Santa Fe Opera: Così fan tutte is a mixed bag, Jenůfa a triumph

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.

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The five main principals of Così fan tutte: Fiordiligi (Amanda Majeski), Guglielmo (Jarett Ott), Don Alfonso (Rod Gilfry), Ferrando (Ben Bliss) and Dorabella (Emily D’Angelo). Photo by Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera.

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.

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Jarrett Ott and Ben Bliss as the frat-boy lovers Guglielmo and Ferrando, with Ron Gilfry as the cowboy Don Alfonso. Photo by Ken Howard.

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.

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Rod Gilfry portrays Don Alfonso as an iconic Cowboy, Photo by Ken Howard.

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.

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Alexander Lewis as Laca cowers outside the Soviet-era mill of designer Charles Edwards. Photo by Ken Howard.

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.

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Patricia Racette as Kostelnička (right) with Laura Wilde as Jenůfa and Alexander Lewis as Laca. Photo by Ken Howard.

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.

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Laura Wilde as Jenůfa and Richard Trey Smagur as Števa. Photo by Ken Howard.

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.

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L to R: Susanne Mentzer (Grandmother), Kathleen Reveille (Mayor’s Wife), Laura Wilde (Jenůfa), Gina Perregrino (Herdswoman), Alan Higgs (Mayor) and Patricia Racette (Kostelnička). Photo by Ken Howard.

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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Santa Fe Opera house. Photo by Robert Goodwin.

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.

 

 

 

Santa Fe Opera: the familiar, the unfamiliar, and a world premiere

Poul Ruder’s Thirteenth Child is “an opera of expressive breadth and depth”

By Peter Alexander Aug. 4 at 11:45 p.m.

Santa Fe Opera has five operas in production this summer, continuing through Aug. 24. Reviews of three of those productions—Puccini’s La bohème, Bizet’s Pearl Fishers and the world premiere of The Thirteenth Child by Poul Ruders—are below. Reviews of the remaining two productions will appear in a later blog post.

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Soloman Howard (Colline), Zachary Nelson (Marcello), Dale Travis (Benoit), Will Liverman (Schaunard), supernumerary, and Mario Chang (Rodolfo) in La Bohème. Photo by Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera.

La bohème, the most familiar of the operas on Santa Fe’s 2019 schedule, is certainly enjoyable. The firmly realistic set and production are mostly serviceable, if not spectacular, and the singers range from reliable to impressive. Conductor Jader Bignamini knows when to stretch the tempo and when to push ahead. If he sometimes took the faster bits a little too fast, the excellent orchestra stayed with him, responding well to every push and pull. Their performance was thoroughly idiomatic, always giving the lyric moments time to blossom.

My one criticism of Bignamini’s work is that he was not careful enough to maintain a good balance between stage and pit. He has conducted in Santa Fe before—Rigoletto in 2015—so he should know the theater’s acoustics, but he sometimes allowed the voices to be swallowed by the orchestra.

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Eliot Page as Parpignol with the Santa Fe Opera Chorus and Children’s Chorus. Photo by Ken Howard.

Scenic designer Grace Laubacher had mixed success adapting to the Santa Fe stage. Her garret, a stand-alone piece that was pushed on for the first act and that visibly cracked apart at Mimi’s death in the third act (symbolizing the emotional shattering of the remaining characters?), was effectively evocative of 19th-century Paris. The second act, using movable pieces that were miniature buildings from one side and flat semi-reflective surfaces on the other, were an uncomfortable solution for the streets outside the Café Momus, with the toymaker Parpignol popping above a multi-story building like Godzilla in Tokyo.

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Mario Chang (Rudolfo), Gabriella Reyes (Musetta), Vanesssa Vasques (Mimi) and Zachary Nelson (Marceloo) in Act III of La Bohème. Photo by Ken Howard.

Most successful was the third act. The minimal set pieces—the outside of the cafe, the city gate and a snow-covered tree—were all that was needed. The spare set contributed to the bleakness of the winter scene.

Mary Birnbaum’s direction was ideal for the highjnks of the four artists sharing the garret, capturing their camaraderie well. At other times, however, her ideas got in the way of the story. Having the characters pass downstage of the garret to reach its door proved distracting. Characters did not always seem to interact.

The visual pun of having Musetta enter on inline skates, suggesting how she glides through life and the streets of Paris, might work if the Musetta were comfortable on the skates, but soprano Gabriella Reyes seemed not to be as she careened from light post to light post, sometimes supported by waiters and street people. This was a gimmick too far, both wildly anachronistic and painful to watch.

