Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Santa Fe Opera

The Santa Fe Opera 2014 season includes the U.S. premiere of a Chinese-language work and the company's first staging of Beethoven's only opera.   The mixed results show that updating an older staging does not always work, and that sticking to the classical form in a new work sometimes does.

The long-standing motto in theater production has been "when in doubt, go Nazi." I've seen Ian McKellen as a crippled version of Hitler in Shakespeare's Richard III, I've seen Ionesco's Rhinocéros dressed in shiny black Nazi raincoats, I've seen a number of Wagner's operas with staging nodding to Nazi Germany, and countless of other "nazified" classics that I only vaguely remember.  So the Santa Fe Opera's offering of Beethoven's Fidelio with a Nazi twist was nothing new, but it was puzzling.   With names like Leonore, Rocco, Fernando, Jaquino and Pizarro, perhaps Franco's Spain would have been a more logical choice.

Alex Penda as Leonore/Fidelio
One could tolerate the unimaginative production if the singing or acting were first-class. Neither was the case in Stephen Wadsworth's drab offering.  The dungeon scene was so dark that you could not see anyone's face even through a good pair of binoculars.  Paul Groves, who once delighted me as Nemorino, was hardly suited for the role of Florestan. He seemed more angry than hungry or exhausted as he would be after two years of harsh imprisonment.  Petite Hungarian soprano Alex Penda was a passionate Leonore, just not an electrifying one.  The chorus was the star of the program although the group was too small to be representing inmates of a Nazi concentration camp as their clothing suggested.  The Mariinsky made the number of soldiers in Prokofiev's War and Peace appear huge by making the extras circle around the stage and throw their shades onto the backdrop. Wadsworth did not have any novel idea in that respect.  The program says it's the Santa Fe Opera's first ever staging of Fidelio.  One wonders why bother for such a mediocre result. On a miserably cold and rainy August night there was simply no reason to sit through the whole performance when a good book and a warm blanket beckoned back in the hotel room.

Since I did not go to Santa Fe to see Fidelio, the disappointment was not huge, but rather expected.  The real reason for my first foray into an opera house away from the East Coast was the U.S. premiere of Huang Ruo's Dr. Sun Yat-Sen.  It was my first Chinese language opera, but not first by Huang, whose one-hour-long An American Soldier premiered recently at the Washington National Opera.  As described by most reviewers, the music for Dr. Sun Yat-Sen is a successful blend of Chinese and classic western idiom.  Standard opera lovers who shy away from the often jarring sounds of modern music need not fear: Huang's music is gorgeous and the theatrical structure is mostly classical.  There are beautiful arias, duets, quartets and choral parts, there is drama, there is romance. Huang must have a thing about motherhood because two most beautiful solo arias he has written are the mother's aria in the closing scene of An American Soldier and Soong Ching-ling's aria about a baby lost by miscarriage in Dr. Sun Yat-Sen.  Chinese language (or languages) did not sound as strange as a westerner might expect.  In terms of sound, this opera did not feel any more foreign than, for example, a Russian opera.  War and Peace kept coming to mind.

The singers were good throughout, and some were excellent, especially Corinne Winters as Sun Yat-Sen's young wife Ching-ling and Dong-Jian Gong as her father Charlie Soong. The one weak point in my opinion was the title character.  As Huang said, his opera portrays the Chinese revolutionary icon as a private person with all his qualities and failures.  Huang said he wanted to show the human side of the revered historic personality, and there is nothing wrong with that.  But in my opinion, the composer did a better job with Soong whose leadership qualities as well as his human weaknesses were clearly delineated and well portrayed by the interpreter who made his character memorable and appealing.  Tenor Joseph Dennis looked and sounded more like a turn-of-the century British gentleman, than father of the Chinese revolution.  Without a synopsis, I probably would have mistaken the Charlie Soong character for Sun Yat-Sen. 
Reporter at Santa Fe Opera

Despite weaknesses, which I believe could be fixed (as they were in the cases of many world famous operas) Huang's opus is an exceptional work, that should enter standard opera repertory.   I hope Santa Fe will serve as a starting point in that direction.  A soprano desiring to record an interesting new album would do well to include the Ching-ling "lost baby" aria and/or find a tenor with whom to sing the lovely wedding duet. 

