There’s still time to see the SFO productions
By Peter Alexander Aug. 8 at 9:20 p.m.
The Santa Fe Opera’s current production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte is a very mixed bag.
Musically, the performance I saw was superior. The cast is excellent from top to bottom, and Harry Bicket’s direction captured the Mozartian spirit well. Dramatically, however, the production is relentlessly sententious, sometimes baffling and, for long stretches, visually uninteresting.
First, the musical details: The small orchestra played beautifully, especially the wind solos, of which there are many by clarinets, flutes and horns. One or two tempos I thought were on the slow side, but the sublime beauty of Mozart’s score always shone through.
The singers playing the four lovers around whom Mozart’s artificial world turns—Ben Bliss as Ferrando, Jarrett Ott as Guglielmo, Amanda Majeski as Fiordiligi and Emily D’Angelo as Dorabella—are appropriately young and attractive and vocally outstanding. Their ensembles were beautifully sung and well balanced. The magical trio “Suoave sia il vento,” with Majeski, D’Angleo and Rod Gilfry as Don Alfonso, was especially memorable.
In Dorabella’s first-act aria “Smanie implacabili,” D’Angelo exploited a big, rich voice, singing with great control in spite of stage directions that had her on her back and rolling across the stage. Majeski sang Fiordiligi’s arias with a bright, strong voice, managing the formidable leaps handily.
Bliss brought a light, flexible tenor to his role as Ferrando. Ott sang Guglielmo with a strong, resonant baritone. Rod Gilfry was occasionally a little rough as Don Alfonso, but his portrayal perfectly matched the production’s concept of Alfonso as a cowboy. Tracy Dahl avoided all the traditional flirty-cutesy clichés for Despina, casting the character as a darker sidekick for Alfonso. As such, she was very effective. Her singing was expressive, if underpowered in the lowest range.
The eternal problem with Così fan tutte is that the story of two men donning disguises to woo each others’ fiancées, if taken literally, is distasteful at best. The betrayal of the women they claim to love is shocking, especially at the moment when the women learn that they have been betrayed and humiliated for the sake of a bet.
Even treated as an allegory, that no one is perfect and we all have to accept the imperfections of our partners, Così can be discomfiting. To avoid that trap, the Santa Fe production jettisoned the period decorations and literal presentation of the plot, paring it down to the barest psychological core. Everything beyond the emotional journey of the six main characters has been eliminated, and that single focus has been insistently pounded home.Some will find that illuminating, but others will be frustrated by the lack of theatrical qualities.
The set by Paul Tate Depoo III places the action inside a stark white box that narrows to the rear and, once all the singers are onstage, closes so that they are trapped inside. Depoo’s blank walls are not enlivened with color, with only the barest of lighting effects to distinguish one area from another. There is no furniture and few props. Only the six principal characters are present. The chorus, singing from offstage, is heard but not seen.
At the two couple’s first entrance into the colorless set, they are dressed in all white—the women in tennis outfits, the men in t-shirts and shorts. In their actions, they are recognizable contemporary types, the women silly sorority girls, the men macho frat boys. Fair enough; they are supposed to be callow and superficial.
Don Alfonso makes the first entrance, ahead of the white-clad lovers, costumed as a rough-hewn cowboy. In director’s R.B. Schlather’s interpretation, he exerts magical control over the other characters, who stagger back from his voice and are unable to resist his machinations. He oversees virtually everything that happens onstage, sometimes crouching against the outside wall and observing.
From this reduction of the opera to essentials, the characters loose obvious differentiation. The men’s “disguise” is identical blue denim and cowboy hats. The careful distinctions that Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte made has to be conveyed through singing and acting.
Schlather and Depoo’s distillation of the opera enhances the impact of the emotions, particularly the betrayal and humiliation that is imposed on the women at the end. That was more viscerally felt than in any production I have seen. But the flip side of the psychological purification is that the opera became correspondingly less visually interesting.
Some portions became a concert performance in costume, with the characters standing in symmetrical configurations, singing in place. At such points, interest wanes. And throughout there were touches that were simply baffling. Why does Despina put on multiple aprons, then engage in comic business with them, distracting from the other singers onstage? Why does she as the magnetic “doctor” continuously fire off sparklers when once would make the point?
