Santa Fe Nights

The high desert plays host to grand opera in August

Four operas received their first Santa Fe Opera productions this summer.

“Turandot” (August 9) was dominated by the lavish costumes of Willa Kim––some spectacularly good (those for Ping, Pang, and Pong), some dreadful (those for Jennifer Wilson’s impressively vocalized Turandot).

Two highly promising young North American dramatic sopranos have tackled this part this year, the Canadian Othalie Graham in Delaware and Utah and Wilson in Houston and Santa Fe. Graham’s voice is more silvery and Wilson’s more voluminous––she replaced Jane Eaglen in a Chicago “Götterdämmerung” in March and will sing “Die Walküre” at Paris’ Châtelet. One hopes both continue to alternate Puccini’s princess with less cruel assignments so that their clear promise is fulfilled.

Ever a fine artist, Patricia Racette (Liù) phrased and acted beautifully, with shining tone and superb dynamic control. Carl Tanner (Calaf) had the notes––if they sometimes, as in “Nessun dorma,” required extra breaths for preparation––but little Italianate tone, and until Liù’s death addressed himself exclusively to the audience, never looking at his colleagues. Hyung Yun (Ping) and Keith Jameson (Pong) were outstanding. While a capable musician, music director Alan Gilbert showed no special affinity for Puccini. A solidly enjoyable but unhistoric “Turandot.”

Jonathan Kent and his design team showed both their talent for striking theatrical imagery and their total lack of sympathy with––or, perhaps, patience for––the conventions of opera seria that the 16-year old Mozart followed in “Lucio Silla” (August 10). Few “Eurotrash” clichés were missing (Susan Graham’s Cecilio literally began the evening in a trash heap) and the drama foundered on grotesquely elaborate costumes (hugely wide pannier skirts shaping the basic look) and constant irritating visual distractions, including four gifted but omnipresent hunky male dancers stealing focus via interpretive over-choreographed “subtext.” I would be very interested to see Kent stage something else with less of a formal structure; but with this “Lucio Silla” it was best to look away and enjoy the musical riches.

Bernard Labadie led the much-pruned score marvelously, with a truly world-class cast. Graham, an ardent hero, proved very convincing in her acres of coloratura, and her middle and upper registers sounded supple and magnificent; but the range of this castrato part is so wide that the lowest notes lay awkwardly in her voice, sounding disjunct. Cecilio’s long, Gluckian scena emerged an emotional highlight. (The next day, for the venerable Santa Fe Chamber Festival, Graham sang the “Chansons madécasses” de Ravel to perfection, with superbly graded sound and wonderful French diction.)

Even more breathtaking was the Giunia of Celena Shafer, whom Kent’s production treated with special brutality; she produced fiery showers of astonishing coloratura. Gifted in staccati, the charming Anna Christy fared very well in the seconda donna role. The unique male soprano Michael Maniaci (Cinna) demonstrated amazing flexibility and an otherworldly sound plausibly evoking the 18th century reign of the castrato. Gregory Kunde’s timbre has dried somewhat, but he remains a fluent stylist and made something of the underwritten Silla.

Maestro Gilbert, on surer ground, rose impressively to Britten’s “Peter Grimes” (August 11), a score that yields new treasures at each hearing. Nick Fisher’s apt, spare sets were abetted by atmospheric desert lightning storms. The staging by Robert Innes Hopkins presented each character with admirable clarity and, inviting parallels with Bush’s America, emphasized the religious element furling the violently conformist spirit of the village. All three principals brought crystalline diction to the text. Anthony Dean Griffey, singing with ravishing “juicy lyric” tone, lacks the menace of Jon Vickers’ Grimes but certainly captures the fisherman’s loneliness and suffering. Hopkins and Griffey chose not to play the homoerotic subtext that some outright deny in the opera; but “Grimes” works well as an allegory of outsiderhood of any type.

Christine Brewer again showed herself the successor to Helen Traubel as a true, radiant dramatic soprano, bringing dignity and clarity to the put-upon Ellen Orford. (Brewer’s Met bow as Ariadne on April 9, 2003 was one of the most impressive debuts in recent memory; has the company signed her for anything else?) Singing handsomely, Alan Opie integrated his world-traveled Balstrode into a fluid ensemble without serious weaknesses. Judith Christin was at her most amusing as the nosy Mrs. Sedley; Jill Grove, a resonantly trenchant Auntie, and (again) Keith Jameson, an unusually sonorous and lyrical Bob Boles, made exceptional contributions. A highly rewarding evening in all ways.

Osvaldo Golijov’s expanded version of “Ainadamar” (August 12), his 2003 fantasia about Margarita Xirgu, the self-exiled muse of gay poet Federico Garcia Lorca, uses a David Henry Hwang libretto that the composer himself rendered into Spanish. The episodic text––and indeed the opera––is non-realistic, poetic, and just a touch too repetitive. With hypnotic, threnody-like passages alternating with exciting rhythm-driven Latin-flavored riffs––brass and percussion had a field day under Miguel Harth-Bedoya’s taut baton––the drama of “Ainadamar” lies largely in the orchestra; it would be effective played as an oratorio. Nevertheless, Peter Sellars offered one of his most disciplined stagings, imparting compelling movement style to Dawn Upshaw and the entire cast and chorus. The colorful décor by Los Angeles graphic artist Gronk evoked both “Guernica” and contemporary urban graffiti.

Seemingly heavily amplified, Upshaw sounded best in her radiant upper-middle voice and managed a convincing approximation of apt cante jondo inflexions down below. No attempt was made to evoke the elderly Xirgu visually; but, well coiffed and made-up, Upshaw resembled the actress’ portraits and augmented her customary sincerity with suggestions of deep-felt temperament. Young Kelley O’Connor, a moving Lorca, sang spectacularly in an androgynous contralto reminiscent of Marjana Mijanovic. Jennifer Rivera’s soprano soared warmly as Xirgu’s devoted student Nuria. Highly impressive also were tenor Alex Richardson (Lorca’s murderer, a Falangist soldier dressed to evoke more contemporary human rights outrages) and bass Wade Thomas (a teacher, his fellow victim).

“Ainadamar” is among the decade’s more persuasive and moving new works, and––as with another such, “L’amour de loin” ––Santa Fe treated it splendidly. Watch for it in late January at Lincoln Center’s Great Performers series.

Santa Fe is a terrific place to visit, not only for the opera but also for its natural and architectural beauty, restaurants, clubs, stores, and general air of difference. Musically, the Chamber Music Festival provides an elegant counterpoint to the opera, with two gorgeous downtown venues––the St. Francis Auditorium and the trippy Mission Deco-style Lensic Theater.

In addition to Graham, the performers who impressed me the most were cellist Eric Kim, who supported her soulfully in the Ravel; forthright, beguiling-toned violist Kirsten Johnson, equally at home in Schumann and Saariaho; and a young Filipino pianist, Victor Santiago Asuncion. At a noon concert on August 9, he joined the Met’s seasoned horn player Julie Landsman for the lyrical “Andante” Richard Strauss wrote for his father, and then offered impassioned traversals of the Berg “Opus 1 Sonata” and Mozart “Adagio in B Minor (KV 540).” Santiago Asuncion strikes me as a lot more interesting and idiosyncratic a musician than the already packaged-for-public-television Lang Lang, the André Watts of our time.

David Shengold (shengold@yahoo.com) writes about opera for Time Out New York, Opera News, and Opera.

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