Green Room Artists open the new season with music about night and breezes

Pieces by Takemitsu, Chen Yi, Saariaho and Martinů comprise the unusual program

By Peter Alexander Aug. 21 at 10:42 p.m.

Green Room Artists, the unconventional chamber music collective founded last year by violinist Leslee Smucker to explore some little-known corners of repertoire, this fall gets a jump on other classical music groups’ fall seasons with a concert titled “Night Spaces,” at 7 pm. Thursday and Friday (Aug. 23 and 24).

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Members of Green Room Artists performing last year in e-Town Hall

Like last year’s program, which was motivated by an unpublished piece by the French composer Gabriel Fauré, “Night Spaces” features pieces that are off the beaten path. Works on the program are by composers whose names may or may not be familiar to Boulder audiences, and all whom came from countries outside the U.S.: Tōru Takemitsu (Japan), Chen Yi (China), Kaija Saariaho (Finland) and Bohuslav Martinů (Czech Republic). The ensembles range from duos for violin and cello to a sextet with winds, strings and piano.

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Violinist and Green Room Artists founder LesleeSmucker

“I wanted to do a companion concert to our last one, in that there’s some bridges in sounds,” Smucker says. “This one focuses on both the conception of the historical nocturne, and the beauty and mystery of night music. Martinů’s Chamber Music No. 1, which has the subtitle of Les fêtes nocturnes (Nocturnal celebration), was actually the one I found first, and I just fell in love with it.”

The largest work on the program, Chamber Music No. 1 is scored for violin, viola, cello, clarinet, harp and piano, and it will close the concert. “It’s one of the last pieces Martinů wrote, and each movement is so distinct and wonderful,” Smucker says. “And Les fêtes nocturnes is like a night party, so I got really excited about that.”

From the Martinů piece, Smucker went on to find other pieces of chamber music connected to the night. The concert will open with Distance de Fèe for violin and piano by Takemitsu. Here the connection to night may be more in the sound of the music than in the original conception of the piece.

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Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu

It is based on a poem by surrealist Japanese poet and artist Shūzō Takiguchi about a mysterious fairy. “It describes a mythological creature living in ‘air’s labyrinth . . . it lives in the spring breeze’,” Smucker says. “I read somewhere that Takemitsu never wrote an ugly note in his life. It’s true! Everything he writes is beautiful.”

Chen Yi’s Night Thoughts for flute, cello and piano is “definitely a nocturne,” Smucker says. “Chen Yi has her own distinct voice. You can hear all of these different layers of sound, and the flute has very ornate licks. Silence plays a prominent role, interspersed with all of these great textures.”

Saariaho has become well known in the U.S. since her opera L’amour de loin (Love from afar) was produced at the Metropolitan Opera last year—the first opera by a woman presented there in more than 100 years. Her work has been known to new-music performers for many years, though, and Smucker performed her Lichtbogen (Bow of light) when she was a student at CU.

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Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. Photo by Andrew Campbell.

Like Takemitsu’s piece, Saariaho’s Aure seems to be about a breeze. The composer wrote, “We were caressed by a gentle breeze that our ancient language called aure; a kind of delicate morning breeze misty and scented in the dew.”

It was originally written for violin and viola, then rescored for violin and cello, Smucker explains. “She played violin, and so she writes magnificently for violin. She uses her own extended techniques—harmonic trills and sul pont (on the bridge of the violin)—to achieve all these really interesting sounds. You have to get used to it, but it’s perfectly intuitive, once you really look at it.”

Playing on the bridge usually produces a harsh and sinister sound, but according to Smucker, Saariaho writes it differently. “We think of it as creepy, but the way she writes is twinkly and sparkly and shimmery,” she says. “She makes it pianissimo, and dolce, and it is beautiful.”

“I love the way that this concert reminisces about the elusive and mysterious quality of night music in general,” Smucker says. “Going from the very serene Night Thoughts to the sort of playful Fêtes nocturnes, I hope that people hear all angles of night music.

“All of these pieces are just extremely beautiful to me.”

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Green Room Artists

“Night Spaces”

Green Room Artists: Leslee Smucker and Timothy Cuffman, violin; Megan Healy, viola; Adam Riggs and Zack Reaves, cello; Colleen White, flute; Kellan Toohey, clarinet; Kathryn Harms, harp; and Jessica Nilles and Joshua Sawicki, piano.