I have still not puzzled out what was symbolized by having both Mimi and Musetta wander through the garret before their actual entrances in Act IV—perhaps that they are always with Rudolfo and Marcelo even when they aren’t?—nor Musetta’s obvious pregnancy in the same act.

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Vanessa Vasquez (Mimi) and Mario Chang (Rodolfo). Photo by Ken Howard.

As Mimi, soprano Vanessa Vasquez was a standout, bringing radiance and beauty to her voice in the early acts, and great expression when she is dying. If her coughing attacks seemed pasted into her interpretation, one cannot fault her vocal expression in the most poignant scenes. Her substantial voice soared easily, bloomed into striking moments of beauty, and became well controlled as she warmed into the role.

Mario Chang had some lovely, ringing high notes as Rodolfo. His voice shone in his duets with Mimi, but he was not consistent. Some entrances were a little rough, the occasional note hit too hard. Nevertheless, he was affecting throughout, and particularly through the Act III reconciliation duet with Mimi.

Zachary Nelson’s Marcello lacked passion. He sang pleasingly but seemed only intermittently engaged in the Act II and III quarrels with Musetta. The other Bohemians—Soloman Howard as Colline and Will Liverman as Schaunard—were solid and effective. Howard’s strong, robust voice could be more consistently controlled, but was used expressively for his “Overcoat” aria in Act IV. Schaunard’s jolly entrance in Act I, bearing money and food for his cold, starving garret-mates, was outstanding, bringing vocal warmth and good cheer to the stage.

I suggested earlier that Reyes as Musetta did not seem comfortable on skates. This must have affected her singing, which was a little cautious in Act II, but much stronger and more expressive in her fight with Marcello in Act III, and even when pregnant in Act IV. She was a solid Musetta who would be better without the skates.

Dale Travis hit all the conventional comic notes, first as the landlord Benoit in Act I and then as the hapless Alcindoro in Act II. Elliot Page was a clear-voiced Parpignol, offering his toys from above the doll houses of the miniature Paris.

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Loved by opera aficionados but little known to the broader public, Bizet’s Pearl Fishers is a worthy work by any standards. Written several years before the composer’s final work, Carmen, it is filled with glorious melodies, striking choruses and instrumental numbers that point ahead to that masterpiece.

Santa Fe Opera’s Pearl Fishers, a revival of a production first seen in 2012, brought all of those the musical strengths to the fore. Conductor Timothy Myers elicited beautiful playing from the orchestra while finding all the dramatic high points in the score. The woodwinds in particular were noteworthy, with extraordinary solos from clarinet, flutes and horns.

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Ilker Arcayürek (Nadir), Corinne Winters (Leila, veiled), Anthony Clark Evans (Zurga) with the Santa Fe Opera Chorus. Photo by Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera.

The choral scenes represent some of Bizet’s best music, anticipating the greats choruses of Carmen.They were powerfully sung, outlining the drama that sets the community of fisherfolk against the forbidden love between Leila, a priestess of Brahma, and Nadir, a hunter. Their liaison that interrupts Leila’s prayer vigil brings disaster on the village and leads to the opera’s dramatic, if unlikely, conclusion.

Pearl Fishers is one of those Romantic operas, along with such better known works as Madama Butterfly, Turandot  and Aida, whose treatment of “exotic” subjects is problematic today. Pearl Fishers is supposedly set in Ceylon, although the locale was originally Mexico and the opera belongs authentically to neither locale.

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Ceylon viewed through the frame of 19th-century Paris: Ilker Arcayürek (Nadir), Corinne Winters (Leila) and the Santa Fe Opera Chorus. Photo by Ken Howard.

Jean-Marc Puissant’s scenic design for the SFO stage deals with issues of cultural voyeurism in a creative way: the set features a massive picture frame, with everything beyond the frame representing a kind of generic “other” of stone temples and ruins, and everything in front representing the more specific milieu of 19th-century France. In other words, we see the setting through the frame of Bizet’s own time and place.

The stage direction of Shawna Lucey served the plot well. There were distancing elements of ritual that sometimes kept the chorus in front the frame, distracting from action farther upstage, but not to the point of interfering with the singers. She used the spaces onstage well, particularly in the scene when Leila and Nadir are discovered together inside the temple.

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Corinne Winteres (Leila). Photo by Ken Howard.

Soprano Corinne Winters was a radiant Leila, her singing secure and bright, carrying easily over the orchestra in all of her biggest moments. Her Act III duet with Anthony Clark Evans’s Zurga, the leader of the fishers who is Nadir’s rival for her love, is one of the high points of the opera and the season. The rising arc of dramatic intensity is perfectly controlled, leading to a shattering climax. Equally memorable was her Act I aria and prayer at the beginning of her vigil.

