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

# # #

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.

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