7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 23, Seventh Day Adventist Church, 345 Mapleton, Boulder
7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 24, Caffè Sole, 637 S. Broadway, Boulder

Tōru Takemitsu: Distance de Fèe for violin and piano
Chen Yi: Night Thoughts for flute, cello and [piano
Kaija Saariaho: Aure for violin and cello
Bohuslav Martinů: Chamber Music no. 1, “Les fêtes nocturnes,” for sextet

Tickets

Edited Aug. 22 to correct typos and inadvertent spacing errors.

 

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Grace Notes: Brief news items from the classical music scene in Boulder

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By Peter Alexander Aug. 20 at 9:45 p.m.

Boulder Chamber Orchestra hires executive director—The Board of Directors of the Boulder Chamber Orchestra announced earlier this summer that Courtney Huffman has been appointed as the organization’s executive director.

The executive director’s responsibilities had been handled by Bahman Saless, founder and artistic director of the BCO. After 14 years, he is now ready to leave administrative duties to Huffman in order to focus on the music.

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Courtney Huffman

“I have loved and cherished very moment and I am ready to take a step back and lighten the administrative load knowing that the orchestra is in good hands,” he said in a news release.

Huffman first joined the BCO organization three years ago as managing director. She had left in 2017 to work for an educational non-profit organization in Denver, but returned to Boulder when offered the position with the BCO.

“I am beyond excited to be returning to Boulder to lead the orchestra,” she said in the BCO’s news release. “I have loved classical music since I was a little girl, and this organization feels like home to me. I am honored to be able to ring in the orchestra’s 15thseason.”

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MahlerFest also hires an executive director—Colorado MahlerFest recently hired its first executive director.

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Ethan Hecht

In a decision announced in July, MahlerFest hired Ethan Hecht as executive director after 31 seasons of performances. MahlerFest’s announcement notes that the festival has grown since the 2015 hiring of Kenneth Woods as the its second artistic director. The festival has added both workshops and a masterclass for young conductors, and introduced “festival artists” who are featured both in the MahlerFest orchestra and in chamber music performances during the festival.

According to the announcement from the festival, “the board looked to expand the administrative operations of the festival.” Hecht has performed at MahlerFest as the orchestra’s principal violist, and he has extensive administrative experience with Colorado Music Festival and Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra. He is currently executive director of the Boulder Chorale.

MahlerFest board president David Auerbach was quoted in the announcement of Hecht’s appointment: “This is a major investment in the future of the festival . . .We are very excited [Hecht] has joined the team.”

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Pro Music Colorado announces 2018–19 season—The Pro Musical Colorado Chamber Orchestra has announced their 2018–19 season, titled “Classical Evolution!”

Photography by Glenn Ross. http://on.fb.me/16KNsgK

Cynthia Katsarelis

The central performance and likely audience favorite of the season will be Handel’s Messiah, to be presented Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 1 and 2, at Mountain View United Methodist Church, 355 Ponca Place in Boulder. The performance under conductor Cynthia Katsarelis will feature guests soloists to be announced later and the Boulder Chamber Chorale with artistic director Vicki Burrichter.

Mountain View Methodist, which has ample on-site parking, has become the orchestra’s home base in Boulder. All three of the season’s programs will be presented there. In addition, their September concert will be performed in Denver at Central Presbyterian Church, and the season-closing concert in February will be performed at the First Baptist Church of Denver and at the Stewart Auditorium in Longmont.

Here is the full 2018-19 season of Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra:

“Women Among Men”
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 22, Central Presbyterian Church, Denver
2 pm. Sunday, Sept. 23, Mountain View Methodist Church, Boulder
Cynthia Katsarelis, conductor, with Yumi Hwang-Williams, violin, and Amanda Balestrieri, soprano

Wolfgang A. Mozart: Serenade No. 6 for Orchestra in D major K. 239, Serenata notturna
Grazyna Bacewicz: Concerto for String Orchestra
Franz Joseph Haydn: Violin Concerto in C Major
Johann Sebastian Bach: Die Schätzbarkeit der weiten Erde (The treasure of the world), aria from Cantata 204

Handel’s Messiah
Cynthia Katsarelis, conductor, with the Boulder Chamber Chorale, Vicki Burrichter, conductor, and soloists tba.
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 1, Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Boulder
3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 2, Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Boulder

“21st-Century Style”
Cynthia Katsarelis, conductor, with Jory Vinikour, harpsichord
7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 22, First Baptist Church of Denver
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 23, Mountain View Methodist Church, Boulder
2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 24, Stewart Auditorium, Longmont

Max Wolpert: Harpsichord Concerto No. 1, “Baroque in Mirror” (World Premiere)
Philip Glass: Concerto for Harpsichord and Chamber Orchestra
Joseph Haydn: Symphony No. 22 (“The Philosopher”)

More information and tickets here.