And why does the opera end with all four lovers seated across the front of the stage, immobile, during the final scenes, with no action whatever—no evidence of a wedding, no entrances and exits that are in the text, no visual discovery of the women’s betrayal—while Alfonso pours water over each of their heads? If your audience has to puzzle about such things, the point may get missed.
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Jenůfa, Leoš Janáček’s breakthrough opera composed in 1903, is one of the great works of the 20th century. It is probably Janáček’s highly individual style, based deeply in Czech language and culture, that has kept it from being performed outside its homeland.
The Santa Fe performances, using a production originally created by the English National Opera, is a welcome opportunity to see this great work, and it is in every way a triumph, something that every Janáček fan and every lover of 20th-century opera should see. Jenůfa has only one more performance, Aug. 15.
The scenic design of Charles Edwards, costumes by Jon Morrell and direction by David Alden place Jenůfa firmly in the Soviet era. The mill of the first act has dingy corrugated metal walls, and the room where the rest of the opera takes place is authentically shabby. The clothes mark the class of every character, from the mill workers to the mayor, and just like Soviet times, none are fashionable.
To my eyes and ears, this setting fits the story of rural jealousy and violence as well as the original, and deepens the conflicts of social status inherent in the story. Alden’s direction was well attuned to the emotional drama, especially between Jenůfa andLaca, the suitor whose love turns out to be genuine.
The excellent cast was led by the powerful Kostelnička of Patricia Racette, a role debut. Racette, who has appeared at Santa Fe for more than 20 years, has previously sung the title role in the same production in Houston and Washington.
Her performance was thrilling, portraying the crucial character of Kostelnička as a whole person. She sang with fire and dramatic passion, particularly in the first-act narration of her unhappy past. Equally memorable was her transformation from the dominating, self-righteous conscience of the village in the first act to the repentant, suffering figure at the end.
Laura Wilde was a sympathetic Jenůfa, someone who is trying to elevate both herself and her village by marrying up and teaching reading to her neighbors. She is visibly reluctant to enter into the drunken celebrations in Act I, and her distaste for her fiancé’s swaggering arrogance was both visible and audible. She used her warm, vibrant sound well.
As the fiancé, Števa, Richard Trey Smagur was just the kind of thuggish bully the role requires, but does not always get. His shallow attraction to Jenůfa’s beauty and his smug expectation to be admired—qualities portrayed in action and voice—made him repulsive from his very first entrance. His performance strengthened the psychological sinews of the drama and set up his shameful refusal to marry Jenůfa after she had been disfigured.
Laca, Števa’s half brother who attacks Jenůfa in the first act in spite of his genuine love for her, is a tricky role for any singer. It is an exposed balancing act—he has to be angry enough to do violence, but then believable as a repentant lover.
In this regard, I thought the first act was overplayed. Alexander Lewis’s Laca was beyond anger, essentially nasty and uncontrolled, and later he seemed more cowed than supportive to Jenůfa; perhaps this was Alden’s intent. His voice was thin and brittle, neither forceful enough at the outset nor warm enough at the end.
In the smaller roles, veteran Suzanne Mentzer was pleasing as the Grandmother, successful both vocally and in getting a chuckle with her feistiness in the final act. Will Liverman successfully portrayed the mill foreman as a Soviet-era stereotype—a supervisor who seems not to actually do anything. Alan Higgs and Kathleen Reveille had just the right superciliousness as the floridly dressed mayor and his wife.
Janáček’s characteristic small orchestral motifs and expressive accompaniments, created so individually and effectively to underline the emotional shifts of the plot, were well managed by conductor Johannes Debus. The orchestra played well, with nicely blended brass and woodwinds.
Sometimes, nature and good luck conspire to enhance performances in Santa Fe. The night I attended, the beautiful sunset above the distant hills behind the theater helped establish the rural setting, and a brief rainstorm later could be taken as symbolic of the emotional storm onstage. Of course, I cannot promise that you will experience the same enhancements Aug. 15, but for every other virtue of the production it is well worth the trip to Santa Fe.
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Così fan tutte continues through Aug. 22, Jenůfa through Aug. 15.Tickets for the remaining performances in Santa Fe can be purchased through the calendar on the Santa Fe Opera Web page.