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Santa Fe Opera Update

The current issue of the Times Literary Supplement (UK) includes my review of this summer’s Santa Fe Opera season, featuring a terrific Tales of Hoffmann and further evidence of artistic health. It reads:
John Crosby founded the Santa Fe Opera in 1956. He situated his open-air opera house seven miles north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, in a vast polychrome landscape fringed by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. And he married this exceptional site to an exceptional artistic vision. The first three Santa Fe summers included new productions of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress (then six years old), Richard Strauss’s Capriccio (an American premiere), and Marc Blitzstein’s Regina (an American grand opera of world stature still underperformed). The American premiere of Berg’s Lulu followed in 1963. Stravinsky became a regular visitor. The lesser known Strauss was systematically exhumed. Meanwhile a new and larger auditorium was built in 1968, and again — the present 2,128-seat opera house strikingly designed by James Stewart Polshek — in 1998. Though open to the elements on both sides, and welcoming to chirping crickets and other outdoor sounds, it is a comfortable and acoustically superb setting for a world-class summer opera festival.
Crosby was succeeded as general director by Richard Gaddes in 1998. When Gaddes retired in 2008, his successor was Charles MacKay. Both Gaddes and Mackay are Crosby protégés; both sustained Crosby’s emphasis on ensemble opera, and on new and lesser-known repertoire.
This summer — the first planned and implemented by MacKay — featured new productions of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, Britten’s Albert Herring, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and (a world premiere) Lewis Spratlan’s Life is a Dream. A fifth work — Mozart’s The Magic Flute — revisited a 2006 Santa Fe production. Though none of this attracted the widespread attention generated by Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar in 2005, or Thomas Adès’s The Tempest in 2006, the Hoffmann production memorably compelled reconsideration of an opera and its composer. It also happened to be a terrific show which deserves to travel elsewhere (as will Albert Herring, to Los Angeles).
Offenbach’s only opera is an elusive, sui generis achievement. To begin with, it’s unfinished (Santa Fe used a slightly abridged version of Michael Kaye’s edition, based in part on manuscript materials discovered in the 1980s). It oscillates between grand and buffa genres, philosophy and diversion. Santa Fe’s version was auspiciously conceived. For a director, MacKay chose Christopher Alden, whose intellectual panache and wicked sense of humor fit Offenbach’s psychic exploration of E. T. A. Hoffmann. And Paul Groves, cast as Hoffmann, is an exceptionally stylish, exceptionally brainy tenor. The work has no established performance template. In Michael Powell’s famous 1951 film version, Robert Rounseville is a blandly romantic Hoffmann. At the opposite extreme, Julius Patzak left a pair of 1930 recordings documenting a German-language Hoffmann of Hoffmannesque complexity. Patzak’s wondrously tart, nasal rendering of Hoffmann’s Kleinzach song limns the very physiognomy of the small, sharp-featured poet. In Hoffmann’s love song to Giulietta (“O Dieu! de quelle ivresse”), Patzak croons the reprise with a pianissimo head voice: it is Lehár sublimated. Groves’ Hoffmann is not remotely like Rounseville’s or Patzak’s. Its keynote is urgency. I have heard him sing with more freshness and suppleness than in this taxing role. But the cumulative portrait — ardent, impetuous, desperate — is galvanizing.
Alden’s production sustains an indescribable keenness and specificity of animation, punctuated by moments of high hilarity. We are never permitted to forget that Hoffmann tells his stories within the confines of Luther’s tavern. Stella, for whom the poet pines, may be transformed into Olympia, Antonia, and Giulietta — yet remains tangibly present, contributing to a cluttered accumulation of people, props, and tropes mirroring the clutter oppressing Hoffmann’s heart and mind. The barcarolle is here a fleeting indoor distraction; there is no gondola, only a gigantic Venetian canvas in the style of Turner. No person or event is tidily disposed of; rather, Hoffmann’s fevered imagination grows the more encumbered. His quest — whether for Stella or for art — acquires a veritably Faustian intensity. If at times Alden’s Hoffmann resembles a work in progress, so is the opera itself. How I wish this gifted director (winner of the 2009 Olivier Best New Production award for his ENO staging of Handel’s Partenope) would be invited to work at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, whose most recent Faust — Berlioz’s Damnation, as directed by Robert Lepage — was a series of special stage effects bereft of special human affects.
