Santa Fe Opera successfully perseveres in the face of COVID

Reduced festival tours four centuries of opera in four works

By Peter Alexander Aug. 8 at 10:40 p.m.

Santa Fe Opera. Photo by Kate Russell

The Santa Fe Opera offers a slightly reduced festival season this summer—four operas instead of the usual five. They have pulled this off in the face of the worst pandemic of modern times by careful consultation with health authorities and a very well organized response. A few, but only a few, scheduled artists had to cancel due to travel bans, and all were ably replaced. The four nights I attended went off smoothly with hardly any disruption in the audience experience.

The audience is required to wear masks and the entire house staff, from bartenders to ushers, is masked. Thanks to rigid testing and strict rules, the cast performs without masks, but numbers onstage are carefully controlled. In the house, every party is separated from their neighbors by an empty seat, and the “social-distancing” seats are strapped closed—straps that have to be moved for every performance. It is a tribute to the company’s organization that all of this went off without a perceptible hitch.

The four operas this summer came from four different centuries. You could not ask for a more attractive tour of opera history: Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro from the 18th century, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin an ideal representative of 19th-century Russian Romanticism, Britten’s magical Midsummer Night’s Dream from the 20th century, and the world premiere production of John Corigliano’s Lord of Cries from the current century.

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Samuel Dale Johnson as Count Almaviva. Photo bu Curtis Brown for the Santa Fe Opera.

The Marriage of Figaro was largely a success, with a few glitches. The attractive and intriguing set plays on the opera’s unity of time, that the entire plot takes place in a single “crazy day.” The revolving set is surrounded by clockwork gears that turn as the stage turns. They also serve a symbolic purpose, visibly breaking down as the various plots unravel at the end. 

The central construction on the turntable is a pop-up book of shifting and folding pieces that create different spaces to represent rooms in the Almaviva castle. So far so good, but in execution, this conceit may be too clever by half. 

As Chantal Thomas’s set revolves, the singers distractingly have to move pieces around, sometimes with the help of stage hands. The transition to the final act, set in the garden, was particularly cumbersome, with stage hands placing large Roman numerals and broken gears—standing in for bushes—on stage while Cheyanne Coss as Barbarina found her plaintive aria about the lost pin totally upstaged.

It’s hard to see what purpose the complications serve. The interlocking set pieces move about and shift in interesting ways, but the distractions outweigh the advantages in almost every case. The set worked best when it moved least. 

The costumes by Laurent Pelly and Jean-Jacques Delmotte suggest Edwardian England. This transposition, to a period when aristocratic households were full of servants, fits the story well. The opera is fundamentally about class and sex, concerns that famously dominated the leisure class of the time.

Laurie Feldman’s direction served the opera well. Some of the goings and comings in and out of the moving parts of the stage were awkward, but the major action was clear and the characters well delineated. Such subtle touches as leaving the Count onstage for Figaro’s gentle teasing of Cherubino in “Non piu andrai” and showing the Countess handing Susanna the ransom money she delivers to the Count add meaningful details to the action.

Harry Bicket led the excellent Santa Fe Opera orchestra with grace and delicacy. Moments of escalating imbroglio, such as the Act II finale, were less than furiously driven, but I would point to the gentle and lovely accompaniment to the Countess’ melancholy “Dove Sono,” beautifully sung by Vanessa Vasquez, as one of many high points.

Nichola Brownlee (Figaro), Ying Fang (Susanna), Samuel Dale Johnson (Count Almaviva) and Vanessa Vasques (Countess Almaviva). Photo by Curtis Brown.

Vasquez was part of a generally strong cast. Throughout she was a figure of dignity, her singing matching her graceful movement. Her friendship with Susanna, two women who cross class lines to outwit the Count and confound Figaro, was evident. Her audible, floated pianissimos made “Dove Sono” deeply touching, but Mozart was in good hands whenever she sang. Her meticulous phrasing and deep expressivity were a pleasure.

Her partner in plots, Susanna, was portrayed by Ying Fang, who emerged as one of the stars of the evening. Her bright voice carried well through every ensemble, always audible, always delightful. Her energetic, pert characterization sparkled along with her voice. Her “Deh vienni” in the final act was another absolute highlight. She is a singer I look forward to hearing again.

