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.

 

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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.

No premieres, but enticing productions at Santa Fe Opera

“Thoroughly enjoyable” Don Giovanni and “rare, noteworthy” Vanessa among the pleasures

By Peter Alexander

It’s an unusual year at the Santa Fe Opera.

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Crosby Theatre, Santa Fe Opera. Photo by Peter Alexander

The company, known for producing premieres, has no new works this year, nothing from the current century, nothing from the past 50 years. The most recent work on the 2016 season is Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, a conservative piece of neo-Romantic melodrama even when it was written in 1958. (Santa Fe is producing the now standard 1964 revision.)

This is not to imply that the current season at Santa Fe fails to live up to the company’s enviable standards. Even without new works, there is much to enjoy, appreciate and admire at the Santa Fe Opera. Of the five-opera season, I saw three: Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West (Girl of the Golden West) and Vanessa. Other productions were Richard Strauss’s Capriccio and Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette.

Don Giovanni receives a thoroughly enjoyable performance, in many ways one of the best I have seen. The cast is very strong, the production is interesting and successful, and except for the problematic second act where Mozart had to provide showpiece arias for each lead singer in turn, the pacing is brisk.

2 Ensemble Cast in 'Don Giovanni' (c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.SMALL

Ensemble Cast in ‘Don Giovanni’ (c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

There is nothing particularly original or striking in the concept and characterization, which largely represent a natural and direct interpretation of the libretto and score. With a largely bare stage, the production focuses on the relationships among the characters.

Riccardo Hernandez’s set is dominated by a large semi-abstract head that recalls the sculptural style of Henry Moore and other mid-20th-century artists. A dark gray when it first rises impressively from behind the stage (left open to the New Mexico hills), the head reflects many different colors and patterns during the show, from silver and blue to gold to fiery red, paralleling the passions and actions of the characters.

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The Commendatore (Soloman Howard) drags Don Giovanni (Daniel Okulitch) to his infernal reward. (c) Ken Howard, Santa Fe Opera

The floor and side panels are a shiny, reflective black. Other than some suggestive scenes on the panels when the opera moves to Don Giovanni’s castle, the only other scenic elements are a few pieces of furniture when needed, and large statuary for the cemetery. With Peter Negrini’s intriguing projections on the sculptural head, this is enough to suggest the locations and simple enough to keep the action moving without time-consuming scene changes. The night I was in attendance, the flames projected on the set and the steam bursting from the stage floor as Don Giovanni is pulled into the underworld drew grasps and cheers from the audience.

Emily Rebholz’s attractive costumes suggest Mozart’s times without falling back on actual 18th-century styles, with their silk stockings and powdered periwigs that look silly today. Ron Daniel provides clean and effective stage direction with no tendentious psychological reinterpretation or the kind of slapstick and stylized gesturing that mar some Mozart productions.

Conductor John Nelson led a stylish interpretation, with the orchestra always well in balance with the singers. The overture had great energy but was slightly ragged until the players settled into the fast tempo that Nelson selected.

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Leporello (Kyle Ketelsen) and Don Giovanni (Daniel Okulitch) (c) Ken Howard, Santa Fe Opera

The key pairing of Don Giovanni and Leporello is outstanding. Daniel Okulitch cuts the very figure of the wily seducer. If slightly laconic at times, he always moves on stage with the ease of the nobleman who expects obedience from the world about him. He is vocally solid, and sparkles appropriately in the famous “Champagne Aria.”

His partner, Kyle Ketelsen as Leporello, is one of the stars of the show. He sings with great energy and expression, creating a very sympathetic Leporello without descending to mugging or overacting to make a comic point. (Disclosure: I knew Ketelsen as a graduate student singer many years ago at the University of Iowa.)

Leah Crocetto’s bright, clear soprano is ideal for Donna Anna, and she handles all the brilliant figuration of her opera seria part with aplomb. As her opposite figure, Keri Alkema is a steely-voiced Donna Elvira when intent on revenge against the Don, but capable of melting into warm, creamy tones under his seductive powers. In the ungrateful role of Don Ottavio, who has little more to do than sing his undying devotion over and over again, Edgaras Montvidas is ardent, although his voice sometimes slips into an edgy, pushed sound.

10 Rhian Lois (Zerlina) and Ensemble Cast in 'Don Giovanni' (c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.SMALL

Rhian Lois (Zerlina) and ensemble (c) Ken Howard, Santa Fe Opera

Rhian Lois was lovable and flirty as Zerlina, as she should be, singing with a bright and perky manner that was never less than delightful. If occasionally under-animated, Jarrett Ott was fine as the jealous and hot-tempered Masetto. Soloman Howard’s booming voice lent weight to the Commendatore, who, unusually, enters the final scene in person instead of as a statue.