Ilker Arcayürek has a light and delicate high tenor voice that is ideal for Nadir, but he struggled with the highest notes, easing into them or reaching for the tops of phrases. He was ardent in his declarations of love and expressive in the most dramatic moments of the opera.

Evans was a solid and forthright Zurga who occupied his critical role well. The best known piece from the opera, his Act I duet with Nadir, “Au fond de temple saint,” was as rousing as called for. In other scenes he was a convincing village leader whose jealousy of Nadir momentarily overcomes his love for Leila and affection for Nadir.

As Nourabad the high priest, Robert Pomakov used his powerful bass voice to dominate the scenes where he denounces Leila and Nadir, and calls for their execution. Elsewhere the character is a cipher, although Pomakov was reliably able in the role.

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Danish composer Poul Ruders has written several operas on dark subjects—Kafka’s Trial, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale and and Lars von Trier’s film Dancer in the Dark—but he wanted something different for his fifth opera. He turned to fairy tales, finding a little known story that fit his aim.

The Thirteenth Child, receiving its world premiere production at Santa Fe this summer, is based on a story by the brothers Grimm, and it takes Ruders in a different direction than those earlier works. The combination of fairy-tale magic, lightly comic moments and a happy ending have elicited a score marked with lyric elements, glowing, consonant orchestral interludes, generally light textures and one delightfully humorous male ensemble for the 12 older brothers of the title character.

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David Leigh (King Hjarne) and Tamara Mumford (Queen Gertrude). Photo by Ken Howard.

Ruders was able to draw on a reservoir of dark and threatening orchestral music when needed, but that vein, so evident in his earlier work, is leavened by the lyrical writing. As presented in Santa Fe, The Thirteenth Child is an accomplished and entertaining work, a fitting achievement for a composer who describes opera as “an emotional affair wrapped in show biz.”

Not all the vocal music is graceful, however. The jagged lines, wide leaps and extreme ranges characteristic of many newer operas are used for emotive passages. Hjarne, the King of Frohagord, is one of the lowest bass roles in the repertoire, and the part of Drokan, the fairy tale’s requisite evil element of the plot, also lies very low, with sudden leaps into falsetto—executed with varying success—to symbolize madness.

I thought the best music in Thirteenth Child surrounded the moments of fairy-tale magic, and the orchestral interludes that set the emotional temperature for the ups and downs of the plot. Human emotions, so often the heart of opera, struck me as less effectively conveyed, particularly the intense moments when Ruders resorted to wide-leaping vocal lines that are hard to distinguish one from another.

Conductor Paul Daniel had the orchestra well in hand, shaping dynamics carefully to reflect the moments of tension and create an effective emotional profile. All of Ruders’s shifting moods, in response to the twists of the plot, were well delineated.

Alexander Dodge’s interesting unit set serves the opera well. The blank walls are used for engaging projections by Aaron Rhyme, including snakes when Drokan is plotting, ravens when the 12 brothers are turned to birds, and red flowers for the magical lilies that protect the kingdom of Frohagord. Other, less specific projections add sparkling beauty to several scenes.

The costumes by Rita Ryack are cinematic medieval on steroids—too much had the opera been realistic but just colorful and flamboyant enough for a fairy tale. My favorite visual effect was Hjarne’s funeral, with black-robed characters—nuns and monks?—with white collars and bright red spears held vertically. This is the best kind of spectacle.

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Bradley Galvin (Drokan) with elaborate projections. Photo by Ken Howard.

As Hjarne, David Leigh has the shortest time on stage—just the first scene—but his deep bass, clearly heard except for the very lowest notes, was solid and effective. He managed his leaps into falsetto and madness well, providing motivation for all that follows.

Hjarne is driven to obsession by Drokan, the truly evil element of the plot. As portrayed by Bradley Garvin, Drokan was the personification of scheming villainy, hoping to overturn Hjarne’s family, marry his daughter—the thirteenth child of the title—and rule Frohagord. He conveyed Drokan’s dark role in the plot through vocal timbre, ranging from subtle suggestions of evil to overt threat. So effective was he in the role that there was a smattering of applause at his demise.

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Jessica Jones (Lyra). Photo by Ken Howard.

Tamara Mumford lent her rich, warm mezzo-soprano sound to Queen Gertrude, who is a guiding spirit to the story before and after her death. Critical to the first half of the opera, she was a steady presence dramatically and vocally outstanding. The spectral echoes and playback loops of her singing as a spirit are pretty conventional film and TV ghost effects, but reasonably effective in context.

