In its 42nd season, the Santa Fe Opera continued to maintain its lustrous reputation with a rich schedule of five very different operas - this year with its magnificently renovated open-air theater.
Nestled in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains just outside Santa Fe, the newly enlarged and enhanced outdoor theater, with its amazingly natural acoustics, is a spectacle in itself. With lines that mirror the contours of the surrounding mountains, the stage roof and the roof over the mezzanine now gracefully extend to guarantee complete coverage for the entire audience (in the event of inclement weather), while offering an even greater view of the outdoors, including a larger open-air backdrop to the stage where sunset and stars can be advantageously used whenever desired.Conceived and founded by John Crosby in 1957 as a place of pilgrimage where singers, directors, designers, musicians, stage technicians and audiences could come together to enjoy opera in a setting of natural beauty, Santa Fe Opera maintains an atmosphere unlike any other opera house in the world. Almost from its conception, the yearly repertoire has consisted of one very well-known and popular work, an opera by the founder's favorite composer, Richard Strauss; an opera from the 18th century, often Mozart; a little-known opera from a well-known composer; and finally, a work from the 20th-century, which was, more often than not, a world - or at least U.S. - premiere.
Perhaps the surprise treat of this year's five-opera program was Hector Berlioz's scarcely known "Beatrice and Benedict," based on Shakespeare's famous comedy, "Much Ado About Nothing."
Maintaining in its libretto (by Berlioz himself) many of the sparkling and humorous lines right out of Shakespeare's play, the opera nonetheless chooses to omit the more uncomfortable part of the original plot, where, because of a carefully manipulated deception, the young bridegroom Claudio denounces his bride-to-be, Hero, at the wedding, and walks away from the marriage.
Here, all is basically light and fun, and the four leads could hardly be better in bringing it off. With Susan Graham as Beatrice, Gordon Gietz as Benedict, Nathan Gunn as Claudio and Elizabeth Futral as Hero, one would have to look far to find another quartet of singer/actors more suited to the parts of the two bickering and sworn-to-avoid-marriage comic leads and their about-to-be-married friends.
Also fascinating was the U.S. premiere of "A Dream Play," by Scandinavian composer Ing-var Lidholm,, based on the masterwork by August Strindberg. Colin Graham, a returning director to SFO known especially for the number of premieres he has staged, has put this modern opera together intriguingly.
The decidedly dreamlike plot involves the daughter of the god Indra, beautifully sung and acted by soprano Sylvia McNair, who is sent to Earth to discover why mortals are constantly complaining and lamenting about their lot in life.
Both Colin Graham's directing and Derek McLane's set, with its dominant blues and grays, emphasize the story's stylized and dreamy quality. One scene, in particular, borders on being a nightmare, as men in turn-of-the-century nurses' costumes move among disturbed patients fastened into various machines and contraptions. Playwright Strindberg was a significant influence on filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, and in this scene, as well as in others, one sees a reverse influence as the opera takes on an interesting quality one might refer to as Bergmanesque.
Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" was this year's popular "war horse," and the production was a capable one. There were moments, however, when the orchestra threatened to drown out the singers, and American couples who are wandering through the gardens at the beginning, then disappear with no apparent explanation.
Mariam Gauci, however, was very good as Cio-Cio-San, as are Martin Thompson as Pinkerton, Peter Coleman-Wright as U.S. Consul Sharpless, and Judith Christin (seen in "A Dream Play" as the Stage-Door Keeper) as the servant Suzuki. And there are nice touches, such as Cio-Cio-San's donning a startlingly scarlet kimono just before her suicide, and an evening breeze's fortuitous swirling of white cherry blossoms during the performance I attended, at the precise moment when Suzuki discovers that the strange woman in the garden has come with her new husband Pinkerton to collect the son Butterfly has borne him.
Perhaps the most controversial production this year was Jonathan Miller's rather daring interpretation of Mozart's "The Magic Flute."
It looked great, however, with costuming by designer Judy Levin entirely in elegant black and white set against Roni Toren's equally elegant off-white with-gold-trim set.
The performers too were all good, with Jami Rogers' Queen of the Night especially impressive, her difficult coloratura arias dazzlingly delivered. Raymond Very and Thomas Barrett as Tamino and Papageno both performed admirably, and Heidi Grant Murphy's warm soprano manes for a fine Pamina in her delicately phrased arias, though her recitativo lines are often very hard to hear.
This attempt to set Mozart in another time and to capitalize on the human aspects by putting many spoken lines into almost contemporary slang will not be to everyone's liking. Yet, I feel one can hardly help at least applauding such a daring undertaking.
Completing this year's five-opera series was the annual Strauss offering - the composer's highly Wagnerian musical drama, "Salome," based on the familiar Biblical story of John the Baptist and Salome's dance of the seven veils.
Once again, founder John Crosby took up the baton to conduct the fine orchestra, and a very competent cast, through the dynamics and intensities of Strauss's music, aided by Amy Apple yard's dramatic lighting, as well as Tom Hennes' almost spare, yet atmospheric set, with the dark rich costumes by Martin Pakledinaz appropriately rounding out the solemnity as well as lavishness that runs throughout this marathon of an opera.
Helen Field, in the title role, ably met the demands of this part, both vocally and dramatically, and the rest of the cast gave strong support.
Next year's repertoire will consist of Bizet's "Carmen," Mozart's "Idomeneo," Strauss' "Ariadne auf Naxos," Poulenc's "Dialogues of the Carmelites" and the wonderful production of Emmerich Kal-man's delightful "Countess Maritza," which, though more of a Hungarian operetta than an opera, won the hearts of thousands of SFO fans three seasons ago.
Just to be in this one-of-a-kind town (where the adobe style is everywhere and charming bed-and-breakfast establishments abound) is a pleasure no one should miss. Santa Fe's world-class international folk-art museum by itself is worth the trip.