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CU Faculty Tuesdays start Aug. 28—The CU College of Music’s “Faculty Tuesdays” series starts next week, at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 28, in Grusin Hall of the Imig Music Building.

The first of the fall series of faculty recitals at CU will feature violinist Charles Wetherbee and pianist David Korevaar, performing three works: the Sonata for Violin and Piano in B minor of Ottorino Respighi; the Poeme op. 25 by Ernest Chausson; and one of the great masterpieces of violin repertoire, Beethoven’s Violin Sonata in A major op. 47, known as the “Kreutzer” Sonata.

You may check the full fall schedule for “Faculty Tuesdays” on the College of Music Web page. Note also that if you cannot make the trip to the CU campus for any of the performances, they are live-streamed every week through this Web page.

 

 

Boulder Philharmonic announces program change for 2018–19 season

Season Finale April 27 will be “The Dream of America”

By Peter Alexander Aug. 10 at 6:30 p.m.

The Boulder Philharmonic has announced a change in the final concert of their upcoming 2018–19 season, scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 27, in Macky Auditorium.

“The Dream of America,” a concert program that pairs Dvořák’s popular “New World” Symphony with Ellis Island: The Dream of America by Peter Boyer, will replace the previously announced performance of Peter Schaffer’s play Amadeus. The change was announced today (August 10) in a message sent to ticket buyers from Boulder Phil executive director Katie Lehman.

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A scene from the PBS broadcast of Peter Boyer’s “Ellis Island: The Dream of America,” performed by the Pacific Symphony with conductor Carl St. Clair

The program was selected by Boulder Phil music director Michael Butterman, who will conduct the performance.

Nominated for a Grammy, Ellis Island is a piece for actors and orchestra that was presented recently on the PBS series “Great Performances.” Based on stories from the Ellis Island Oral History Project, the score weaves together monologues, a full orchestral score and projected images from the Ellis Island archives. At the center of the piece are the stories of seven immigrants among the many thousands who entered the U.S. through Ellis Island between 1910 and 1940.

According to information released by the Boulder Philharmonic, the rights to present Amadeus had become unavailable due to plans to mount a major theatrical revival.

Patrons who already purchased tickets for April 27 who wish to keep their tickets need not do anything; their tickets will be mailed in September. Those who wish to exchange tickets for another performance, receive a refund, or donate their tickets back to the Boulder Phil should contact the orchestra’s office, at 303-449-1343 (11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday–Friday).

Boulder Philharmonic season information and tickets are available on their Web page.

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The serious and the comic: John Adams and Rossini in Santa Fe

Dr. Atomic and L’Italiana in Algeri both influenced by the weather

By Peter Alexander Aug. 7 at 10:40 p.m.

There are a few American composers whose operas are important events, and John Adams is one. When you combine Adams with the sensational stage director Peter Sellars, you have an event of international importance.

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Dr. Atomic: Ryan McKinny (Robert Oppenheimer) and the Santa Fe Opera Chorus. Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

That’s the case this summer at the Santa Fe Opera, where Adams’ 2005 opera Dr. Atomic, with a libretto assembled by Sellars, is presented in a powerful, searing production that Sellars directed. It is not to be missed.

Nominally a historical opera that takes place in 1945 and dramatizes events surrounding the world’s first nuclear test, the opera features recognizable historical characters. But here Dr. Atomic has been transformed by Sellars into an aspirationally universal piece about humanity and nuclear weapons, apart from time. Thus everyone is generically costumed, J. Robert Oppenheimer has been stripped of his characteristic hat and cigarette, and the atomic bomb is represented by a large, shiny silver ball rather than a replica of the first bomb.

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Peter Sellars. Photo by Peter Alexander.

In a pre-performance conversation, Sellars explained: “There are no 1945 references (in the production) because nuclear history did not end in 1945.” Instead, he wants the audience to recognize that the nuclear tests are still with us, in the air, the water, the soil, and our bodies. Thus the generic bomb dominates every scene, its mirrored surface reflecting the audience to remind us of the nuclear issues in our own lives, from the fallout that devastated so many of the “downwinders”—people who lived downwind from the tests and who are plagued by cancer to this day—to the never-ending threat of global nuclear war.

