SANTA FE, N.M. • An unusually wet summer has left the high desert unusually green. At the Santa Fe Opera, perched atop a tall foothill, the dramatic electrical storms were in short supply last week, but there were sparkling performances on stage.
Due to scheduling issues, I saw just three of the season’s five productions (“Carmen,” “Don Pasquale” and the double bill of “The Impresario” and “Rossignol”), missing Huang Rao’s “Dr. Sun Yat-Sen,” directed by Opera Theatre of St. Louis artistic director James Robinson, and Beethoven’s “Fidelio.” (The season ended Saturday.)
SFO general director Charles MacKay said he thought it might have been the company’s best season ever. “ It’s been a very strong season, with performances at a very high level,” said MacKay, the longtime general director of OTSL.
Like OTSL, SFO is a festival with works performed in repertory; a young artist training program providing understudies and chorus; and seasons that appeal to out-of-town visitors, but on a larger scale.
The 2015 season will feature David Robertson conducting Strauss’ “Salome,” along with Donizetti’s “The Daughter of the Regiment,” Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” Mozart’s “La Finta Giardiniera” and the world premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s “Cold Mountain.”
MacKay faces complex challenges. The budget at SFO, he noted, is almost $23 million annually. Other companies in that category include Seattle and Houston, cities of 3 million to 5 million people. The Santa Fe area has just 86,000.
“We’re reliant on visitors, on tourists,” he said. Out-of-towners want to see something they can’t get anywhere else; the local and statewide audience, meanwhile, prefers the old favorites.
The company is well into a capitol campaign for major improvements to its campus, from almost doubling the size of backstage work areas (starting next week) to improving patron amenities after next season (twice the number of bathrooms, for starters) and redoing the parking lots and attendant logistics in the final year. $26 million has been raised toward the $35 million total.
The quality of singing, acting and playing was consistently high in the productions I saw this month; this group of apprentices is one of the strongest ever.
‘The Impresario’/’Le Rossignol’
Pairing Mozart’s 1786 trifle “The Impresario” (“Der Schauspieldirektor”) with Stravinsky’s 1914 “Le Rossignol (The Nightingale) was an original, not to say borderline bizarre, choice. “Impresario” is a one-act farce; “Nightingale” is a serious one-act work from the period of “The Firebird” and “The Rite of Spring.” Seen on Aug. 15, it worked, if a little uneasily at times.
That was achieved by a wholesale rewriting of “Impresario,” in which presenting the two operas together, sometime in the 1920s, becomes part of the joke. Frank, the impresario, is now Yuri Yussupovich, a Russian opera producer whose major backer has been executed by Bolsheviks. The other roles have been renamed, reassigned or invented out of whole cloth, and additional Mozart arias added to fluff it all up.
As Yussupovich, Anthony Michaels-Moore presided over assorted raging artistic egos, particularly those of dueling sopranos Vlada Vladimirescu (Brenda Rae) and Adellina Vocedoro-Gambalunghi (Erin Morley). The operatic in-jokes allowed for plenty of general humor.
One added role gave contralto Meredith Arwady the opportunity for an aria. Arwady, a St. Louis favorite (in 2013-14, she created the role of Kathy Hagan in OTSL’s “Champion,” sang Auntie in the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s “Peter Grimes” and the Old Prioress in OTSL’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites”) exercised comic flair and sang the Champagne Aria from “Don Giovanni” — in the original baritone key.
In “Rossignol,” directed with clarity by Michael Gieleta and idiomatically conducted by Kenneth Montgomery, the standouts were Morley in the title role and tenor Bruce Sledge’s sweetly sung Fisherman. OTSL favorite Sean Curran choreographed; most of his work was lovely, but a quintet of dancers, dressed like Monty Python Frenchmen, were frequently distracting. Costume designer Fabio Toblini produced some sumptuous Chinese costumes, but somehow neglected to give the Emperor any headgear.
Never have I seen so many push-up bras on one stage as in SFO’s “Carmen” on Monday. Seldom have I seen a “Carmen” that, for all of the talented cast’s nonstop grinding, posturing, gyrating and twerking, was so tepid and lacking in real sexual heat.
Bizet’s masterpiece produced sold-out houses for SFO. The update, set in present-day Mexico, worked; the smugglers now move drugs and people across the U.S. border. Director Stephen Lawless made some serious miscalculations, though, including one act behind a chain-link fence. Scenic designer Benoit Dugardyn’s drab walls lacked visual interest.
Soprano Ana Maria Martinez looked and sounded great as Carmen, but lacked fire. She and her Don Jose, Roberto De Biasio, had little chemistry. Soprano Joyce El-Khoury’s Micaela was warm and even possessed a sense of humor. Bass-baritone Kostas Smoriginas’ Escamillo was well-sung, but the character was directed as a drunken dolt. Conductor Rory Macdonald’s tempos were slow, and little musical energy was evident.
Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” is a comedy, but with an edge. When old bachelor Pasquale’s nephew Ernesto wants to marry Norina, a young widow whom Pasquale considers unsuitable, Pasquale decides to take a bride himself. Ernesto’s friend, Dr. Malatesta, suggests his sister, the convent-reared Sofronia, as a suitable bride. “Sofronia” is really the spirited Norina; as soon as the fake wedding is complete, she turns into a bullying, spendthrift shrew. When Pasquale can’t take any more, Ernesto gets permission to marry Norina, and the hoax is revealed.
The hilarity stops cold when Norina slaps the old man; director-costume designer Laurent Pelly maintained a darker tone for the rest of the opera. At the reveal, this Pasquale was furious. (And who could blame him?)
On Tuesday, Norina was beautifully sung by a spirited, big-voiced member of the apprentice program, soprano Shelley Jackson. Her Ernesto was the superb tenor Alek Shrader, who got his start at OTSL; his comic timing was impeccable. Andrew Shore was a hilarious Pasquale; baritone Zachary Nelson schemed splendidly as Malatesta. Corrado Rovaris led a bright, satisfying reading of the score.