Spratlan’s adaptation of Calderón’s classic play La vida es sueño is not new. It was composed between 1975 and 1978 on commission from the New Haven Opera Theatre. When that company dissolved, the opera was orphaned. A concert version of act two resulted in a 2000 Pulitzer Prize — but no full staging until now. Calderón’s play furnishes exciting material for an opera, and James Maraniss’s libretto (in English) successfully combines Calderón’s high rhetoric with a necessarily streamlined plot. The fire and enthusiasm Spratlan brings to this assignment are infectious. His palette of color and timbre is eagerly deployed; the play’s characters spawn vivid musical signatures. But the idiom, alas, is all too redolent of its time. For most American composers, atonality and serialism proved a cul de sac — and Spratlan, for all his alacrity, would seem no exception; sacrificing tonality, he sacrifices tools for imparting shape and direction. I liked best the long act one monologue for King Basilio, who condemns his son and heir Segismundo to seclusion because the stars foretold that he would otherwise become a bestial ruler. Spratlan feeds on Basilio’s duality: his metaphysical obsession with “science,” subverted by human self-doubt. The jagged vocal lines, the violent pointilistic accompaniment here potently converge (and invite a more crazed, virtuosic performance than John Cheek manages on this occasion). Segismundo’s own act one monologue, on the other hand, is exclamatory, beginning “Oh, God, why this torment, why this misery?” Such an expostulation, from a chained and imprisoned dramatic tenor, unfortunately invites comparison with Florestan’s great aria from Fidelio. In terms of visceral and narrative content, Beethoven traverses a mile in the time it takes Spratlan to move an inch.
I must confess immunity to the other operas newly produced at Santa Fe this summer. For me, Albert Herring is a footnote to Peter Grimes, in which the picture of intense communal intolerance is curiously exaggerated and under-motivated. And Madama Butterfly has always seemed to me as cynical and opportunistic as Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton himself. But these are minority opinions; the Santa Fe audience responded appreciatively to both works. Certainly both received telling and handsome productions, directed by Paul Curran and Lee Blakeley, respectively. In Herring, Christine Brewer, an Isolde-sized soprano, proved a droll comedienne as nosy Lady Billows. In Butterfly, neither soprano nor tenor possessed the final degree of vocal luster or heft to make the most of the melodrama. But Kelly Kaduce was a Cio-Cio-San of inordinate dignity and mature fury, canceling the coy, mincing inflections envisioned by the composer. At the close, Pinkerton (affectingly portrayed by Brandon Jovanovich) arrived to discover Butterfly’s infant son brandishing the dagger with which his mother had just committed suicide — a more chilling, less sentimental curtain than this opera really deserves.
In The Magic Flute, Charles Castronovo delivered Tamino’s “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schȍn” with an eloquence of diction and flexibility of pulse seldom encountered nowadays. Castronovo and Ekaterina Siurina (his real-life wife), as Pamina, anchored the show; they made everything else matter. Tim Albery’s breezy production, sung in German, sensibly used breezy English-language dialogue — accompanied, at one point, by a solo flute reprise of “Dies Bildnis.” Bart Feller’s fluting in the pit, here and elsewhere, was of the highest distinction. For that matter, Santa Fe’s orchestra is world-class in every department. And all five of the summer’s conductors — Lawrence Renes (Magic Flute), Sir Andrew Davis (Herring), Antony Walker (Butterfly), Leonard Slatkin (Life is a Dream), and Stephen Lord (Hoffmann) — impressed.
The Santa Fe Opera transcends the visible sum of its parts. From the start, Crosby incorporated an ambitious apprentice program for aspiring singers. It flourished and has been widely emulated. But Crosby’s Santa Fe Opera was in other respects a relatively isolated enclave. Gaddes and now MacKay have moved toward integrating the Santa Fe Opera with Hispanic Santa Fe. A vigorous educational agenda links with Santa Fe’s schools and with the Santa Fe community. Incongruously, only three productions in the company’s half-century history have been sung in Spanish: Villa-Lobos’s Yerma in 1971, Falla’s La vida breve (a weak work) in 1975, and the Golijov in 2005. MacKay’s decision to mount Life is a Dream was a considered Calderón gesture. American opera companies can no longer afford the elitism of an earlier cultural moment, when a sizable constituency of initiates could be assumed. A fresh consideration of Falla’s El amor brujo, or of a top-drawer zarzuela, might make sense for Santa Fe. The company could also use a more serious bookstore, and more serious opportunities for pre- and post-performance engagement (though Alden’s Tales of Hoffmann proved controversial, no opportunity was afforded to chat with the director). Finally, an important summer opera festival several miles from anywhere needs a restaurant.
So far, MacKay has bravely and resourcefully stared down the recession. Next season, Santa Fe offers new productions of Gounod’s Faust (with the company’s newly appointed chief conductor, Frédéric Chaslin), Vivaldi’s Griselda (staged by Peter Sellars), Menotti’s The Last Savage, and La bohème, plus a revival of Berg’s Wozzeck (led by David Robertson). The company’s contributed income is holding steady. Attendance (fifty per cent from out of state, two and a half per cent — too few — from abroad) remains strong. In fact, the quality of interest and attention displayed by the Santa Fe audience may be the strongest indication that things are OK. In today’s American performing arts, retrenchment and panic often signal over-reliance on brand-name repertoire and performers, or — worse — a self-defeating craving for celebrity. In Santa Fe, John Crosby’s legacy remains intact.

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