Performing the opera within sight of Los Alamos, where the research for the bomb was carried out and the first scenes of the opera take place, Sellars wanted to face larger questions of history. Thus, there are downwinders who carry radiation-linked cancers in their bodies standing on stage as silent witnesses to several scenes. Their presence deepens the opera’s meaning in a wrenchingly human way.

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Downwinders with Ryan McKinny (Oppenheimer), Daniel Okulitch (General Groves) and ensemble. Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

I found the effort to universalize the opera understandable, at times affecting, But I could never disconnect the characters and events that I recognize from the time and place where they happened. Others, for whom those events loom less large in the memory, may react differently.

Also incorporated into the production are native dancers from three pueblos in the Los Alamos/Santa Fe area, presenting a sacred corn dance before the performance and later onstage during the opera. The Corn Dance added a spiritual perspective to the evening from of the people who lived on these lands first, but their later presence on stage was a distraction from the central story.

I described the libretto as having been assembled by Sellars. In fact, every word comes from documentary history, including wiretaps of phone conversations, or from poetry that Oppenheimer knew. This has a distancing effect in many scenes, since the words often do not sound like real conversations. It does provide authenticity, but binds the opera more closely to the events of 1945.

The night I attended the performance, a massive thunderstorm rolled over the theater just after the start of the first act. The wind-blown downpour could be seen whipping horizontally across the stage. Black-clad stage hands mopped the floor between scenes. The storm lasted into the night, but subsided into a more gentle rain before the end of Act I.

This corresponded in an eerie way with the subject of the opera. A critical dramatic element is a thunderstorm that threatened the 1945 test, and at one point in the opera General Groves orders the Army meteorologist to deliver the forecast he wants, “or I will hang you.” There were several moments of unintentional hilarity, as when Groves entered the stage at the height of the actual storm and demanded, in his very first line, “What the Hell’s wrong with the weather?”

Less humorously, conductor Matthew Aucoin reported that “many of the string players during Act I were compelled to stop playing for parts of the performance in order to avoid water damage to their instruments.” The music remained mostly effective, but when singers and players are being drenched, it is difficult to offer a fair appraisal of the performance.

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Julia Bullock (Kitty Oppenheimer). Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

Adams’ wind and percussion-dominated orchestral music is compelling, even without a full compliment of strings, and powerfully conveys the drama of the scientists and military personnel who were entering an entirely unknown realm in 1945, under punishing pressure from military and political events. His vocal music I find less successful: sometimes dramatic, occasionally lyrical, rarely memorable in itself.

The cast of Santa Fe’s Dr. Atomic delivered a performance to remember, overcoming conditions in the first act, unencumbered in the second. Soprano Julia Bullock was outstanding as Kitty Oppenheimer, the deeply troubled alcoholic wife of the title character. She managed all of the extreme vocal leaps that Adams requires, and even at the height of the storm sang with tender lyricism for her Act I duet with Oppenheimer. In her portrayal Kitty is a fascinating and multi-layered character.

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Ryan McKinny (Robert Oppenheimer) and Daniel Okulitch (General Groves). Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

Ryan McKinney was more generic as Oppenheimer. So much of the operatic role is reactive—to pressures from General Groves and to issues raised by other scientists—that Oppenheimer on stage never seems to cause anything to happen. This perception is not helped by his one big scene, the aria from John Donne “Batter my heart, three person’d God,” which is a cry of despair in the face of overwhelming events.

McKinney sang solidly and with commitment, and with real power in “Batter My Heart,” but his expression seemed not to change. The one exception was his quiet conversation about diet with General Groves, a much needed moment of relaxation and comic relief. Once the storm subsided in the second act, his performance seemed more nuanced.

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Dancers, Meredith Arwady (Pasqualita), Ben Bliss (Robert Wilson), and Tim Mix (Frank Hubbard). Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

Daniel Okulitch also faced a challenge as Groves. So much of his role, as recorded in the documents, is military bluster that he can easily become one-dimensional. For Groves too, the scene with Oppenheimer gives humanity to the character. Okulitch sang with full voiced authority, even if he lacks the physical bulk to carry off the notion that he is struggling with his weight.

Meredith Arwady was a brooding presence as the Oppenheimers’ Native-American housekeeper Pasqualita. Her full-voiced contralto was magnificently deep and imposing in the lowest reaches of a low-lying part, only occasionally strained at the top.