Some Santa Fe magic: nature, always an element in the beautiful open-air Crosby Theatre, made its own contribution to the production. On Monday night (Aug. 1), distant lightning, seen from the very beginning of the overture, approached the theater as Don Giovanni approached his reckoning. The final scene had some accompanying loud thunderclaps as the Commendatore entered the stage.

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La Fanciulla del West has always struck me as an uncomfortable hybrid, with its Italian passion applied over the Wild West setting with a very broad knife. The sourdoughs heartily calling out “Hello! Hello!” at every opportunity, the cringeworthy Native characters Wowkle and Billy, rich Puccinian climaxes applied to such lines as “I want my plow again and my mother,” the childlike miners who pivot so easily from a raging lynch mob to a happy congregation under the influence of Minnie’s sentimentality—it’s all a hard to sell to Americans. Not surprisingly, the night I attended (Aug. 2) the audience chuckled more than once in moments that should be serious.

13 Patricia Racette (Minnie) and Gwyn Hughes Jones (Dick Johnson) in 'The Girl of the GOlden West' (c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.SMALL

Patricia Racette (Minnie) and Gwynn Hughes Jones (Dick Johnson) in ‘La Fanciulla del West’ (c) Ken Howard, Santa Fe Opera

This production is a bit of a mixed bag. The cast, led by the estimable veteran Patricia Racette as Minnie, gives a taut performance in the opera’s most dramatic moments, particularly the crucial turning points in the second act. It is a pleasure to hear some less familiar Puccini performed with commitment.

However, the problematic set—designed by Miriam Buether in a co-production with the English National opera—is another matter. It represents a sort of dollhouse style, with tidy buildings from somewhere far removed from a California mining camp. The second act turns Minnie’s cabin into a 1950s Adirondack weekend getaway, with a circular window and chic little lighting fixtures, while the first-act bar comes complete with neon lighting.

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Miriam Buether’s Hopper-esque U.S.Marshall’s Office, Act III of ‘La Fanciulla del West’ (c) Ken Howard, Santa Fe Opera

The first and third act sets leave director Richard Jones with some very stiff challenges for moving his cast and chorus. In the first act, the chorus keeps running in and out, en masse, often with no apparent motivation, largely because the set doesn’t leave room for them to do much more. The last act, with its broad front suggesting a marshal’s office as painted by Edward Hopper, forces the chorus to line up in two ranks, face the audience and sing. The only action possible in this constricted space is provided by posse members who keep dashing across the stage, seriously upstaging one of Jack Rance’s big moments.

Dramatically, it is hard to take this seriously, but Puccini is really about the music. Conductor Emmanuel Villaume leads an impassioned interpretation without sacrificing delicacy and control. He is unafraid to turn loose the orchestra at the climaxes, but otherwise remains supportive of the singers.

14 Mark Delavan (Jack Rance) and Patricia Racette (Minnie) in 'The Girl of the Golden West' (c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.SMALL

Jack Rance (Mark Delavan) and Minnie (Racette) play cards for Dick Johnson (c) Ken Howard, Santa Fe Opera

The only major female character in an opera of men, Minnie is the heart of the story. Racette has Puccini in her veins, and at her best delivers a Minnie of great impact. Her evocation of Minnie’s anguish, and all the emotional swerves of the second act are superb. Elsewhere, I found her less effective, with a vibrato that gets away from her when pushed for volume or range.

Gwynn Hughes Jones has an appealing tenor voice that fits Dick Johnson well. He was deeply affecting in his lyrical moments, but also in the great emotional moments of the second act. Mark Delavan is a rough hewn, threatening Rance, stressing more the jealous, angry lover than the rock-steady sheriff. With Racette and Jones, he helps bring the second act to a boil.

The other roles are well handled. Craig Verm as the sympathetic Sonora is a standout, Allan Glassman a solid Nick. As Ashby, Raymond Aceto uses his sonorous, covered voice to create a blustery, officious Wells Fargo agent.

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For fans of Barber’s music (me included), any production of Vanessa is a rare pleasure, and this one was particularly noteworthy. The musical elements—the singing from a strong cast, the musical leadership from conductor Leonard Slatkin, the playing from the virtuoso orchestra—were all exceptional. The production struck a serious note, and while not everyone will like the approach, which chooses psychological symbolism over grandeur, it was consistent and meaningful.

