A Magical Week
MARIA NOCKIN reports from Santa Fe
The land around the city of Santa Fe was a well-populated Native American pueblo in the eleventh and twelfth century. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the area was invaded by Spanish conquistadors. Don Pedro de Peralta established a governmental center there in 1610, but it was not until 1912 that New Mexico became a US state with Santa Fe as its capital city. Therefore, it is no wonder that the area retains a great deal of Spanish and Native American influence in its architecture, food and general culture. It is also no surprise that the Santa Fe Opera features supertitles in both Spanish and English.
The Santa Fe Opera Cantina. Photo © Robert Godwin
On the evening of 4 August 2009, the sunset was casting its last deep red rays on the Sangre de Cristo Mountains as conductor, Frédéric Chaslin, led the opera orchestra in the poignant opening strains of the overture of Verdi's La traviata. The production by Laurent Pelly was unusual. His Violetta was not the elegant, refined Marie Duplessis of history. She had a more frivolous, lively and fun loving personality than most Traviatas. You knew it right from the beginning when French soprano Natalie Dessay, who appeared wearing a red wig and a hot pink gown, kicked her feet in the air to reveal matching pink boots. The production, which is also being seen at the Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy, utilized box-like shapes of different sizes and heights by Chantal Thomas for scenery and furniture. Pelly designed the costumes and the very effective lighting was by Duane Schuler. Although it took a few moments to get used to the unusual decor, it worked quite well.
Saimir Pirgu as Alfredo and Natalie Dessay as Violetta in Santa Fe Opera's production of 'La traviata'. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard
Dessay sang the first act with the virtuosic coloratura agility that was expected of her. More surprising was the fact that she also excelled in the role's more dramatic scenes and sang them with passionately intense tones. Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu did not have the fluid physicality of Dessay, but his sounds were sensuous and robust. The elder Germont was played by Dessay's real life husband, Laurent Naouri, who has an impressive baritone voice. Here, he was a stern, rather immobile father who extracted a terrible promise from his son's mistress. The smaller roles were all well cast. Particularly interesting was the portrayal of Flora by second year apprentice Emily Fons. She already sounds capable of singing much larger roles. French conductor Frédéric Chaslin led the excellent orchestra in a sprightly reading of the score and Susanne Sheston constructed a fine, well harmonized chorus from the apprentices at her disposal.
Laurent Naouri as Germont and Natalie Dessay as Violetta in Santa Fe Opera's production of 'La traviata'. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard
On the following night, 5 August, the Santa Fe audience was offered a rare treat: the chance to witness a live, fully staged performance of Christoph Willibald Gluck's Alceste in a well thought out production by Mexican director Francisco Negrin. The raison d'être for it was the phenomenal voice of Christine Brewer who did not disappoint. Although suffering from a knee problem that forced her to sit for some of her music, Brewer sang with floods of radiant sound, possibly giving a tiny bit too much on some of her highest notes, but never forcing the voice.
Tom Corbeil as the Oracle, Matthew Morris as Apollo and Christine Brewer in the title role of Gluck's 'Alceste' at Santa Fe. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard
The production itself was simple, following the dictates of the composer. The scenery and costumes by Louis Désiré were mostly plain blues and purples with splashes of bright crimson which underlined the dark dramatic story. Admète was portrayed by Paul Groves whose voice has grown more dramatic as of late and he sang with vigorous resounding tones. As the Herald and the High Priest, apprentice Nicholas Pallesen proved that he can be a most useful baritone. Soprano Jennifer Forni was an amiable Coryphée with a smooth legato while tenor Aaron Blake was a stentorian Evandre. As the Oracle and the Infernal God, apprentice bass Tom Corbeil was properly malevolent, while Wayne Tigges was a somewhat disappointing Hercules.