The generic costuming makes it hard to tell one from another among the scientists and military. Mackenzie Gotcher created a warm and sympathetic character for the medical officer James Nolen, and Tim Mix was solid as the much maligned meteorologist Frank Hubbard. Andrew Harris as the renegade Edward Teller and Benjamin Bliss as the conscience-stricken Robert Wilson filled out the cast capably.

The performance includes four dancers choregraphed by Emily Johnson. Their movements sometimes reflected the music eloquently, sometimes seemed odd. Aucoin never let the tension subside, managing the orchestral swerves from storm-driven ferocity to rare moments of gentleness. Under his direction, the Santa Fe orchestra played Adams’s score with power and precision.

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The skies were clear for Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers), performed the night after the Dr. Atomic downpour, but that storm had an impact nonetheless.

The performance ended up being delayed about 20 minutes, apparently due to problems with the lighting system resulting from the downpour. But once it got underway, L’Italiana—a revival of a production first performed at SFO in 2002, with Shawna Lucey as a new stage director—provided non-stop Rossinian high spirits and fun.

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L’Italiana in Algeri: Cast and chorus in designer Robert Innes Hopkins’ pop-up palace. Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

The production steps out of time, with the Italian girl arriving by early 20th-century biplane, looking very much like Amelia Earhart (with her “uncle” Taddeo as Fred Noonan, one supposes) and the other female aviators of the 1930s, and Bey Mustafà in a Gaddafi-style uniform from the 1980s or ‘90s. It is all very colorful, with costume excess of all kinds, and designer Robert Innes Hopkins’s set itself adds to the humor with a pop-up palace out of Arabian Nights.

There could be no better conclusion to a week of high-desert opera in Santa Fe.

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Daniela Mack (Isabella) arrives by biplane. Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

L’Italiana in Algeri was Rossini’s first great success, written over 27 days in 1813, when he was just 21. And if you want to know why he became the rage of Europe almost overnight, all you have to do is watch the Act I finale (“Confusi e stupidi”), which ends with sheer operatic madness, the assembled cast singing “Caw, Caw, Caw,” “Ding, Ding, Ding,” “Ta, Ta, Ta,” and “Boom, Boom, Boom,” all at an impossible and hilarious pace. No finale—and Rossini wrote several more great ones—ever surpassed that.

Isabella’s entrance as aviator immediately establishes her as person to be reckoned with, while Taddeo—the admirer who is traveling as her “uncle”—is immediately shown as a bit of a buffoon, which makes him a great comic character if not a role model.

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Patrick Carfizzi (Taddeo, aka the Grand Kaimakan). Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

Both were portrayed to comic perfection. Daniela Mack was a superb Isabella, singing with clarity and solidity of voice in one of the great contralto roles in opera. A lot of her stage directions were stock comic material, but always carried off with verve and style, and always rewarded with laughter from the audience. No one could have tied the men in knots better—something that was funny in one way in 1813, but is both funny and satisfying today.

Patrick Carfizzi was an ideal Taddeo, bringing a solid voice and a great comic manner to his performance. Taddeo’s cluelessness, his bafflement, and his obstinacy when Mustafà wants him to exit the scene were delightful. He was funny every time he was on stage, particularly in the ridiculous getup as the Bey’s “Grand Kaimakan.”

Jack Swanson was a satisfying Lindoro, light and agile of voice. His ability in the fast-paced patter numbers was impressive, and he warmed up through the evening with his rapid passagework. Scott Conner was a blustering Mustafà, comically delicious if not as fleet-footed with the patter. Other roles—Stacy Geyer as Elvira, Suzanne Hendrix as Zulma, Craig Verm as Haly—all fit very well into the excellent cast.

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Jack Swanson (Lindoro), Daniela Mack (Isabella), Scott Conner (Mustafa), Stacey Geyer (Elvira), Suzanne Hendrix (Zulma), and Patrick Carfizzi (Taddeo). Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

The wait for the start may have take a toll on the orchestra, which started the famous overture with slightly fuzzy intonation and balance that were soon set aright. Conductor Corrado Rovaris set some blistering tempos, which kept the comedy on the boil throughout.

It is hard to go astray with Rossinian comedy, and the Santa Fe production and cast do not. If you need an excuse to make the drive to New Mexico—no more than seven hours from Boulder—you cannot go wrong with L’Italiana in Algeri.