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Allen Moyer’s monochrome set for ‘Vanessa’ (Zach Borichevsky as Anatol and Virginie Verrez as Erika) (c) Ken Howard, Santa Fe Opera

Allen Moyer’s set portrays a grand house, set somewhere in the remote north, but Moyer eschews the lavish Masterpiece Theater Victorian-period style that often characterize the opera. Instead, his set is rendered entirely in shades of gray. That setting, and the largely monochrome costumes of James Schuette, clearly symbolize the monotony of the shuttered and emotionally choked life that Vanessa has chosen.

The back of the stage is covered by a large curtain, pulled back to reveal a shattered mirror as Vanessa begins to return to life with the arrival of the false Anatol. Representing Vanessa’s efforts to deny the aging process, when opened it stands for the shattered person that Vanessa has become. At the end, when the young Erika takes on Vanessa’s retreat from life, the curtain is pulled back over the mirror.

This approach allows for some stunning moments of theater—the eye is captured by any use of color in a costume, the pure white Erika and others wear in the second act, the view of the snowy woods through the great window—and the return to all gray at the end makes Erika’s coming fate visible. If a little oppressive for the viewer, it is handled with subtlety and consistency. The symbolism never becomes didactic or preachy, and never overtakes or contradicts the music or plot.

6. Helene Schneiderman (Old Baroness) and Erin Wall (Vanessa) in 'Vanessa' (c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.SMALL

Helene Schneiderman (Old Baroness) and Erin Wall (Vanessa) in ‘Vanessa’ (c) Ken Howard, Santa Fe Opera

The opera is carried well by the two female principals, Virginie Verrez as Erika and Erin Wall as Vanessa. The two singers establish their contrasting characters at the outset, with beautiful renditions first of Erika’s calm, longing aria “Must the Winter Come so Soon,” followed by Vanessa’s fiery, overwrought showpiece, “Do not utter a word, Anatol.” Wall in particular handles the extreme demands of her aria spectacularly well, from the most brilliant outbursts to the final, filmy fading of the last note.

These two singers set a very high standard, and maintain it throughout. As the baroness, who makes her greatest emotional impact by not singing, Helene Schneiderman sings expressively but is a little light of voice for such a fierce, commanding figure: only a gutsy and powerful voice will be missed when withheld.

The third side of the triangle, Anatol, is ably carried by Zach Borichevsky. His is a less interesting character than the women—the point of his role is that he is empty at the core, proposing offhandedly to Erika, then not seeming to care if she accepts. Erika is right to doubt his love, or any other deep feeling for that matter. Borichevsky illuminates Antol’s feckless character and negotiates the part’s high range nimbly, but his bright, brittle tenor sometimes sounds pinched.

19. James Morris ( The Doctor) in 'Vanessa' (c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.SMALL

James Morris (The Doctor) in ‘Vanessa’ (c) Ken Howard, Santa Fe Opera

A great pleasure of the performance is seeing veteran baritone James Morris as the doctor. His rich sound and precise expression made the comic scene at the beginning of Act II one of the opera’s high points, confirming Morris’s stature as one of our great actor-singers.

Santa Fe’s orchestra proved more than capable of handling Barber’s virtuoso demands. I am tempted to add, “especially the woodwinds,” whose fleeting scurries and twittering commentary are brilliantly played, but in fact the brass have equal, if different demands. Special kudos go to the horns. The highly experienced Slatkin keeps the pacing and emotional temperature firmly under control, mapping out a performance that finds its most powerful moments at just the right time.

There is still time to hear all three, and the other operas on the summer’s bill. The Santa Fe season runs through Aug. 27, with all five works in rotation. Check the SFO’s Web page for ticket availability.

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In the summer of 2017 the Santa Fe Opera will be back to their premiering ways. Sure to attract international attention, The (Re)volution of Steve Jobs will premiere July 22 with music by Mason Bates and a libretto by Mark Campbell. Michael Christie, conductor laureate of the Colorado Music Festival, will conduct. If you are interested, you should watch for the beginning of online ticket sales in the fall since this is likely to be one of opera’s hot tickets next year.

Other works on the 2017 program will include two rarities, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Golden Cockerel and George Frideric Handel’s Alcina, along with two works more standard in the world’s opera houses, Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Johann Strauss Jr.’s Fledermaus. More information is available on the Santa Fe Opera Website.

