Santa Fe Opera, artistically directed and often conducted by the indomitable John Crosby, has survived 32 seasons in the highlands of northern New Mexico. Indeed, it has continually gained prestige, support and luster, and its romantic hillside pavilion, partly open to the star-lit desert skies, is generally sold out.
SFO has one of the finest apprentice training programs in opera today, and an enviable record for giving rising American (and European) artists early exposure. Crosby enjoys presenting new and experimental works by modern and even avant garde composers. Yet his constituents have displayed remarkable forbearance in the face of sometimes bemusing challenges.Over the years, Santa Fe's prestigious American premieres have included Berg's "Lulu," Acts I and II in 1963, and Act III in 1979; five works of Hans Werner Henze and two of Hindemith; Janacek's "Cunning Little Vixen" in stage premiere 1975; and works of Berio, Britten, Oliver, Penderecki, Reimann, Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Shostakovich, among others. Indeed, of late there has seldom been a year without such a work.
Looking at Crosby's cumulative repertory, one notes certain biases - which are of course to be found with every opera impresario, and not necessarily a bad thing.
He favors revivals of early composers like Cavalli, Handel and Monteverdi, and classic-bel canto, with a fair representation of Mozart, Donizetti and Rossini. He pays some obeisance to Puccini, but little mind to Verdi or other staple Italian composers, and practically none to Wagner; this season's "Flying Dutchman" is the first Wagner to appear at Santa Fe. And despite his preoccupation with modernity, Crosby exhibits a curious myopia where American composers are concerned.
On the other hand, he is obsessed with the works of Strauss, whether prominent or obscure, acclaimed or condemned. With accelerating momentum in the '80s, Crosby has now produced all the Strauss operas except two. The only other house with such a dubious distinction is the Bavarian State Opera, which did all the Munich-born composer's works during summer 1988.
On paper, the idea seems a good one. Translated into living color, fulsome sound and stereotyped actions, it is quite another thing. Indeed, I cannot recall a more tedious evening than at this summer's Santa Fe double bill of "Feuersnot" and "Friedenstag," protracted until 12:15 a.m.
"Feuersnot" (Fire's Need) is based upon a Flemish tale of Midsummer Night's magic, in which the bumptious hero (Strauss autobiographically taking revenge) extinguishes all light in Munich, which can only be rekindled by the fulfillment of love.
Stuffily played by Brent Ellis, this Kunrad was an unprepossessing fellow to whom no girl would willingly yield; but Mildred Tyree pretty well matched him for dullness. Admittedly they received little help from long stretches of cloying, pointless music and boring staging. Lively ballet and chorus notwithstanding, the total effect was of a musical and dramatic embarrassment.
More effective was "Friedenstag," with inescapable parallels to Beethoven's "Fidelio." During the 30 Years' War, resistance turns to peacemaking, bellicosity turns to love, through the heroic intervention of Marie, the wife of the Commandant. Here the dark-hued staging was more dramatically pointed. Alessandra Marc in her Santa Fe debut showed off a glorious, unlimited Strauss soprano, but must conquer a major weight problem to make a full-scale career. Michael Devlin sang the Commandant powerfully and incisively, but the music was again redundant to the point of suffocation.
A crazy assortment of characters encounter one another in Penderecki's "The Black Mask." The time is 1662, in the aftermath of the 30 Years' War - apparently Santa Fe's preferred time frame for the season. This gothic tale of guilt and horror in Silesia, rife with symbolism expressed in murder, adultery, revenge, frustration, deceit, theft and supernatural visitations, not to mention suicide, heart attack and mass annihilation by the Black Death, numbs the senses to the point that the ending becomes almost laughable, like a cliche-ridden Dracula film.
We are told that in the Hauptmann play that served as inspiration, slavery is the great evil that pervades this opera, and that the Black Death is its symbolic, corruptive manifestation. But none of this is borne in upon the casual viewer, who may not have done his homework before coming to the opera.
Indeed, one must register reservations about Penderecki's talent as an opera composer. His textures remain primarily orchestral, employing his favored tone clusters, percussive effects, and crescendos and decrescendos of layered tones.
The voices, lifeblood of opera, are too often used as individual strands in the texture, no less nor more important than the instruments. Hysterical outbursts take the place of arias or even melody, giving little chance to show tone, legato, dynamics or any other singing values; to say nothing of words, which with only one or two exceptions (Ragnar Ulfung, Timothy Nolen) were totally indistinguishable.
Admittedly, I can give only a slanted perception of opera at Santa Fe this summer, since time constraints prevented my seeing the more conventional side of the season - "Die Fledermaus" in an ambient production, "Cosi fan tutte" with Marilyn Mims, Susan Quittmeyer, Dale Duesing and Jon Garrison, or "The Flying Dutchman" with James Morris and Marilyn Zschau, which must have been stunning on the Santa Fe stage.