Unfortunately, the clips from the opera offered on YouTube do not include Corinne Winters' poignant solo.


Santa Fe's Carmen was a pleasant surprise.  I got a ticket as an afterthought, and expected to leave early as I did from Fidelio, but the production was innovative in an attractive way.  The plain boxy sets were moved around and lit differently to change the setting from a cigarette factory to jail, then to a smugglers' hangout, a border crossing and finally a plaza outside a bullfight arena.  They also served as a screen for black-and-white video projections which showed events between the staged scenes, for example Micaëla's tending to Don Jose's sick mother, and Don Jose's grim attendance at the mother's funeral.  The latter actually helped understand his desperation during the final confrontation with Carmen.  A few production details that raised questions were prison bars on the tobacco factory and factory girls working in their underwear.  The girls' exit from the factory seemed like a release of prostitutes from jail after an overnight police raid.  Carmen's arrival to the bullfight in a blond Marilyn Monroe-style wig was also puzzling until Don Jose tore it off her head.  But was it necessary? 

The choice of soprano Ana Maria Martinez for the title role was an unusual one and in my opinion not the most fortunate.   She lacked the dark and brooding quality of the tragic gypsy girl.  But she looked the part of a modern drug smuggler she portrayed in this production, and held her own vocally.  Tenor Roberto de Biasio was not your favorite Don Jose.

The highlight of the season in my view (although I did not see Don Pasquale) was Stravinsky.   His short and rarely performed opera Le rossignol was preceded by Mozart's The Impresario and cleverly presented as a play within a play.  Bickering singers and their agents from The Impressario were "hired" to perform in Stravinsky's piece.  But while The Impresario was only somewhat amusing, Le rossignol was a jewel of scenic design, lighting, costumes, singing and acting.   A music critic might have found details to complain about, but I was too mesmerized by the production as a whole to be distracted by minutiae.  As far as I am concerned, that one hour of opera was worth a trip to Santa Fe all by itself.

Santa Fe Opera Auditorium
Finally, a word or two about the Santa Fe Opera business.  The building is attractive and offers a good view of the stage from every seat in the house, including the $40 spots all the way back and on the sides.  The income lost on cheaper seats is well recompensed by items of clothing and comfort sold in the gift shop at exorbitant prices.  Simple nylon jackets are sold for $65 a piece, or $95 if lined.  A cheap-looking thin hoodie you can get for a little over $10 at the Old Navy costs $40 to $50 at the opera shop.  The cheapest essential item, a bright red polyester lap throw, is $25.   And I say essential because the uninitiated may come to Santa Fe unprepared like I did.  When the night falls in Santa Fe and temperatures drop by some 20 degrees, usually just before the intermission, the chilled patrons rush into the store and buy whatever they can get their hands on just to be able to sit through the rest of the performance without shivering.  If it rains during the intermission as it often did while I was there, the shop and the restrooms are the only available shelter for a crowd of more than 2,000 patrons unless, of course, you want to remain in your seat.

On a clear day, the views
from this beacon on the hill are spectacular - all rolling hills dotted with sage brush, pine trees and junipers.  But I found the open-air picnic tables mostly deserted in early August.  Who can sit through a meal with cold winds blowing from all sides and the threat of an imminent thunderstorm above your head?  The picnic-minded people brought their own little folding tables and chairs and set them up next to their cars in the parking lot, where they sat sheltered from the wind.  They enjoyed their wines and their salads with a view of other cars and in the air permeated with fragrance from the exhaust systems. But, hey, aren't we more used to the smell of gas than the pleasures of mother nature?  I certainly would have preferred to sit in my car all evening than returned to Washington as I did, covered in humongous mosquito bites  (or was it something else ?) . The Santa Fe bugs are a sneaky and treacherous lot.   I never heard a buzz of warning.  The repellent does not bother them either, so save your money there.

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