Fe Opera. Of the five-opera season, I saw three: Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West (Girl of the Golden West) and Vanessa. Other productions were Richard Strauss’s Capriccio and Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette.
Don Giovanni receives a thoroughly enjoyable performance, in many ways one of the best I have seen. The cast is very strong, the production is interesting and successful, and except for the problematic second act where Mozart had to provide showpiece arias for each lead singer in turn, the pacing is brisk.
There is nothing particularly original or striking in the concept and characterization, which largely represent a natural and direct interpretation of the libretto and score. With a largely bare stage, the production focuses on the relationships among the characters.
Riccardo Hernandez’s set is dominated by a large semi-abstract head that recalls the sculptural style of Henry Moore and other mid-20th-century artists. A dark gray when it first rises impressively from behind the stage (left open to the New Mexico hills), the head reflects many different colors and patterns during the show, from silver and blue to gold to fiery red, paralleling the passions and actions of the characters.
The floor and side panels are a shiny, reflective black. Other than some suggestive scenes on the panels when the opera moves to Don Giovanni’s castle, the only other scenic elements are a few pieces of furniture when needed, and large statuary for the cemetery. With Peter Negrini’s intriguing projections on the sculptural head, this is enough to suggest the locations and simple enough to keep the action moving without time-consuming scene changes. The night I was in attendance, the flames projected on the set and the steam bursting from the stage floor as Don Giovanni is pulled into the underworld drew grasps and cheers from the audience.
Emily Rebholz’s attractive costumes suggest Mozart’s times without falling back on actual 18th-century styles, with their silk stockings and powdered periwigs that look silly today. Ron Daniel provides clean and effective stage direction with no tendentious psychological reinterpretation or the kind of slapstick and stylized gesturing that mar some Mozart productions.
Conductor John Nelson led a stylish interpretation, with the orchestra always well in balance with the singers. The overture had great energy but was slightly ragged until the players settled into the fast tempo that Nelson selected.
The key pairing of Don Giovanni and Leporello is outstanding. Daniel Okulitch cuts the very figure of the wily seducer. If slightly laconic at times, he always moves on stage with the ease of the nobleman who expects obedience from the world about him. He is vocally solid, and sparkles appropriately in the famous “Champagne Aria.”
His partner, Kyle Ketelsen as Leporello, is one of the stars of the show. He sings with great energy and expression, creating a very sympathetic Leporello without descending to mugging or overacting to make a comic point. (Disclosure: I knew Ketelsen as a graduate student singer many years ago at the University of Iowa.)
Leah Crocetto’s bright, clear soprano is ideal for Donna Anna, and she handles all the brilliant figuration of her opera seria part with aplomb. As her opposite figure, Keri Alkema is a steely-voiced Donna Elvira when intent on revenge against the Don, but capable of melting into warm, creamy tones under his seductive powers. In the ungrateful role of Don Ottavio, who has little more to do than sing his undying devotion over and over again, Edgaras Montvidas is ardent, although his voice sometimes slips into an edgy, pushed sound.
Rhian Lois was lovable and flirty as Zerlina, as she should be, singing with a bright and perky manner that was never less than delightful. If occasionally under-animated, Jarrett Ott was fine as the jealous and hot-tempered Masetto. Soloman Howard’s booming voice lent weight to the Commendatore, who, unusually, enters the final scene in person instead of as a statue.
Some Santa Fe magic: nature, always an element in the beautiful open-air Crosby Theatre, made its own contribution to the production. On Monday night (Aug. 1), distant lightning, seen from the very beginning of the overture, approached the theater as Don Giovanni approached his reckoning. The final scene had some accompanying loud thunderclaps as the Commendatore entered the stage.
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La Fanciulla del West has always struck me as an uncomfortable hybrid, with its Italian passion applied over the Wild West setting with a very broad knife. The sourdoughs heartily calling out “Hello! Hello!” at every opportunity, the cringeworthy Native characters Wowkle and Billy, rich Puccinian climaxes applied to such lines as “I want my plow again and my mother,” the childlike miners who pivot so easily from a raging lynch mob to a happy congregation under the influence of Minnie’s sentimentality—it’s all a hard to sell to Americans. Not surprisingly, the night I attended (Aug. 2) the audience chuckled more than once in moments that should be serious.
This production is a bit of a mixed bag. The cast, led by the estimable veteran Patricia Racette as Minnie, gives a taut performance in the opera’s most dramatic moments, particularly the crucial turning points in the second act. It is a pleasure to hear some less familiar Puccini performed with commitment.
However, the problematic set—designed by Miriam Buether in a co-production with the English National opera—is another matter. It represents a sort of dollhouse style, with tidy buildings from somewhere far removed from a California mining camp. The second act turns Minnie’s cabin into a 1950s Adirondack weekend getaway, with a circular window and chic little lighting fixtures, while the first-act bar comes complete with neon lighting.
The first and third act sets leave director Richard Jones with some very stiff challenges for moving his cast and chorus. In the first act, the chorus keeps running in and out, en masse, often with no apparent motivation, largely because the set doesn’t leave room for them to do much more. The last act, with its broad front suggesting a marshal’s office as painted by Edward Hopper, forces the chorus to line up in two ranks, face the audience and sing. The only action possible in this constricted space is provided by posse members who keep dashing across the stage, seriously upstaging one of Jack Rance’s big moments.