Santa Fe Opera comes to Denver Friday

World Premiere production of UnShakeable will be at Newman Center

By Peter Alexander

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Costume sketch by Wilberth Gonzalez for Wyatt in Unshakeable. (Courtesy of Santa Fe Opera)

Love opera, but you can’t get to Santa Fe? The Santa Fe Opera is coming to Denver!

The SFO will present the world premiere production of UnShakeable, a new opera by Joe Illick with a libretto by Andrea Fellows Walters, at 7 p.m. Friday, April 15, in the Hamilton Recital Hall of the Denver University Newman Center.

The performance, part of tour through New Mexico and southern Colorado, will be free and open to the public.

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Costume sketch by Wilberth Gonzalez for Meridian in Unshakeable. (Courtesy of Santa Fe Opera)

UnShakeable, which incorporates language from Shakespeare, was written in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death. The score, designed for touring, calls for two singers and a chamber orchestra. After its April 9 premiere in Santa Fe, it will be on the road for ten free performances.

The action takes place in an abandoned theater in New Mexico 25 years in the future. Wyatt and Meridian (soprano and baritone) are Shakespearean actors and former lovers who have fallen victim to Erasure, a viral pandemic resulting in memory loss. Separated from Meridian at the beginning of the pandemic, Wyattt has been searching for his love ever since.

It was the Shakespeare commemoration that sparked the whole idea, Walters says. “I believe we tell stories to remember,” she says. “Talking to Joseph Illick, the composer, I said ‘I think memory needs to be a core theme.’ He said to me, ‘well then, somebody needs to forget something.’

“So I started with the idea that we were in some sort of future world with lost language, and that these two characters were recovering language through Shakespeare.”

Walters

Librettist Andrea Fellows Walters

As the characters of Wyatt and Meridian evolved in Walters’s imagination, she thought of the pandemic that erased parts of memory to differing degrees for different people. “Meridian is more seriously afflicted than Wyatt,” she says. “He’s spent the last three years looking for her, going to every place they ever performed together as part of a Shakespearean troop, hoping that she’ll be there. And the opera begins with him breaking into the space where she is.”

UnShakeable is part of the Santa Fe Opera’s “Opera for all Ages” outreach program. The SFO stresses that the production is “perfectly suited for audiences of all ages.” This is the 23rd year that the SFO has mounted a spring tour as a public outreach program. Until the past two years, the tour was generally in New Mexico. Last year it they came as far into Colorado as Colorado Springs. This is the first year for a performance in Denver.

The singers for the Denver performance will be soprano Jacquelyn Stucker and baritone Samuel Schultz. Kathleen Clawson, assistant director of the SFO Apprentice Program for Singers, is the stage director. Kristin Ditlow of the University of New Mexico faculty, is the music director for the tour performances.

Illick is general director of Performance Santa Fe, which was formed in 1937 as Santa Fe Community Concert Association. Since that time it has presented music, dance, theater and community opera, and since 1968, youth concerts.

Walters is director of education and community engagement for the Santa Fe Opera.

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9twYvNneUnShakeable
By Joe Illick with libretto by Andrea Fellows Walters
7 p.m. Friday, April 15, Hamilton Recital Hall of DU Newman Center
Free and open to the public

Michael Christie will conduct world premiere at the Santa Fe Opera in 2017

Santa Fe’s 2016 season has also been announced

By Peter Alexander

Michael Christie conducts the Minnesota Opera

Michael Christie conducts the Minnesota Opera

Santa Fe Opera (SFO) general director Charles McKay has announced that The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, a new opera by Mason Bates, will have its world premiere as part of the company’s 2017 season.

The announcement was made Aug. 5 at a press conference in Santa Fe. The opera’s libretto will be by Mark Campbell, who is well known as the librettist of the Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Silent Night. The stage director will be Kevin Newberry, and the conductor will be Michael Christie, music director of the Minnesota Opera and former music director of Boulder’s Colorado Music Festival. This will be Christie’s Santa Fe Opera debut.

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs has been commissioned by the SFO, where it will be the company’s 15th world premiere.

Santa Fe's unique opera house

Santa Fe’s unique opera house

Known as an adventurous company, the Santa Fe Opera has attracted both audiences and press from around the world for their world premieres, including this year’s production of Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain, co-commissioned with Opera Philadelphia and the Minnesota Opera, in collaboration with North Carolina Opera. (Limited seats are still available for Cold Mountain performances Aug. 17, 22 and 14.)

The company has also recently announced their 2015–16 season, which will not include premieres, but will feature several operas that are not often heard. The operas scheduled for July and August 2016 are Romeo et Juliette by Charles Gounod; Capriccio by Richard Strauss; Vanessa by Samuel Barber; La Fanciulla del West (The girl of the golden West) by Giacomo Puccini; and Don Giovanni by Mozart. Tickets will be on sale on the SFO Web page in the fall.

