Rigoletto and Salome are also part of 2015 summer season
By Peter Alexander
The audience stood and cheered when composer Jennifer Higdon came onstage at the Santa Fe Opera (SFO) Wednesday night (Aug. 5).
The occasion was the second performance of her new opera Cold Mountain, based on the Charles Frazier novel, which had its premiere at the SFO last Saturday (Aug. 1). The opera is playing to sold-out houses, and has in fact been so successful and generated so much demand that the SFO has added a sixth performance Aug. 24 to the original five planned dates. As of this writing, tickets are still available for that performance.
Higdon’s first opera, Cold Mountain is a powerful and assured effort from a very skilled composer. Future performances are planned by the Santa Fe Opera’s co-commissioners Opera Philadelphia and the Minnesota Opera, in collaboration with North Carolina Opera. Based on the reception by the Santa Fe audience, we can expect Cold Mountain to enter the ranks of the most successful American operas.
One of Higdon’s strengths has been the ability to build powerful momentum from rhythmically charged modules and the piling up of brass chords. That skill was particularly evident in the many scenes of threat and violence within the disturbing story of a wounded Confederate deserter’s flight. For the opera, she added to that a remarkable ability to conjure scenes of quiet, comfort and even humor, and to provide gentle, colorful support for the voice in lyrical moments.
The use of orchestral sound, ever varied, to set the mood for the contrasting scenes of the opera is one of the impressive strengths of the score. Treating the instruments as individual voices, Higdon finds a kaleidoscope of different chamber-like combinations to accompany the singers. This points in turn to another virtue: the orchestra almost never overwhelms the voices, and only where the buildup of momentum justifies it. Almost all the vocal solos and small ensembles are accompanied with extreme restraint, making them easily audible and understandable.
Higdon is especially effective in handling the transitions from scene to scene and from one mood to another. Sometimes subtly overlapping the sounds, and even the characters, and sometimes sliding seamlessly into a new musical environment, she keeps the music moving without obvious breaks or pauses.
The same is true when she introduces the individual “numbers”—arias, duets, and larger ensembles—that simply emerge without any obvious signal. Each number follows its own arc, then merges back into the musical flow. Among moments I found particularly moving are Ruby’s aria telling of her childhood; several duets between the leading characters, Inman and Ada, particularly “Four Novembers come and gone” in the second act; and above all Ada’s “I feel sorry for you,” sung to Ruby’s father, which conjures in a single aria the cumulative meaning of much of the book.
Equally memorable is the use of the chorus throughout, and especially the beautiful, consoling chorus “Buried and forgotten,” recalling the numberless dead of the Civil War.
For all the breadth of Higdon’s expressive palette, one thing is missing: melodies that bloom in the voice and linger in the memory. Soaring song is the reason for opera, after all, and without it the music sometimes does not rise to the lyrical level of the text, and does not reach a convincing emotional climax near the end when Ada and Inman are finally together. The music at this point is not ineffective, but it does not transcend what has gone before, as we feel it should.
Those who know the book will notice several changes, including the omission of several of the book’s many scenes and the creation of composite characters. Opera being an art form of its own, this is unavoidable, but two changes should be noted.
Teague is introduced from the very beginning, changing him from an unseen threat for much of the story into a familiar menace—none the less evil but more human than in the novel. And Inman and Ada’s connection is strengthened. In the novel, Inman embarks on his odyssey not knowing if Ada will even want him when he returns, whereas in the opera they are both longing to reunite throughout. Doubtless this makes for more lyrical moments and better opera.
On the other hand, fans of the book will happily recognize several lines of dialog that survive directly into the libretto, including Ada saying to Ruby of Inman, “I know I don’t need him. But I think I want him,” and Ruby’s laconic reply, “Well, that’s a whole different thing.”
Robert Brill’s set of slanted and moveable planks may unhappily remind some operagoers of the recent awkward Metropolitan Opera Ring cycle, including the use of projections over the entire stage and even outside onto the proscenium. In this case, however, the set was used effectively to represent the many different locales of the story. Dark areas of the set helped create the mood of menace that dominates the story, with danger often emerging from the shadows, while lighting was used well to direct attention to individual characters. Projections were used with restraint but impressively.
Leonard Foglia’s direction was efficient and clear. In an opera of many scene changes, from place to place and backwards and forwards in time, it is an accomplishment that only once or twice was I briefly wondering where we were.