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Finally, if you don’t have time to get to Santa Fe before the 2018 season ends, the SFO has announced its 2019 season. Running from June 28 to Aug. 24, there will be five productions, including one world premiere:

The Thirteenth Child by Poul Rudders (world premiere; based on a little-known tale from the Brothers Grimm)
La Bohème by Puccini
The Pearl Fishers by Bizet
Così fan tutte by Mozart
Jenůfa by Janáček

There will also be a one-night-only performance by Renée Fleming Aug. 10. Subscription renewals are currently available; single tickets go on sale to the general public in January, 2019.

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John Crosby Theater at the Santa Fe Opera. Photo by Kate Russell.

Not only is attending opera in Santa Fe Opera’s beautiful John Crosby theater an extraordinary experience, the high desert air is healthy and the food in Santa Fe is incomparable. If you need recommendations, let me know.

EDITED 8/8 for clarity and to correct typos

Santa Fe Opera I: Three well imagined and beautifully rendered productions

Madama Butterfly, Candide and Ariadne auf Naxos 

By Peter Alexander Aug. 5 at 4:50 p.m.

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Santa Fe Opera Theater with Jemez Mountains. Photo by Robert Godwin.

A highlight of the Santa Fe Opera’s 2018 season is a beautiful and well-conceived production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.  

The design features a simple and utilitarian unit set, with a rotating cube to which sliding walls are attached to create the house. The New Mexico landscape behind the stage provides a backdrop from which Butterfly and her family climb up to the house in the first act. The night I was there nature outdid any lighting man could design, as the stage gradually darkened into twilight, ending with real stars in the sky as Pinkerton and Butterfly sang their ecstatic love duet.

No greater magic could be created.

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Butterfly’s house, Acts II and III. Ana María Martínez as Butterfly. Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

The production is firmly placed in the time the opera was written, the early years of the 20th century. One of the themes is the passage of time between Acts I and II. In those three years, industrialization is taking place in Japan, represented by the replacement of the garden outside Butterfly’s house by light poles and telephone wires. The neighborhood is going downhill and the house itself is visibly getting shabby.

Butterfly is dressed in simple western clothes in the final acts—a blouse and straight skirt—representing her claim to be an American. Suzuki looks more frail and care-worn. Pinkerton, when he enters at the end of the opera, is in a grander uniform than in the first act, suggesting promotion in the past three years. This kind of attention to detail is reflected in many other touches that add meaning and deepen characterization.

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Ana María Martínez (Butterfly) and Joshua Guerrero (Pinkerton). Photo by Ken Howard  for Santa Fe Opera.

Ana María Martínez (replacing Kelly Kaduce, who took the role June 30 and July 20) was a stunning Butterfly, especially in the second and third acts when she showed more maturity and resolve than the first-act child bride that we are familiar with. She floated her high notes flawlessly, especially in the quintessential “Un bel dì,” and was moving throughout.

Joshua Guerrero’s Pinkerton negotiated the tricky but essential line between the callow and thoughtless cad who uses Butterfly for his pleasure and the Romantic lover who sings one of opera’s great duets at the end of Act I. In this he was helped by director Matthew Ozawa, who gave Pinkerton two silent buddies with whom he could play the average joe before Butterfly’s entrance, at which point he spruced up his dress and his manners. In this context his tenderness toward Butterfly seemed neither insincere nor affected, but rather the normal behavior of a heedless young naval officer.

Guerrero (another replacement, for A.J. Glueckert who performed earlier) made these different aspects of Pinkerton believable. His voice was solid, soaring when needed, earnest and expressive throughout.

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Megan Marino as Suzuki. Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

In an affecting performance, Lyons resident Megan Marino brought some real individuality to Suzuki, both wise and caring. During Butterfly’s vigil for Pinkerton’s return, she stayed apart, observing Butterfly and her son, rather than taking part herself. Later, a moment apart with Kate Pinkerton showed that she was more than a bystander. She sang with deep expression, making her a crucial element of the story.

Nicholas Pallesen was a sympathetic Sharpless, compassionate but helpless to prevent the tragedy that he so clearly foresees. His solid voice supported the characterization well. Matthew DiBattista was appropriately obsequious in voice and manner as Goro the marriage broker. Kenneth Stavert was effective as the besotted Prince Yamadori, and Soloman Howard brought vocal heft and menace to the Bonze. The orchestra under John Fiore played with flexibility and style.

Two other decisions need comment. For some reason, the performance returns to the text of the very first performance in using the name F.B. Pinkerton, announced by the Imperial Commissioner as the utterly non-American “Sir Francis Blummy Pinkerton.” Today, we usually hear “Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton,” which was introduced for the opera’s successful second run. Authenticity is fine, but Puccini accepted Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, which is more familiar, and sounds better as well.