Dramatically, it is hard to take this seriously, but Puccini is really about the music. Conductor Emmanuel Villaume leads an impassioned interpretation without sacrificing delicacy and control. He is unafraid to turn loose the orchestra at the climaxes, but otherwise remains supportive of the singers.
The only major female character in an opera of men, Minnie is the heart of the story. Racette has Puccini in her veins, and at her best delivers a Minnie of great impact. Her evocation of Minnie’s anguish, and all the emotional swerves of the second act are superb. Elsewhere, I found her less effective, with a vibrato that gets away from her when pushed for volume or range.
Gwynn Hughes Jones has an appealing tenor voice that fits Dick Johnson well. He was deeply affecting in his lyrical moments, but also in the great emotional moments of the second act. Mark Delavan is a rough hewn, threatening Rance, stressing more the jealous, angry lover than the rock-steady sheriff. With Racette and Jones, he helps bring the second act to a boil.
The other roles are well handled. Craig Verm as the sympathetic Sonora is a standout, Allan Glassman a solid Nick. As Ashby, Raymond Aceto uses his sonorous, covered voice to create a blustery, officious Wells Fargo agent.
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For fans of Barber’s music (me included), any production of Vanessa is a rare pleasure, and this one was particularly noteworthy. The musical elements—the singing from a strong cast, the musical leadership from conductor Leonard Slatkin, the playing from the virtuoso orchestra—were all exceptional. The production struck a serious note, and while not everyone will like the approach, which chooses psychological symbolism over grandeur, it was consistent and meaningful.
Allen Moyer’s set portrays a grand house, set somewhere in the remote north, but Moyer eschews the lavish Masterpiece Theater Victorian-period style that often characterize the opera. Instead, his set is rendered entirely in shades of gray. That setting, and the largely monochrome costumes of James Schuette, clearly symbolize the monotony of the shuttered and emotionally choked life that Vanessa has chosen.
The back of the stage is covered by a large curtain, pulled back to reveal a shattered mirror as Vanessa begins to return to life with the arrival of the false Anatol. Representing Vanessa’s efforts to deny the aging process, when opened it stands for the shattered person that Vanessa has become. At the end, when the young Erika takes on Vanessa’s retreat from life, the curtain is pulled back over the mirror.
This approach allows for some stunning moments of theater—the eye is captured by any use of color in a costume, the pure white Erika and others wear in the second act, the view of the snowy woods through the great window—and the return to all gray at the end makes Erika’s coming fate visible. If a little oppressive for the viewer, it is handled with subtlety and consistency. The symbolism never becomes didactic or preachy, and never overtakes or contradicts the music or plot.
The opera is carried well by the two female principals, Virginie Verrez as Erika and Erin Wall as Vanessa. The two singers establish their contrasting characters at the outset, with beautiful renditions first of Erika’s calm, longing aria “Must the Winter Come so Soon,” followed by Vanessa’s fiery, overwrought showpiece, “Do not utter a word, Anatol.” Wall in particular handles the extreme demands of her aria spectacularly well, from the most brilliant outbursts to the final, filmy fading of the last note.
These two singers set a very high standard, and maintain it throughout. As the baroness, who makes her greatest emotional impact by not singing, Helene Schneiderman sings expressively but is a little light of voice for such a fierce, commanding figure: only a gutsy and powerful voice will be missed when withheld.
The third side of the triangle, Anatol, is ably carried by Zach Borichevsky. His is a less interesting character than the women—the point of his role is that he is empty at the core, proposing offhandedly to Erika, then not seeming to care if she accepts. Erika is right to doubt his love, or any other deep feeling for that matter. Borichevsky illuminates Antol’s feckless character and negotiates the part’s high range nimbly, but his bright, brittle tenor sometimes sounds pinched.
A great pleasure of the performance is seeing veteran baritone James Morris as the doctor. His rich sound and precise expression made the comic scene at the beginning of Act II one of the opera’s high points, confirming Morris’s stature as one of our great actor-singers.
Santa Fe’s orchestra proved more than capable of handling Barber’s virtuoso demands. I am tempted to add, “especially the woodwinds,” whose fleeting scurries and twittering commentary are brilliantly played, but in fact the brass have equal, if different demands. Special kudos go to the horns. The highly experienced Slatkin keeps the pacing and emotional temperature firmly under control, mapping out a performance that finds its most powerful moments at just the right time.
There is still time to hear all three, and the other operas on the summer’s bill. The Santa Fe season runs through Aug. 27, with all five works in rotation. Check the SFO’s Web page for ticket availability.
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In the summer of 2017 the Santa Fe Opera will be back to their premiering ways. Sure to attract international attention, The (Re)volution of Steve Jobs will premiere July 22 with music by Mason Bates and a libretto by Mark Campbell. Michael Christie, conductor laureate of the Colorado Music Festival, will conduct. If you are interested, you should watch for the beginning of online ticket sales in the fall since this is likely to be one of opera’s hot tickets next year.
Other works on the 2017 program will include two rarities, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Golden Cockerel and George Frideric Handel’s Alcina, along with two works more standard in the world’s opera houses, Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Johann Strauss Jr.’s Fledermaus. More information is available on the Santa Fe Opera Website.