Ada is the beating heart of the story, and soprano Isabel Leonard was a graceful, poised presence throughout. Her transformation from a sheltered city girl to a competent farm dweller was conveyed by costume and movement, and she sang with conviction and beauty of sound. Her moving performance of “I feel sorry for you” was a highlight.
Her foil, Ruby, was brought to life by the excellent Emily Fons. At first, I thought the character verged on stereotype—clumping around the stage, drawing out her vowels like a country bumpkin—but as the Ada-Ruby relationship developed I liked her performance more and more.
As Inman, the man who abhors violence but finds himself good at it, Nathan Gunn gave a solid performance. He sang expressively and blended well in his duets with Ada, and his characterization was effective. Jay Hunter Morris was a strong-voiced and thoroughly despicable Teague who relished the melodramatic boos at his curtain call.
The remainder of the large cast ranged from very good to superb. I particularly enjoyed Kevin Burdette as Ruby’s father Stobrod, Robert Pomakov as the doomed Owens, and Deborah Nansteel as Lucinda. Each embodied a strongly etched personality that left a mark on the story.
I have mixed feelings about the use of an accent—those drawling vowels and dropped Gs runnin’ though the text. On one hand, it comes perilously close to southern redneck parody; on the other, it helps place the opera in a world apart. To the credit of the cast, they used it pretty consistently and made it work.
The SFO orchestra handled Higdon’s musical demands ably. The chamber-like combinations were beautifully played and well balanced, and the climaxes were powerful. The composer has complimented the players for handling her constant changes—including those made after the first performance, making the performance I saw another premiere of sorts. Conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya kept it all moving marvelously well and provided support for the singers.
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The night before Cold Mountain I saw Santa Fe’s serviceable and moving, if flawed, Rigoletto.
The star of the evening was Georgia Jarman’s Gilda. She sang with a radiant voice, and placed an expressive weight behind the notes that made her the emotional center of the opera. Her exquisite performance of “Caro nome,” Gilda’s signature aria, earned a well deserved and prolonged ovation (in spite of having to compete with an unfortunately noisy stage turntable).
Beyond her vocal strengths, Jarman personified Rigoletto’s young and innocent daughter as well as anyone I have seen. Her physical movement onstage and her interactions with other singers contributed strongly to her portrayal of a delicate girl who finds the strength to die for love.
In the title role Quinn Kelsey sang with great power throughout. At his best, as in the second act, he became a deeply moving figure, portraying Rigoletto’s bitter torment. I thought he was less effective in other scenes, such as his duet with Gilda in the first act, when his performance seemed slack and unmotivated.
Kelsey is a large man, and he was not helped by the costuming, which made him more of a hulking figure onstage than a downtrodden and powerless jester trapped in a dissolute court. His hatred of the Duke was apparent as the opera moved toward its tragic conclusion, but the power differential between them was not always easy to see.
The Duke of Mantua is not a role with a wide emotional range. Almost the only thing he sings about is love—by which he means lust—that he is “a slave to love,” and famously, the inconstant character of women. As the Duke, Bruce Sledge sang ardently of love, with ringing tones and a pleasing tenor voice.
Others in the cast were all effective. Anne Marie Stanly raised Giovanna, Gilda’s nurse, from an easily overlooked background figure to an angry woman whose betrayal of Rigoletto was based in overt contempt. Singing another doomed man, Robert Pomakov put great weight into Monterone’s curse. Peixin Chen as Sparafucile and Nicole Piccolomini as his sister Maddalena filled their roles admirably.
The production seemed unsure of itself. At first, I thought it was set in Verdi’s time, effectively the late nineteenth century. Many of the characters had a Dickensian look. But others could be mistaken for wearing modern clothes—at the end, the Duke appeared to be wearing Dockers and a burgundy work shirt—as if they came dressed for rehearsal.
The direction and costuming made the depravity of the Duke’s court more than clear. The mannered writhings and groping in the first scene were almost comical, and the harlots in hot pants looked out of place, whatever the time period of the opera, except as reminders that the court was a really bad place.
The unit set, mounted on that noisy turntable, was mostly effective, with doorways and stairs and lairs that served all the needs to the plot. On the other hand, I was never clear why Rigoletto sometimes carried a crutch that looked like a borrowed prop from Dickens’s Christmas Carol, and sometimes managed without it.