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Paulino Rivera-Torres (Trouble), Ana María Martínez (Butterfly), and Joshua Guerrero (Pinkerton). Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

And at the very end, when Pinkerton rushes in to find the lifeless Butterfly, their son (“Trouble” in the cast list, called “Sorrow” in the performance) picks up the knife that she has just used for her suicide and points it toward his father. This is unlikely, perhaps, from a child who according to the timeline is only two, but it reminds us that he does not know his father, and the reunion may not have a happy outcome for the traumatized child. We can imagine that his life may have both trouble and sorrow

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Leonard Bernstein’s Candide has a difficult history, and it remains a difficult work to bring off. The Santa Fe Opera is presenting what they identify as the “Scottish Opera—Old Vic Version,” and they credit no fewer than seven authors, “after Voltaire.” The original Broadway production in 1956 was considered a flop, and since then there have been many attempts to revise and fix the show, up through this version from 1988, leading to the multiple credited authors.

There is no question that the show contains some brilliant music, at least half a dozen numbers as good as anything Bernstein ever wrote. It’s the rest of the show that is the problem, leading to endless choices of what to include and what to leave out, and how to get from one scene to the next in the episodic plot line.

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Alek Shrader (Candide), Brenda Rae (Cunegonde) and Kevin Burdette (Voltaire/Pangloss). Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

Not only is the plot episodic, the characters are cardboard cutouts serving a satirical purpose, in both the original Voltaire novella and the Broadway show. They are always amusing, with many laughs in the text, but they are not real people that we can identify with as they bounce from Westphalia to Portugal to Paris to South America to Constantinople to Venice.

At Santa Fe I heard all the music that I expected to hear, and quite a bit I had never heard before. Some of the material new to me is first-rate, but some is only serviceable. In the end, the show could be trimmed by 20 or 30 minutes and not lose any impact.

That said, Santa Fe Opera’s Candide is pure entertainment. Conductor Harry Bicket keeps it all moving at a Broadway pace that never flags. The production hits the right satirical tone, and the cast is uniformly very good. Not all the jokes are in good taste, but neither was Voltaire in his day. In that way, the script honors its source.

The set designed by Chantal Thomas uses oversized books and sheaves of paper as screnes for vivid projections. Director Laurent Pelly’s costumes are over-the-top 18th-century, turning the beautiful Cunegonde and her supercilious brother Maximillian into a pair of Dresden figurines. The Baron and Baroness were hilariously costumed as their own singing portraits. Voltaire/Pangloss, the narrator that fills in gaps in the story, changes costumes so often he is hard to keep up with, but all to comic effect—every time he takes off his wig you know something new and more outrageous is coming.

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Helene Schneiderman (Old Lady) and the Santa Fe Opera chorus. Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

Cunegonde is even more crucial to the success of Candide than the title character, and Brenda Rae has the brilliant high range and boundless energy to illuminate the part. Her “Glitter and Be Gay” was scintillating. Alek Shrader was a fine Candide, making the transition from utter naïveté at the outset to the wisest person onstage by the end, when he launches the well known resolution, that everyone should chill and “Make Our Garden Grow.”

Kevin Burdette I found a trifle mannered as Voltaire, perhaps to differentiate the French satirist from the other half of his role as the foolish Dr. Pangloss, whose philosophy of optimism was Voltaire’s target. Jarrett Ott was every bit as ridiculous as he needed to be as Maximilian. Helene Schneiderman was delightful in the wonderful character role of The Old Lady who has only one buttock. The jokes write themselves, but she delivered them with comic aplomb and sang her signature piece, “I am Easily Assimilated,” with earthy relish. Gina Perregrino was deliciously flirty as Paquette. The rest of the cast, many of them filling multiple roles, were all first-rate Broadway-style singer/actors.

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“Make our Garden Grow”: The Cast of Candide and SFO Chorus. Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

# # #

Another opera with a complicated history is Richard Strauss’ Ariadne Auf Naxosoriginally written as a companion to Molière’s satirical comedy Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. In this form a full performance required both stage actors and opera singers, and it never found an audience. Eventually Strauss’ Ariadne was turned into a standalone opera by the addition of a prologue that takes place backstage before a performance of the original opera.

