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.

Peter Sellars

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.

# # #

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.

# # #

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.

SFO.Kate Russell

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

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