As Lyra, the thirteenth child and heir of Hjarne, Jessica E. Jones was everything  a fairy tale asks a princess to be: winsome, lovely and brave. Her bright and clear voice only complemented the portrayal.

Joshua Dennis as Frederic, who searched for Lyra for seven long years, successfully negotiated the leaps and twists of his challenging part, especially in his lengthy narration of his search. Apprentice artist Bille Bruley was appropriately sympathetic as Benjamin, the youngest of the 12 brothers. His voice was strong, and his diction unusually clear.

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Jessica Jones (Lyra) and Bille Bruley (the dying Benjamin). Photo by Ken Howard.

Benjamin’s heroic death is the only real tragedy of the fairy tale, but it sets up the moral that is told at the end: “No joy without sorrow. . . . Dark days always come, in love we find the light.” This message has inspired Ruders to write an opera of expressive breadth and depth, one that I look forward to seeing and hearing again.

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Santa Fe Opera. Photo by Robert Goodwin.

Tickets for the remaining performances in Santa Fe can be purchased through the calendar on the Santa Fe Opera Web page.

NOTE: This story was corrected 8.7.19. The Thirteenth Child is Poul Ruder’s fifth opera, not his sixth.

Michael Christie, former music director of CMF, wins Grammy for Best Opera Recording

Live Recording from Santa Fe Opera also features CU alumnus Wei Wu

By Peter Alexander Feb. 12 at 12 noon

Michael Christie, who was music director of the Colorado Music Festival 2001–2013, won a Grammy for a live recording from the Santa Fe Opera.

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Santa Fe Opera: The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. Photo by Ken Howard.

The two-CD set of composer Mason Bates’ and librettist Mark Campbell’s The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs was recorded during the world premiere run of the opera at the Santa Fe Opera’s summer festival in 2017. It was released on the PENTATONE label. It beat a recording from the Metropolitan Opera and three other nominees to win the category.

Christie, who was recently appointed music director of the New West Symphony in Thousand Oaks, Calif., conducted the opera in Santa Fe, and later at the Indiana University Opera Theater in Bloomington, Ind.

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Wei Wu celebrates his Grammy.

Among other cast members, the recording includes a performance by bass Wei Wu, an alumnus of the CU College of Music, as Jobs’ guru Kobu. Others in the cast included tenor Garrett Sorenson, mezzo-soprano Mariya Kaganskaya, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, baritone Kelly Markgraf, baritone Edward Parks, and soprano Jessica Jones.

Christie is currently conducting performances of Verdi’s La Traviata at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and was unable to attend the Grammy ceremonies. He issued a statement this morning: “I can say the whole experience was quite surreal.

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Michael Christie

“I’m in Chicago at the moment getting ready to open La Traviata at the Lyric Opera of Chicago so couldn’t be present in LA for the award. I have to tell you though, I’m not sure I could have handled being in the audience waiting for that envelope to be opened! Instead, I was in Macy’s (so grateful they provided wifi in the store!!!) alternately shopping for socks and watching the live stream when the award was announced! I just started laughing.

“Any one of the five outstanding nominees should have won and yet they called out ours. I’m so grateful to Santa Fe Opera, our marvelous colleagues of the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra and its powerful chorus, (CD producer) Elizabeth Ostrow, creators Mason Bates and Mark Campbell, my amazing colleagues on stage.

“I also want to shout out to the extraordinary artists at Indiana University who gave the second performances of the opera in September. You all made an indelible impression on the piece and you share in its history.

“Congratulations to everyone involved!”

Christie joins a distinguished roster of Grammy winners in the Best Opera Recording category, including Seiji Ozawa, James Conlon, Alan Gilbert, Kent Nagano and Sir Charles Mackerras.

The recording of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs can be purchased from ArkivMusik or Amazon.

Other nominees for Best Opera Recording were John Adams’ Doctor Atomic by the BBC Symphony and BBC Singers John Adams conducting; Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Alceste by Les Talents Lyriques and Choeur de Chamber de Namur, Christophe Rousset conducting; Richard Strauss’ Der Rosnekavalier by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Sebastian Weigle conducting; and Verdi’s Rigoletto by the Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra and the Men of the Kaunas State Choir, Constantine Orbelian conducting.

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.

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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.

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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

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.

Santa Fe Opera premieres remarkable, powerful opera about Steve Jobs

‘Total work of art’ from composer Mason Bates and librettist Mark Campbell

By Peter Alexander

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Santa Fe Opera; The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. Photo by Ken Howard.

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, premiered July 22 by the Santa Fe Opera and performed last Friday (Aug. 4), is a remarkable first opera by the composer and electronic DJ Mason Bates.