Although it is rare for a singer to be able to compete with the dancers, apprentice bass-baritone Tom Corbeil proved to be the exception who can both dance and sing well. He fit in perfectly with the dancers headed by Ana Yepes, daughter of famed guitarist Narciso Yepes, who is a baroque dance specialist. She choreographed movements that graphically depicted the frightening personalities of denizens of the underworld. Yepes also had the chorus moving gracefully while they sang with the utmost precision. The orchestra, under the direction of Kenneth Montgomery, played with a lean, well focused sound that gave the piece a true baroque feeling.
Tom Corbeil as the Infernal God in Santa Fe Opera's 'Alceste'. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard
After the sad tales of La traviata and Alceste, L'elisir d'amore was a welcome change. Director Stephen Lawless set the action in Italy at just after the end of World War II. The scenery by Ashley Martin-Davis was dominated by a huge billboard with a narrow walkway at its base.
Dimitri Pittas as Nemorino in Santa Fe Opera's production of 'L'elisir d'amore'. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard
It was interesting to watch former apprentices Dimitri Pittas (2002-03) and Patrick Carfizzi (1997-99) return as eminently capable mature artists well on their way to international careers. Pittas was a bashful Nemorino who loved to work on his car. He sang with sumptuous tones that were a balm on the ears. Carfizzi was a lecherous Belcore and his incisive singing fit that interpretation of the part. Adina, the object of both their affections, was the bright-voiced Jennifer Black. Replacing the indisposed John DelCarlo was Thomas Hammons whose strong personality and robust sound dominated the stage. This was a really fine ensemble production in which every artist added great value to the whole, especially apprentice Rachel Schutz who was an enchanting Giannetta. Conductor Corrado Rovaris kept the tempi lively and the evening's performance captured all the magic of Donizetti's music.
Thomas Hammons as Dr Dulcamara in 'L'elisir d'amore'. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard
On the following night, 7 August, we watched an operatic 'whodunnit'. The Letter was first written as a story by W Somerset Maugham. It became a play and then two motion pictures, one in 1929 and the other in 1940. Paul Moravec composed the music for the opera and Terry Teachout wrote the well-made libretto that told the fascinating story. Patricia Racette was the unfaithful wife who shoots her lover in a fit of pique. She sang with great dramatic ardor and created a memorable character. Anthony Michaels-Moore was the husband who still loved her, while Roger Honey made frequent flashback appearances as the murdered lover. There was memorable music in this work. Racette sang some of it, but there was also a most interesting aria for the Chinese Woman, portrayed with great dignity by Mika Shigamatsu. Keith Jameson and James Maddalena did not have a great many lyrical lines, but they contributed much to the drama. The orchestra was masterfully conducted by Patrick Summers.
James Maddalena as Howard Joyce, Mika Shigematsu as a Chinese woman and Rodell Rosel as Ong Chi Seng in 'The Letter' by Paul Moravec and Terry Teachout. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard
Saturday evening, 8 August, brought a revival of Santa Fe's previously well-received Don Giovanni. While the production by director Chas Rader-Shieber with costumes and scenery by David Zinn was familiar, the cast was not. Lucas Meachem was a devil-may-care, light-voiced Don whose servant, Leporello, played by Matthew Rose, did not make a deep impression. The most imposing singers of this group were Charles Workman as a vocally impeccable Don Ottavio, Susanna Phillips as a proud and strong voiced Donna Elvira and Kate Lindsey as a sweet but crafty Zerlina who reminded this reviewer of the young Von Stade. Corey McKern was an angry Masetto and Elza van den Heever was an interesting Donna Anna who is still learning to control her huge voice. Conductor Lawrence Renes led with sensible tempi, only slowing down somewhat for Elvira's most difficult aria 'Mi tradý'.
Susanna Phillips as Donna Elvira and Lucas Meachem in the title role of Mozart's 'Don Giovanni' at Santa Fe Opera. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard
Altogether, this was a magical week in New Mexico, a state often referred to as The Land of Enchantment. If the ghosts of the long dead conquistadors were looking on, they may well have recognized the mixture of everyday goodness and secret but overwhelming evil in operatic characters much like themselves.
Copyright © 16 August 2009