Critic’s Notebook: Nature’s Power Meets Star Power in Santa Fe

August 7th, 2013

SANTA FE, N.M. — The five productions of the Santa Fe Opera season come in two kinds, a distinction made clear last week, when they were presented in quick succession for the benefit of the press and other completists looking to economize. (Good luck with that in Santa Fe.)

First came three new productions mounted as star vehicles for established performers: Offenbach’s “Grand Duchess of Gerolstein,” for the mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, on July 30; Theodore Morrison’s “Oscar,” for the countertenor David Daniels (already reviewed), on July 31; and Rossini’s “Donna del Lago,” for the mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, last Thursday. Then came two revivals, more evenly cast and featuring mostly young and rising singers: Verdi’s “Traviata” on Friday and Mozart’s “Nozze di Figaro” on Saturday.

It was largely a matter of taste in repertory, granted, but for one listener, the revivals were more satisfying over all. Nor did those productions lack star power of their own.

The “Traviata” was especially effective, with moving performances from Brenda Rae, as Violetta, and Michael Fabiano, as Alfredo. Laurent Pelly’s staging, the program notes say, has been refined since its premiere in 2009, but to judge from reports of that production, the essentials remain intact.

With minimal, boxy sets, designed by Chantal Thomas, and elaborate Belle Époque costumes, designed by Mr. Pelly, the staging strives for naturalism. In the opening party scene, the women’s gowns are slit up the front to the waist, affording easy access and allowing the high-class prostitutes to do what prostitutes do. The scene ends with Alfredo and Violetta kissing and groping each other, and suggesting and simulating the rest.

The naturalism carried through to the final scene, where Violetta looked a wreck, as a woman dying of consumption might, but sang gorgeously. Dying slowly, of course: Ms. Rae made Violetta’s bursts of renewed energy and song, so often the butt of jokes, as believable dramatically as they could possibly be.

Ms. Rae soared beautifully in the early going, but it was in her pianissimo singing that she really shone. Her assurance to Alfredo’s father that she would step aside from her romance with his son to protect the honor of the Germont family was ineffably touching, her death scene even more so.

Mr. Fabiano, though a slightly stiff stage presence, also sang nimbly and with attractive tone, his voice showing real metal at times. Roland Wood was a little woolly and wobbly as the elder Germont, but Jennifer Panara was winning as Violetta’s friend Flora.

Leo Hussain conducted, and both chorus and orchestra had fine moments. All this despite the thunder and wind storm that blew through the open-air theater during most of the third and fourth acts.

The pleasures of “Le Nozze di Figaro” were different, achieved through the work of a unified and multitalented ensemble. Perhaps the best-established singer here was the Countess, Susanna Phillips, heard just a week before at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado as Ellen Orford in Britten’s “Peter Grimes.” Her touchstone aria in “Figaro,” “Dove sono” (“Where are the lovely moments”), was a model, delivered straightforwardly at first, then in a gripping half-voice and with melting ornamentation in the da capo repeat.

A sturdy and elegant presence throughout, Ms. Phillips was offset in kind by the Count, Daniel Okulitch, who sang with a full, rich bass-baritone and added a fine comic touch. Zachary Nelson made an attractive, ebullient Figaro, and Lisette Oropesa was irresistible as Susanna, burbling to and fro in a lovely voice. Emily Fons proved unusually persuasive as a male in the trouser role of Cherubino, the libidinous page, and Susanne Mentzer, who used to be quite the Cherubino herself, brought the older Marcellina (Figaro’s mother, it turns out) to appealing life.

As Mr. Pelly did with costumes in “La Traviata,” Bruce Donnell, in this “Figaro” production from 2008, made flowers a sort of keynote: markers of class, since they are grown and bestowed by underlings for the flattery and edification of aristocrats. Flowers are a frequent presence in the opera — with Cherubino’s death-defying leap into the flower pots, the floral homage paid to the Countess by shepherdesses and the final scene in the garden — and Mr. Donnell makes them omnipresent.

For others, the main attractions of the season will undoubtedly be the new productions. I willingly admit to my own shortcomings here: a limited tolerance for operetta silliness of the kind shown in “The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein” and for bel canto vocal display of the type that fills “La Donna del Lago” (“The Lady of the Lake”).

That said, the star turns were remarkable. The veteran Ms. Graham plays the Grand Duchess to the hilt as a cougar, in the director Lee Blakeley’s conception, a woman who is willing to go to war simply to relieve her boredom. For whatever reason, the action is transferred to the United States, a land blessedly free of duchies. The music is left in French, the dialogue presented in English.

Ms. Graham dominates (in every sense) and sings with her usual richness. Paul Appleby is modestly appealing as Fritz, a second-class private promoted to general as the Duchess’s plaything and busted back down. And Kevin Burdette is stentorian as General Boum, at whose expense Fritz is promoted.

Mr. Blakeley fills the stage with colorful costumes (designed by Jo van Schuppen) and entertaining dance (choreographed by Peggy Hickey) and stage activity.

Ms. DiDonato’s performance as Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake is indisputably great, both vocally and dramatically. And she is superbly supported by the tenor Lawrence Brownlee, as Uberto, King James of Scotland in disguise.

The supporting cast is less effective. René Barbera, as Rodrigo, the chief of the Highlanders, commands a vocal agility to rival that of the leads, but his tone tends to turn steely. Marianna Pizzolato, in the trouser role of Malcolm (who is in amorous pursuit of Elena, the Lady), sings well but fails to project anything remotely mannish.

Paul Curran’s production, with set and costume designs by Kevin Knight, is serviceable.

The audiences were more universally enthusiastic than I was, showering ovations on revivals and new productions alike. More power to the Santa Fe Opera.

The Santa Fe Opera season continues through Aug. 24 in Santa Fe, N.M.; (800) 280-4654, santafeopera.org.

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