Equally remarkable are the high-tech and musical resources that the Santa Fe Opera assembled for the production, which is eloquent testimony to the company’s unmatched commitment to new opera. I have no doubt that this work will be high on the list of important premieres in the SFO’s history, both for the quality of the work and for the excellence of its execution.

The opera itself and Santa Fe’s production in particular represent an impressive monument to the marriage of arts and technology. Performances feature an extensive sound design that blends lightly amplified voices, guitar and other naturally produced sound with electronics into an overall sound scheme, and a scenic design using projections on a series of movable screens that seamlessly transport the locale from the Jobs family’s famous garage to the Apple boardroom to Yosemite National Park.

The result is a powerful work that immerses the viewer in an artistic and emotionally charged sensory experience that is in some ways more than a performance. It is a 21st-century Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art,” Wagner’s term for his own works) and a definitive statement of what can be accomplished in theaters today. And it suggests what might be achieved in the future.

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The real Steve Jobs

One of the most performed composers in the United States today, Bates lives and works at the intersection of art and technology. This made him an ideal choice to write an opera about Steve Jobs, who once said “I think our major contribution was in bringing a liberal arts point of view to the use of computers.” It was Bates who suggested Jobs as the subject of his commission from the Santa Fe Opera, which was then completed with librettist Mark Campbell.

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Garrett Sorenson as Woz and Edward Parks as Steve Jobs in the famous garage. Photo by Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera.

One problem that Campbell and Bates confronted was the absence of obvious opera-worthy drama in Jobs’s life. Product design and the distribution of corporate stocks are not usually operatic. In a way, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs unfolds as a series of powerful character portrayals, of Jobs himself, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Jobs’ early girlfriend Chrisann Brennan, the Zen monk Kōbun Chino Otogawa, and Jobs’ wife Laurene Powell Jobs.

But Campbell and Bates also found ways to build an effective dramatic arc of rising tension, punctuated with humor and quieter lyrical moments. A single act of 90 minutes is arrayed in 18 scenes plus a prologue and epilogue. Many iconic scenes from Jobs’ life are included: the development of the first Apple, his attraction to Zen Buddhism, his initial denial of his paternity of his daughter Lisa, and others.

Recognizing that Jobs was a showman and his product announcements were very theatrical, Campbell placed the first scene at the greatest of these, the 2007 unveiling of Apple’s transformative “one device,” the iPhone. This pulls the audience in from the first, launching the opera directly into the story of a man we remember and a product that has profoundly touched our lives.

The remaining events are carefully arranged not in chronological order, but in a taut dramatic structure with a powerful emotional climax near the end. Borrowing the Japanese concept of ensō, the hand-drawn circle that represents enlightenment and the minimalist aesthetic that Jobs embraced, the libretto often circles back to earlier scenes, reinforcing the most important events while creating a kind of musical structure.

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Sasha Cooke as Laurene and Edward Parks as Steve Jobs at the opera’s emotional climax. Photo by Ken Howard.

The most dramatic moments—Jobs’s denial of paternity of his daughter Lisa, his brutal abuse of employees and his departure from Apple in 1985—are placed together about two-thirds of the way through. This forms the opera’s climactic scene, and in a perfectly constructed pattern of tension and release, it is immediately followed by a return to 2007 and the opera’s emotional core, when Laurene forces Jobs to face his own mortality.

The opera ends with gestures of symmetry. In the final scene at Jobs’ memorial service, Laurene recalls the first scene and the iPhone launch when she sings “The very second this is over, for better or worse, everyone will reach in their pockets or purses and . . . look at their ‘one device’.” Completing the symmetry, the epilogue briefly recapitulates the prologue, when Paul Jobs gives his young son a work bench as ”a fine place to start.”

Bates expertly combines the acoustic orchestra and electronics, as in his previous works. He creates a different sound world for the different characters: guitar and electronica for Steve Jobs, flute and Tibetan bowls for Kōbun, strings for Laurene Jobs. These are arrayed skillfully, and the build-up of sound in the climactic scenes integrates well with the visual electronics and the rising dramatic arc.

The vocal part are never less than serviceable, and they get better as the opera goes along. The distribution of the voice parts and the strategic placement of songs for the individual singers adds to the characterizations. The songs, or arias if one prefers, emerge comfortably from the musical fabric, and they are all expressive. Jobs’ “Something we play,” Kōbun’s “Take one step,” and Laurene’s passionate “”When will you let in the truth?” stand out in my memory, but there were other equally enjoyable numbers.

Jobs has to carry the opera: he is on stage almost every minute, and the opera largely takes place within his mind. In Edward Parks Santa Fe Opera has a singer who has a solid baritone voice and looks enough like the later Steve Jobs to satisfy audiences who remember him—tall, bearded, balding, and of course wearing a black turtleneck.