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Set for Act II of Ariadne auk Naxos: Samantha Gossard (Dryade), Meryl Dominguez (Najade), Sarah Tucker (Echo), and Amanda Echalaz (Prima Donna/Ariadne). Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

That version is still challenging, because the two parts are so utterly different. First is the backstage prologue, featuring a young composer and an assortment of theatrical characters—the music master, opera singers, a wig maker, members of a commedia dell’arte troop, and servants in the home of “the richest man in Vienna” where the fictional young composer’s opera is to be performed. The backstage story is followed by a performance of the opera within the opera, also titled Ariadne auf Naxos, incongruously interrupted by the commedia players.

Like Candide, this hybrid comes out of 18th-century satire. Molière’s play skewered the smug self-satisfaction of the uncultured nouveau riche. As reimagined by Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the very wealthy but tasteless patron capriciously demands that the high-art opera he commissioned be performed simultaneously with the low comedy of the commedia players.

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Liv Redpath as Zerbinetta and Amanda Majeski as the Composer. Photo by
Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

This dramatic stew contains two major ingredients stirred together with plentiful spice from libretto and music. One ingredient, the characters in the backstage drama—especially the composer and the comic actress Zerbinetta—are real enough, but the operatic characters, based on Greek mythology, are no more than abstract philosophical propositions in human form.

In Santa Fe’s production, directed by Tim Albery, various means are used to distinguish the ingredients. The real-world prologue is performed in English, whereas the music of the opera proper is sung in German. To maintain the distinction between real and operatic worlds, the commedia dell’arte intrusions into the opera are mostly sung in English. But things get a bit confused, since Zerbinetta’s fantastic coloratura set piece in the middle of the second act (“Grossmächtige Prinzessin”) and other interruptions by the commedia players (Harlequin’s “Lieben, Hassen”) are sung in the original German, possibly because these numbers are both well known.

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The Backstage Prologue, Ariadne auf Naxos ensemble. Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

The distinction between real world and opera is also brought out by the set and costume designs of Tobias Hoheisel. The backstage set is literal, slightly grubby like backstages everywhere, whereas the second act opera set is as abstract as the characters, starting as shapes of white and gray, then illuminated in different colors.

The generally strong cast made the performance a pleasure. Liv Redpath was flirty and fetching in the critical role of Zerbinetta. Her seduction of the self-important composer was utterly believable, and she negotiated her daunting coloratura comfortably—even when asked to walk backwards, up a narrow and steepening ramp, in high heels, while singing! (Don’t try this at home!)

Amanda Majeski was equally impressive in the trousers role of the composer, one of many such roles that Strauss’ favored with gorgeous music, singing the soaring, lyrical lines with power and beauty of sound. Her demeanor was perfectly that of the aloof artist, deeply impressed with his own role in “The Holy Art of Song.” She made his youthful pretensions both slightly preposterous and touching.

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Amanda Echalaz (Ariadne), perched in her bowl. Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

The Prima Donna/Ariadne role was ably filled by Amanda Echalaz. In the opera, she spent most of her time almost immobile in a steep-walled bowl, representing Ariadne’s cave, which cannot be comfortable. When her moments came to sing, she demonstrated a rich dark sound in the lower parts of her range and sang smoothly in lyrical passages, but tended to surge to the edge of control in higher registers. Her closing duet with Bacchus was especially strong.

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The commedia players with Ariadne (Amanda Echalaz). Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

Bruce Sledge brought a ringing heldentenor sound to the role of The Tenor/Bacchus, standing and singing effectively enough but too often physically static. The male quartet of commedia players sang and acted with comic panache. Baritone Jarrett Ott sang strongly as Harlequin and bass Anthony Robin Schneider was impressive as Truffaldino, alongside praiseworthy tenors Matthew DiBattista and Terrence Chin-Loy as Scaramuccio and Brighella. The trio of Meryl Dominguez, Samantha Gossard and Sarah Tucker managed their parts well as Najade, Dryade and Echo.

Appearing only in the prologue, Brenton Ryan was a stylish and pleasing dancing master. Rod Gilfry was effectively commanding as the music master, and Kevin Burdette was appropriately condescending in the spoken role of the Major-Domo.

The orchestra under conductor James Gaffigan was outstanding. The intricate woodwind solos that provide color and buoyancy to the score were wonderfully played, and the sound was well controlled, rich but never overbearing.

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Photo by Kate Russell for Santa Fe Opera

The Santa Fe Opera season continues through August 25, with performances of all of the season’s operas in repertory (see full calendar). Reviews of the summer’s other operas—John Adams’s Dr. Atomic and Rossini’s Italian Girl in Algiers—will appear here soon.