But all reservations aside, the Santa Fe night worked its magic. Where better to watch the final scenes of Rigoletto than under the stars, with a breeze blowing though the theater?
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I also saw the SFO production of Richard Strauss’ Salome, an opera that has now been done 11 times as part of the company’s advocacy of the composer’s works. Filled with symbolism and saturated with depravity, Salome is an opera that directors cannot resist interpreting for us—and that includes the current stage director Daniel Slater and designer Leslie Travers.
The production begins with an effective coup de theater as a stone wall across the back of the stage opens to reveal a banquet table, as well as the real-life sunset beyond the stage. The audience spontaneously applauded the lovely scene, but things soon began to get murky.
The costuming placed the story in Belle Époque France, a believable time for depravity among the powerful. But placed in that period much of the story fails to make sense: the Biblical prophecies; Herod’s fear of the denunciations intoned by Jochanaan (John the Baptist); and claims that the Messiah has appeared. None of this fits late 19th-century France.
But the producers have a specific aim in mind: instead of letting the story stand for itself as Oscar Wilde and Strauss wrote it, they want to show us what it is really “about.” And so Salome is presented as a Freudian family drama played out among Herod, his wife and former sister-in-law Herodias, and his stepdaughter Salome.
This is most obvious in Salome’s dance, which was presented not as a dance but an exploration of the deepest levels of Salome’s psyche. After a few desultory dance steps, she stepped to the side while a series of pictures opened behind her. She was shown as a child, with (apparently) her real father strangled before her by Narraboth, who later (but earlier in the opera) kills himself over his infatuation with the now teenaged princess. After seeing her father killed, the child Salome retreated into a cramped space in the back wall.
Obviously this shows how Salome is trapped by the damage she endured as a child, which is supposed to explain her hatred for her stepfather and her depraved infatuation with Jochanaan. And sure enough, after her bloody orgy with the severed head, instead of being killed—as Herod commands—she goes back to the cringing child and frees her. In other words, John the Baptist’s death serves to rescue Salome from her past.
The point is not that this interpretation is wrong; the point is that the opera contains more than that. There is the religious theme, which, apart from the text, largely disappears in this interpretation, and there is a great deal of action portrayed in the music that does not occur on stage. Strauss did not portray psychoanalysis, he portrayed a dance; he did not portray Salome freed from her demons, he portrayed her death. Substituting psychological explanation for the action of the drama not only discounts the audience’s ability to interpret the drama on its own, it also drains the music of much of its impact.
The musical performance was another matter, and was generally on a high level. The role of Salome is one of the most difficult in the repertoire: she must appear to be a petulant adolescent while singing music worthy of Isolde. Given that difficulty, Alex Penda was generally effective. She played the bored teenager very well, even though her voice was not always strong enough to carry over Strauss’ orchestra.
Nevertheless, Penda carried off the musical climaxes and reached the high notes well. And it should be noted that she was not helped by the direction, which left her far upstage in an enclosed space—Jochanaan’s cell—or singing toward the wings for several of her critical scenes.
Her scene with Ryan McKinny as Jochanaan, when he keeps rejecting her demented advances, was played with great intensity by both singers. This is the crux of the whole opera: nothing that comes later will work if this is not brought off. In spite of the jarring anachronisms of the production, this was one of the best parts of the performance.
The production turned Jochanaan into what looked like a 19th-century radical, writing revolutionary manifestos in his crumbling study. It’s hard to see how that fits with the text and music that Strauss gave Jochanaan, but that said McKinny sang with the kind of booming certainty the role requires, and was vocally impressive.
Robert Brubaker’s Herod and Michaela Martens’ Herodias were accurately sung, but only intermittently as expressive as the roles require—which I attribute to the fact that in this production they were not acting much of what they were singing. As Narraboth Brian Jagde was memorable, displaying his fatal obsession with Salome with musical and physical intensity.
The most satisfying aspect of the production was the SFO orchestra, which under conductor David Robertson gave a powerful performance of Strauss’ virtuoso score. The full sound was resonant, and all the solos were immaculate. Slater had the demanding score under control from the beginning.
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For tickets and information on the remaining performances in the Santa Fe Opera’s 2015 season, click here.
Edited for clarity and to correct a minor typo Aug. 8, 2015.
Name of the conductor of Salome was corrected Aug. 10, 2015. David Robertson is the conductor; Daniel Slater is the stage director.