Parks’s movements, gestures and poses accurately captured what we remember from Jobs’ photos and public appearances. He was strong enough to dominate scenes vocally and physically when required, but he was able to turn softer at the end. His successful performance was one ingredient the opera could not survive without.

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Jobs (Parks) and Chrisann (Jessica E. Jones) in the apple orchard. Photo by Ken Howard.

As the women in Steve Jobs’s life, Sasha Cooke as Laurene Powell Jobs and Jessica E. Jones as Chrisann Brennan sang well and were effective character actors. In her several scenes, Cooke found just the right level of dignity, loving compassion, and flirtatiousness when she first meets Steve. Jones was pert and funny when she and Steve took LSD in an apple orchard, and she was even better when she faced Steve Jobs’s final rejection, going from wounded and needy to crushed and defiant

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Jobs (Parks) and Kobun (Wei Wu). Photo by Ken Howard.

Wei Wu, a 2013 University of Colorado graduate whose blossoming career has taken him to major opera companies around the world, sang with a deep resonant bass as Kōbun. In a role filled with both wisdom and wry humor, he captured the changing nuances perfectly. Garrett Sorenson brought a soaring, resonant tenor and some passion at the climactic moments to the relatively small but essential role of Wozniak. Kelly Markgraf as Paul Jobs and Mariya Kaganskaya as a calligraphy teacher made solid contributions.

Michael Christie, well known in Boulder as the music director of the Colorado Music Festival for 13 years, held the ensemble expertly together. There is a lot to manage, and he seemed in control every minute, managing the flow of the complex score and getting the big moments right where they should be. The chorus under the direction of Susanne Sheston sang Bates’s complex music with precision.

The previously praised sound design by Rick Jacobsohn and Brian Loach was expertly done and always well balanced. Opera singers generally hate amplification of voices, but here it is part of an overall electronic concept, and it was subtle enough that I often could not hear that the singers were amplified.

Victoria “Vita” Tzykun’s scenic design and the projections from the London and New York-based international firm 59 Productions created an appropriately high-tech feel along with the various sites of the story. It is probably the highest praise to say that the costumes of Paul Carey and direction of Kevin Newbury fit the familiar times so well as to be almost unnoticeable: everything looked exactly right.

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Edward Parks as Steve Jobs. Photo by Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera.

There are still four performances of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs to come in Santa Fe, including one Aug. 22 that was added to the schedule due to demand and that has the most seats available; click here for ticket information. The last Santa Fe performance is Aug. 25. The opera will later be presented by co-commissioners the Seattle Opera, the San Francisco Opera, and the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.

 

Three musical triumphs at the Santa Fe Opera

Productions of Lucia, Alcina and Golden Cockerel offer musical treasures

By Peter Alexander

The Santa Fe Opera 2017 season, which continues through Aug. 26, offers three productions of remarkable musical accomplishment.

The stagings, however, are less consistently successful, ranging from one that is brilliant in conception and execution to another that is bafflingly undramatic. The operas are Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Handel’s Alcina, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s infrequently performed masterpiece, The Golden Cockerel, all of which I saw the week of July 31.

The world premiere production of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs by Mason Bates, performed Aug. 4, will be reviewed separately.

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Soprano Brenda Rae as Lucia. Photo by Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera.

Brenda Rae, singing the title role of Lucia di Lammermoor Aug. 31, gave a virtual master class in bel canto singing. She sang with uncommon control and purity of sound, achieving an unimpeachable evenness of line across all registers and levels of volume. Every note was part of a phrase. The coloratura was thrilling, even at pianissimo.

Agility, lyricism, range, expression—the whole package was present. Her portrayal of Lucia’s descent into madness was particularly effective, making the famous mad scene not a stand-alone show-piece, but as it should be the culmination of Lucia’s dramatic arc.

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Brenda Rae and Mario Chang. Photo by Ken Howard.

Rae was well supported by the rest of a remarkably strong cast. Mario Chang was vocally superb as Edgardo, matching Lucia with a strong, resonant tenor. His arias were deeply expressive and he paired well with Lucia in their duets.

As Lucia’s brother, Enrico Ashton, Zachary Nelson had a strong, weighty and when, necessary, malevolent baritone. The intensity of his increasing demands for Lucia to sacrifice herself for his honor ratcheted the dramatic tension effectively. With voice and presence, he was as villainous as the story requires.

