by Rod Parke -
SGN A&E Writer
My husband and I just returned from our first-ever trip to the American SW and especially to Santa Fe Opera. Driving 4,200+ miles in our beloved Prius through some of the most exciting landscape we have ever seen actually eclipsed the joy of our first experience of this fine opera company. However, since this is an opera review, I'll skip the outdoor glories for now. (But keep an eye out for my travel article in the SGN's upcoming Fall Arts & Travel special section September 15.)
Actually, Santa Fe Opera IS, in fact, an outdoor glory. The John Crosby Theatre is an open-air delight. (John Crosby founded Santa Fe Opera in 1956 and was its General Director until 2000.) The audience, orchestra and stage are all covered and protected from the frequent summer thunderstorms, but the sides of the audience area and the back portion of the stage are open to the spectacular views of the nearby desert and mountains. (We experienced considerable lightning but no thunder during each performance. It rained only once.) Surprisingly, the acoustic is quite good for clarity and balance, but it is not as 'warm' as the best indoor houses, whose sidewalls embrace, reflect and enrich the sound from pit and stage. Most operas here are presented without any amplification, nor is it needed. Sight lines are all very good and translation of the libretto is provided in multiple languages via seatback screens similar to those at the Metropolitan Opera.
THE (R)EVOLUTION OF STEVE JOBS
Our first of four operas was The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, with music by Mason Bates and libretto by Mark Campbell. Here amplification was indeed employed to better handle the balances between the electronic instruments and the orchestra and voices. That combination made for at times rather exciting aural fun and pleasantly exaggerated stereo effects. As a foe of operatic amplification, I nonetheless found this use sensible and inoffensive.
This world premiere opera is an unqualified success in all regards. The music is very accessible, mostly warm and very tonal, and most important of all, very vocal. Composers who understand the human voice and know how to use it to good effect are not plentiful, but Mason Bates is definitely one of them. Most of the opera does an excellent job of telling the story of its larger-than-life but deeply flawed main character, even though it is told out of sequence. The last 15 minutes is especially moving. The opera also does an excellent job of conveying the negative sides of Steve Jobs without diminishing his talent and achievements.
Of special interest to Seattle audiences is that this opera was underwritten in part by Seattle Opera and will appear here soon. One hopes the production will be much like what we saw. Scenery is entirely by projected images, but this is made more effective than one might expect because those images appear on easily moveable panels (walls) that change positions often to reflect scene and/or mood changes. The projections varied from abstract circuit board schematics to natural landscapes. At one point, when Jobs is taking a long walk in the countryside, the late evening silhouette of the real mountains in the distance beyond the stage exactly matched that of the projected mountains. You won't see THAT in Seattle!
The singers were all excellent, both vocally and dramatically. Of special merit was the warm voice of Sasha Cooke, well known to Seattle audiences. Perhaps appropriately, the less supportive role of Jobs' girlfriend was given to the light, fluttery soprano of Jessica E. Jones. Job's Zen teacher, who injects welcome humor, was the excellent bass Wei Wu (from Beijing, China). Another standout was tenor Garrett Sorenson as Steve Wozniak ('Wos'). Perhaps the rather undramatic portrayal of Jobs himself by baritone Edward Parks was reflective of his rather private, un-generous personality; vocally Parks was more than adequate.
This opera lacks memorable tunes but provides an unforgettable dramatic experience. You can look forward to its appearance at Seattle Opera next year.
THE GOLDEN COCKEREL
After The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs my husband and I saw three more operas at Santa Fe Opera. The first was The Golden Cockerel by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, an opera of fairy tale and political satire. The latter was clear enough to get the work banned during the composer's lifetime, yet the story is so silly that one wonders that the czarist officials took it so seriously. As a fan of silliness and satire, I expected to enjoy the show. But, besides my relative ignorance of Russian folklore, several issues got in the way of my enjoyment.
First of all, the silliness of the story (not really worth retelling here), was amplified by staging that abandoned any attempt at subtlety, going instead for antics more akin to slapstick than dramatic impact. Russian satire, as in Prokofiev's The Nose, can engage the mind by playing with the absurd, but here we got attempts at laughter through action and images suited to a comic book. (Apologies to the creators of the wonderful MAD magazine!) In looking for more substance, I missed the point, I think, of Director Paul Curran's staging. Many audience members clearly enjoyed the show. Perhaps the greater gravitas of the originally advertised Tsar Dodon, bass Eric Owens, would have helped.
All the singers, including Owens' replacement, Tim Mix, were more than adequate, and the score was inventive and well conducted by Emmanuel Villaume. But here again, my expectations of an opera I had never heard before got in the way. I longed for some of the lush orchestral sounds of other more familiar works by Rimsky-Korsakov. But the acoustic of the John Crosby Theatre was too cool, too 'thin' to project the orchestral warmth I hear everywhere in this composer. Or, perhaps the conductor had to restrain the players too severely to allow the singers to be heard. At any rate, I found the orchestra an almost missing element.