Nicholas Brownlee was an energetic Figaro, pushing out his emphatic announcements but lacking refinement in his lyrical moments. He bounded confidently around the stage, the very representation of Figaro’s boundless wit and energy. His stentorian delivery suited “Non piu andrai” very well, and he was consistently at his best in Figaro’s emphatic moments. Occasional moments of disunity with the orchestra were quickly overcome.

Samuel Dale Johnson was the very image of the licentious Count Almaviva from his first entry in a bathrobe, evoking Hugh Hefner, whom he slightly resembles. His acting was effective enough that one doubts the sincerity of his theatrical repentance at the end. His singing was in service to the character, as he pivoted from braggadocio to befuddlement to anger.

Megan Marino was a boyish Cherubino. Her singing made less impression than her convincing adolescent swagger, but she definitely held her own. Her musical highlight, “Voi che sapete,” was cautious and calculated—perhaps by design? 

Patrick Carfizzi was every bit as pompous and self-important as Bartolo needs to be. This was equally evident in tone and posture, and he managed the transformation to the embarrassed, regretful father in the third act with comic precision. As Marcellina, his “housekeeper” who has a contract to marry Figaro, the veteran Susanne Mentzer was thin of voice but perfectly in character as first the harridan and then the doting mother.

Final tableaux: Brenton Ryan (Basilio), Susanna Mentzer (Marcellina), Patrick Carfizzi (Bartolo), Nicholas Brownlee (Figaro), Ying Fang (Susanna), Samuel Dale Johnson (the Count), Vanessa Vasquez (the Countess), Cheyanne Coss (Barbarina), James Cresswell (Antonio), Megan Marino (Cherubino). Photo by Curtis Brown.

Coss was a flirty, perky Barbarina. As her father, the gardener Antonio, James Cresswell downplayed the drunken clichés, creating a more sympathetic character. Brenton Ryan oozed effectively as Don Basilio, serving the Count’s amorous intrigues. Thomas Cilluffo was pleasing as the pettifogging judge, again not overdoing the usual opera buffa clichés.

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The libretto of Benjamin Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, almost entirely Shakespeare’s text, condenses and recreates a literary masterpiece of the highest level. That was the first burden the composer faced.

Second would be the intersection of four separate worlds—the fairies who rule the woods by night, the two pair of lovers for whom the course of love does not run smooth, the simple tradesmen who meet to rehearse “obscenely and courageously,” and the court of Duke Theseus of Athens. Their collisions are by turn mysterious, hilariously funny, sweetly moving and deeply expressive of the human condition.

Iestyn Davies (Oberon) and Reed Luplau (Puck). Photo by Curtis Brown.

Each of those worlds and moods is brilliantly captured in Britten’s music, which reaches heights of beauty rare in the 20th century. With 19 named parts, the cast is large, including a countertenor, boy sopranos and a speaking part for a male acrobat. All considered, this creates a challenge in turn for any opera company.

Santa Fe’s success with this challenge was spotty. It was musically superb, with conductor Harry Bicket and the players in the pit negotiating Britten’s tricky score with style and great expression. The many individual solos were outstanding. 

The production, however, was mixed, both effective and baffling. This opera is so deep in meaning on its own that it resists the kind of symbolic interpretation that it received from designer/director Netia Jones.

The stage was adorned with a single tree, a derelict piano, a padded bench, random astronomical equipment, and a large disc on which were projected black and white images too literally tied to the text (the mention of snakes or flowers, for example, leads to images of snakes and flowers). Other projections were of silhouetted trees, the moon, or Rorschach patterns. 

The fairy band overused their trap door entrances. And beyond cheap laughs and an enhancement for Puck’s gymnastics, I cannot see what purpose was served by the trampoline.

First onstage is a staggering drunk and a woman wrapped in a long white winding sheet. These are later revealed to be Duke Theseus and his soon-to-be wife Hippolyta, who do not yet sing. Perhaps they stand in for the play’sopening in Theseus’ court, omitted in the opera. But the audience is left to guess why Theseus was tipsy in both the prologue and the final act—perhaps a comment on the Athenian court?