As the chaplain Raimondo, Christian Van Horn’s powerful bass commanded the stage when he announced the discovery of the bridegroom’s lifeless body and Lucia’s madness. His character is ambivalent, first defending Lucia, then advising her to accept her destiny, and he was equally resolute in these changing declarations.

Stephen Martin was effective as the scheming Normanno, as was Carlos Santelli in the small and thankless role of Lucia’s doomed bridegroom. Sarah Coit was everything that is needed for the standard role of the soprano’s confidante.

Corrado Rovaris and the outstanding Santa Fe Opera orchestra provided strong support for the cast. One member of the orchestra deserves extra mention: Friedrich Heinrich Kern played the glass harmonica, a welcome and spooky return to the original orchestration of the mad scene, instead of the more usual flute. Kern, who works and teaches composition in New York, was hired for the summer specifically to play the glass harmonica part in Lucia—an example of the SFO’s uncompromising commitment.

I have less to say about the production, which was minimal to the point of emptiness. Designer Riccardo Hernandez created a high-walled reflective box that is supposed to represent the increasingly cramped realm in which Lucia is caught as her fate closes in on her. The barest minimum of furniture is employed, while lighting projections by Peter Nigrini represented changing locales, from forest to hall.

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Opera in a box: Scene 1 of Santa Fe’s Lucia. Photo by Ken Howard.

This might have impact if everything else was meaningful, but alas it was not. Stage director Ron Daniels often seemed to leave the singers to fend for themselves on an empty stage, with varying degrees of effectiveness. Due to space limitations in the box, the chorus often could do little more than stand in a row and sing.

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Lucia at the “fountain.” Photo by Ken Howard.

Among other infelicities, when a fountain is called for in the second act, what appeared to be a large plastic Petrie dish with a few inches of water rose noisily from below stage. The stairs that Lucia must descend for her mad scene appeared and disappeared for no evident reason. In the final scene, the chorus that reveals Lucia’s death to Edgardo was arrayed in a single curving row far above the stage, looking like judges assembled to condemn the solitary miscreant below. Doors opened and closed noisily, to the detriment of music and drama. Contradicting the force of the musical performance, none of this added up to drama.

But bel canto opera is first of all about the music, and in that regard this was a Lucia to remember.

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The production of Handel’s Alcina (which I saw Aug. 2) is highly entertaining, sometimes distracting, clever, campy, over the top and musically superb. Director David Alden, known for his politically charged, updated interpretations, has placed Alcina in the 1950s.

Clearly the era was a great source of inspiration. In Handel’s original, Ruggiero is the latest sexual slave held captive on a magical island by the sorceress Alcina, whose previous lovers have been changed to wild beasts and stones. In Adlen’s Alcina, Ruggiero has snuck into an abandoned movie theater in order to imagine Alcina as an ideal woman and seductress.

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Elza van den Heever, Jacquelyn Stucker and Anna Christy in Santa Fe’s campy, entertaining Alcina. Photo by Ken Howard.

Without that information, found in the program book, I’m not sure what the audience would make of the production—people in movie-usher uniforms who change into gorilla suits, a brownie flash camera, vaudeville acrobats with animal masks who tumble on and off stage, and at the end, a smaller-than-life model of a perfect little suburban neighborhood symbolizing Ruggiero’s return to sanity.

The clarity of the foundational symbolism aside, the performance was marked by great energy and commitment from all performers. Alden asks a lot of the singers—to sing with a cigarette between clenched teeth, while hopping about the stage, while being lifted and carried by the acrobats, while being wheeled about the stage on a dissecting cart—which the cast undertook with cheerful enthusiasm.

In his day Handel wrote for entertainment, and so it is a form of authenticity to make Handel’s operas entertaining for modern audiences. For this purpose Alden has many wonderful ideas—sometimes too many ideas. At times the constant activity upstages the  singers and subverts the Baroque ideal of placing attention on vocal prowess.

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Daniela Mack as Bradamante in the safe, sane world of ’50s suburbia, at the end of Alcina. Photo by Ken Howard.

Nonetheless, there were moments of great beauty and emotional impact, and it is telling that the greatest of these came when there was only a single singer onstage with no hijinks to upstage the music. And it certainly does not hurt that just about the entire cast sang beautifully, handling the Baroque style with aplomb.

It seems unfair to single out any individual from the strong cast. As the enchanted Ruggiero, Paula Murrihy sang with a clean, clear voice that was meltingly beautiful in her arias. Daniela Mack did a fierce and brilliant rage aria as Bradamante/Ricciardo. As her tutor Melisso, Christian Van Horn sang with a full rich bass and commanding expression.

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Anna Christy romps as Morgana in Alcina. Photo by Ken Howard.