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Librettist ark Campbell (left) and composer Mason Bates (right) at the Santa Fe Opera press conference announcing the premiere of Bates's

Librettist Mark Campbell (left) and composer Mason Bates (right) at the Santa Fe Opera press conference announcing the premiere of Bates’s “(R)evolution of Steve Jobs.”

Mason Bates is known both as a composer and as a DJ in the San Francisco Bay Area. His compositions are characterized by the inclusion of electronic effects into orchestral works and other music. His “Observer in the Magellanic Cloud” for chorus with electronic sounds was performed last year by Boulder’s Ars Nova Singers and director Thomas Edward Morgan.

For The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, Bates said that he will include electronic elements, some based on samples of early computing gear, and acoustic guitar, an instrument that Jobs especially loved. “You will not have heard these sounds before in an opera house,” he said at the press conference.

In a statement on his Web page, Bates wrote “What fascinates me about the story of Steve Jobs is that it exists at the intersection of creativity, technology, and human communication—and I think that can make for thrilling opera.

Mason Bates. Photo by Lydia Danmiller.

Mason Bates. Photo by Lydia Danmiller.

“Imagine, for example, the possibilities for bringing to life Kobun, the spiritual advisor to Steve Jobs—an important and overlooked figure who receives stunning treatment by librettist Mark Campbell. A panoply of Tibetan prayer bowls and Chinese gongs drift across the electronics, sometimes sounding purely ‘acoustic,’ sometimes imaginatively processed as if in a nirvana-esque limbo. Think of how eerily beautiful those sounds can sound when supporting the mystical textures of a low bass voice.

“In fact, Jobs’ search for inner peace is the story of the opera—which, in a sentence, is about a man who learns to be human again. The key role in this journey is his wife Laurene, who acted as the electrical ‘ground’ to the positive and negative charges of Jobs. . . .

“Because the subject is so well known, we’ve taken a poetic and non-linear approach. Anchoring this imaginative, non-chronological telling are numbers—real musical numbers—and a clear-as-crystal through-line: how can you can simplify human communication onto sleek beautiful devices, when people are so messy? We’ll travel with Jobs on his journey from hippie idealist to techno mogul and, ultimately, to a deeper understanding of true human connection.”

NOTE: Edited Aug. 16 to include that fact that The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs will be Michael Christie’s debut with the SFO.

Santa Fe audience cheers Higdon’s ‘Cold Mountain’; additional performance added

Rigoletto and Salome are also part of 2015 summer season

By Peter Alexander

Santa Fe Opera House (c) 2010 Robert Godwin for The Santa Fe Opera

Santa Fe Opera House (c) 2010 Robert Godwin for The Santa Fe Opera

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.

Ensemble cast in ‘Cold Mountain.’ Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

Ensemble cast in ‘Cold Mountain.’ Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

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.

Nathan Gunn (Inman) and Isabel Leonard (Ada) in ‘Cold Mountain.’ Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

Nathan Gunn (Inman) and Isabel Leonard (Ada) in ‘Cold Mountain.’ Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

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.

Emily Fons (Ruby Thewes) and Jay Hunter Morris (Teague) in ‘Cold Mountain.’ Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Oper

Emily Fons (Ruby Thewes) and Jay Hunter Morris (Teague) in ‘Cold Mountain.’ Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

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.

Georgia Jarman (Gilda) in 'Rigoletto.' Photo (c) Ken Howard for The Santa Fe Opera

Georgia Jarman (Gilda) in ‘Rigoletto.’ Photo (c) Ken Howard for The Santa Fe Opera

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.

Quinn Kelsey (Rigoletto) in 'Rigoletto.' Photo (c) Ken Howard for The Santa Fe Opera

Quinn Kelsey (Rigoletto) in ‘Rigoletto.’ Photo (c) Ken Howard for The Santa Fe Opera

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.

Sal.24 Robert Brubaker (Herod) and Michaela Martens (Herodias) in ‘Salome.’ Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

Robert Brubaker (Herod) and Michaela Martens (Herodias) in ‘Salome.’ Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

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.

Alex Penda (Salome) in ‘Salome.’ Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

Alex Penda (Salome) in ‘Salome,’ with child Salome behind. Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

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.

Alex Penda (Salome) and Ryan McKinny (Jochanaan) in ‘Salome.’ Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

Alex Penda (Salome) and Ryan McKinny (Jochanaan) in ‘Salome.’ Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

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.