Erin Morley (Tytania) and dancers as the fairies. Photo by Curtis Brown.

The costuming was equally baffling, a mix of 1950s student wear for the lovers, small-town Americana for the tradesmen, abstractly decorated black-and-white body suits with exotic headgear (top hats, rabbit ears, etc.) for the fairy band, lime-green suit for Puck, modern dress when the scene shifts to the court at the end. Oberon, wearing a tight-fitting suit, kept putting on and taking off a wolf’s head. In short, the costuming was more mystifying than the forest.

To take the four worlds in turn, Iestyn David sang well and held his own—more easily said than done for a countertenor—as Oberon. His solo moments, particularly the beautifully flowing  “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,” were highlights. Erin Morley’s Tytania was one of the stars of the show, handling the coloratura comfortably and singing with great expression. 

The fairies were musically created by women apprentices, singing mostly from offstage, and by dancers onstage. The use of women’s voices has both advantages and drawbacks. Boys do not carry as well, whereas women made every note of the wonderful choral music audible. Women do not however have the delicate sound that Britten was aiming for. Angela Yam, Leah Brzyski, Rachel Blaustein, Taylor-Alexis DuPont sang well, but with adult voices, in their miniature solo roles.

Puck, performed by choreographer Reed Luplau, added another element to the production. A genuine acrobat, he leaped and gamboled through his performance, coming physically close to Britten’s conception of Puck. However, his spoken lines, delivered clearly enough, showed that Shakespearean English is not his native tongue.

Nicholas Brownlee, Matthew Grills, Patrick Carfizzi, Brenton Ryan and Kevin Burdette. Photo by Curtis Brown.

The four lovers, apprentices all, brought an appropriate youthfulness to their parts. They were solid and generally well matched. Luke Sutliff, a stand-in as Demetrius, sang strongly with a full, direct sound. Dunn and Teresa Perrotta were vocally strong, well matched as Hermia and Helena. Their jealous battle in the second act was terrific (although why does Hermia, earlier demure, stand around comfortably in undies after her skirt is ripped off?). Duke Kim as Lysander was an ardent lover in voice and action, but occasionally rough in sound.

The translation of Shakespeare’s “rude mechanicals” to small town businessmen was disorienting. The jokes about their crude attempts at higher culture misfire when so framed, unless the aim is to satirize small towns—which is viable but was not Shakespeare’s purpose. (Besides, The Music Man did it better.) 

As Peter Quince, Kevin Burdette was a perfect chamber-of-commerce figure, exerting his authority vocally when required. Nicholas Brownlee’s strong, hard-edged voice made Bottom more brusque than buffoonish, but his comic turn with Tytania was delightful. Brenton Ryan had the high tenor voice and the manner of the tender Flute. The tall, deep-voiced William Meinert was in fine form as the dull-witted Snug. Patrick Carfizzi and Matthew Grills filled their less memorable parts as Starveling and Snout well.

Ryan as Flute/Thisbe. Photo by Curtis Brown.

The tradesmen—whatever we call them—come into their own in the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe in the final act. It would be hard to go wrong with this perfect parody of 19th-century opera. In Santa Fe it was over the top, with touches from vaudeville to fit the style of the costumes. I have to mention Ryan particularly, as Flute/Thisbe steals the show with his mock-romantic arias and mad scene, hilariously performed in a bright scarlet prom dress. 

When he finally sang, Cory McGee was commanding as Duke Theseus, his big voice demanding attention. Lindsay Kate Brown was a solid Hippolyta.

When the newlyweds go off to bed, the fairies retake the stage. Here the production produced sheer magic, with projections on the stage floor creating a sense of beauty and timelessness. Oberon, Tytania and the fairy chorus sing the gorgeous closing chorus “Now until the break of day” touchingly.

For a moment I was transported. Puck appeared, justifying the repeated pop-up entrances of the fairies earlier in the opera. He asked our indulgence and vanished, the best stage magic of the night. At the end, the opera triumphed.

NOTE: Reviews of Eugene Onegin and Lord of Cries will follow in a subsequent post.

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