Anna Christy, known to Colorado audiences for her Lucia with Opera Colorado and Baby Doe with Central City Opera, was a bright, saucy and fully engaging Morgana, a role with great comic potential that she grasped with glee. Alek Schrader was her equal as Oronte, conveying in action and voice his changing moods alternately in love with and furious with Morgana.

In the title role, Elza van den Heever was a convincing enchantress, pink glove and all. She sang with careful control, a beautiful pianissimo and long, expressive lines, in spite of occasional discomfort with the Handelian ornamentation.

Harry Bicket, Santa Fe Opera’s chief conductor, led a stylish modern-instrument performance. Gideon Davey’s scene and costume design and Beate Vollack’s choreography supported Alden’s interpretation effectively.

Some purists will be uncomfortable with the transformation of Alcina into a semi-modern parable, and the frenetic activity behind some of the scenes. A few sexual suggestions are in questionable taste. But I found it almost entirely a delightful entertainment, first-rate musically and wonderfully provocative.

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If you have only one opera to see in Santa Fe, do not miss Rimsky-Korsakov’s gorgeous fairy-tale opera The Golden Cockerel. Scarcely known in the U.S., the opera was more than redeemed by the SFO’s brilliant production. Director Paul Curran took full advantage of the satirical aspects of the plot, creating a production that is magical, laugh-out-loud funny, and touching.

This is one of Rimsky’s most brilliant scores, full of bright colors and lush orchestration. In spite of the satirical elements, there are moments of serene beauty, as when the buffoonish Tsar Dodon is sleeping. Conductor Emmanuel Villaume led an unrushed, luxurious performance by the excellent SFO orchestra and cast. I cannot imagine a better realized, musically beautiful, or satisfying performance than I heard (Aug. 3).

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Golden Cockerel. Photo by Ken Howard.

Equally noteworthy are the ingenious scene design and colorful costumes of Gary McCann. The costumes are spectacularly beautiful recreations of authentic Russian clothing of the early 20th century. The set—a stark reflective metal spiral—was enhanced with inventive projections by Driscoll Otto and the lighting design of Paul Hackenmueller.

The opera is a double satire of the vanity and foolishness of dynastic rulers. It was first a satire of Tsar Nicholas I, known for his endless wars against Russia’s neighbors, in the form of a poem by Pushkin written in 1834. Rimsky took Pushkin’s story and made it into a satire of Nicholas II and the disastrous Russo-Japanese War 71 years later. Unsurprisingly, the Tsarist censors of 1905 forbade performances of The Golden Cockerel. Rimsky refused to make changes, and died 3 years later without ever seeing it performed.

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General Polkan (Kevin Burdette) leads Tsar Dodon (Tim Mix) gloriously to battle in The Golden Cockerel. Photo by Ken Howard.

The cast again is superb. Tim Mix did a great comic turn as the bumbling Tsar Dodon. Not only did he sing strongly, he conveyed Dodon’s pompous self-regard with every step and gesture. His wide-eyed infatuation with the Queen of Shemakha in the second act was comedy gold—and who could forget his mock-heroic exit to battle, backwards on a large hobby horse?

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The Queen of Shemakha (Venera Gimadieva) leads the wide-eyed Tsar Dodon (Tim Mix) by the beard. Photo by Ken Howard.

The second act belongs to the Queen of Shemakha, 45 minutes of glittering coloratura and high-soprano showmanship. Venera Gimadieva sang with mastery of her part. In her best moments her capricious taunting of Dodon was fearsome, although she occasionally seemed too casual in her demeanor for the flirty, haughty queen.

The other roles large and small were more than capably covered. Barry Banks brought a penetrating tenor voice to the difficult role of the Astrologer who sets the story in motion, singing with impressive control of the daunting heights demanded by the role. Meredith Arwady was a deserving audience favorite as Dodon’s ebullient housekeeper Amelfa. Kasia Borowiec sang brightly in the small, repetitive but critical role of the Cockerel. And certainly not least, Kevin Burdette was wonderful, vocally and dramatically, as General Polkan, Dodon’s unfortunate general whose severed head is handed around at the opera’s climax.

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Meredith Arwady as Amelfa in The Golden Cockerel. Photo by Ken Howard,

Like everything else in the opera, the severed head is only an illusion. In the brief epilogue, the astrologer comes back to life—after being summarily dispatched by Dodon—to assure the audience that only he and the queen are real. Everything else has been conjured—and magically realized on the Santa Fe Opera stage.

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All three operas reviewed here have performances left, ending with Lucia di Lammermoor on Aug. 26. For dates of performances, visit the Santa Fe Opera 2017 calendar. Ticket information and pries can be seen here.