I appreciated the opportunity to see such a seldom performed opera, but, like the comic who tries too hard to be funny, this show fell flat despite some fun costumes by Gideon Davey. The actual cockerel character, BTW, appeared only as a projection accompanied by the lovely soprano voice of Kasia Borowiec. The projection was not nearly so spectacular as the poster of the cockerel displayed in the gift shop outside the theater.
The next opera, Handel's Alcina, was a musical feast. Conducted by the masterful Harry Bicket, the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra sounded transformed into an excellent early music group. Twice, a member of the orchestra joined a soloist on-stage for exquisite ensemble. The long evening (getting out after midnight!) was full of treasures. (Joan Sutherland's stupendous NYC debut was the only other time I have seen this opera, albeit in a concert form, in Carnegie Hall. I remember nothing of that night except Joan, Joan, and more Joan!)
The only disappointment was more a matter of taste than talent: as Alcina, soprano Elza van den Heever (well known to the Metropolitan Opera and those who attend the Met Live in HD series in movie theaters) has a big voice and a serviceable coloratura technique, but the voice has a hard quality that, to my ears, lacks warmth and beauty. That mellowed a bit as the evening went on. Dramatically, she was quite wonderful. The vocal highlights came instead from mezzo Paula Murrihy as Roggiero and from Alek Shrader, whose tenor has taken on a more baritonal weight and warmth since he appeared in the Metropolitan Opera film The Audition in which he sang the aria with the nine high C's from The Daughter of the Regiment.
The convoluted story of Alcina is merely a rack upon which Handel could hang an amazing array of musical and vocal delights. Thus, I didn't let the seemingly irrelevant stage antics by Director David Alden get in the way of wallowing in the music. As silly, puzzling and busy as all these stage actions appeared, the cast nonetheless clearly embraced it all with gusto. Those who might find this long string of rather long arias rather tiring were nonetheless entertained by all the busywork on stage, even if it didn't have much to do with the story.
LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR
Our last of these four operas, Lucia di Lammermoor, was also the one about which we had heard the most raves. Indeed, soprano Brenda Rae proved to be the real item: a Lucia with perfect marksmanship, hitting all those high notes on pitch and with absolute security. While her coloratura skills did not cause one to forget the great ones of the past, they propelled her strong, beautiful voice through this virtuoso role with no signs of strain or fatigue. Her movements to convey madness were rather limited to too much twitching and little else. At first effective, they soon lost their power to engage dramatically.
Tenor Mario Chang was less successful as Lucia's lover Edgardo. Even someone new to this opera would notice his lack of acting ability; his was one of those 'plant and sing' appearances. And to those who have heard many successful tenors in this role, this voice was all wrong for the part. He sounded secure, even in the two demanding arias of the last act, but his tone was more suited to heroic roles. He sang loud most of the time with a buzzing, growling sound. Indeed, I would much rather have heard Carlos Santelli, the tenor relegated to the small role of Lucia's murdered bridegroom, in the role of Edgardo. Santelli's smooth, lovely lyric tenor would be a much better fit for the long, legato lines of Lucia's lover; alas, he 'died' too soon.
Baritone Zachary Nelson was an adequate tormentor as Lucia's scheming brother, Lord Enrico Ashton. In the more sympathetic role of her fatherly chaplain, bass-baritone Christian Van Horn marred his otherwise impressive performance by seeming to be compelled to show us just how big his voice could be. Thus, it was difficult to see his tender concern for Lucia when his words to her were always triple forte! Soft singing is harder than loud singing, at least for big voices. I've heard even some of the greats (Zinka Milanov, Renee Fleming, etc.) get lazy and nearly shout their way through a night's performance, missing all those precious moments when they usually wowed us with beautifully caressed soft phrases.
Conductor Corrado Rovaris led a brisk evening, sometimes missing the full impact of the 'larger' moments such as the great sextet. There seemed little effort to make the six voices blend with each other and with the orchestra in what many cherish as one of the best moments in all of opera. The set design gave no hint of the Scottish setting nor the period of the Sir Walter Scott novel. For instance, the famous well of the opening scene was a clear plastic affair, seemingly lit by pink neon!
So, we came away from Santa Fe Opera more impressed by its musical values than its dramatic choices (the opera about Steve Jobs excepted). But the company does some things as well as or better than any other company I have visited. The printed program, for instance, is an impressive soft-cover book, half an inch thick, with many informative articles, photos and, of course, lots of advertisements. We also were privileged to attend an annual press dinner, which with cocktails and wine could not have been more delightful. And before each performance we attended excellent talks by a voice familiar to those who listen to the opera quiz portion of the Met Saturday radio broadcasts, Cori Ellison.
If this is a somewhat mixed review of Santa Fe Opera, I would nonetheless strongly recommend a trip to see this company and its spectacular setting. The American Southwest is country unlike any other. Finding excellent opera there makes it a priority trip, for sure!
Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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