Opera at Santa Fe, No Longer Woolly, Waxes Wilde

Reed Luplau (Bosie) David Daniels (Oscar) in 'Oscar' by Theodore Morrison at Santa Fe Opera 2013 (Ken Howard)
Dancer Reed Luplau as Bosie and countertenor David Daniels as Wilde in ‘Oscar’ by Theodore Morrison and John Cox.
2013 Santa Fe Opera world premiere (Ken Howard)
By John von Rhein

Santa Fe Opera has a reputation for sustained vision and rigorous artistic standards. That reputation goes back to the days of John Crosby, the company’s founder and first general director, who, from the first season in 1957, saw his desert dream grow into a major international summer festival.

John Crosby Theatre, Santa Fe Opera (Robert Reck)
John Crosby Theatre, Santa Fe Opera (Robert Reck)

I have been coming here for decades, primed to escape the cares of the big city and succumb to the lure of the fragrant high-desert breezes, the skies piled high with enormous fluffy clouds, the thriving arts scene – and, not least, the high musical standards that mark the home of this granddaddy of American opera festivals. Yes, a portion of the old Santa Fe charm has been trampled by the tourist hordes that frequent the shops off the town square crammed with paintings, Native American jewelry and other artsy-craftsy commodities. But the Santa Fe Opera goes on, a reassuring beacon of light to rival the region’s Technicolor sunsets.

Crosby’s savvy successors – Richard Gaddes and, since 2008, Charles MacKay – have kept his commitment to new operas and American singers but have freed the repertoire from the dreadfully grim Central European modernist fare to which Crosby was inexplicably addicted. Also unlike Crosby, who was a mediocre baton-smith at best, they left the conducting to trustier hands.

I returned to Santa Fe in early August to take the artistic temperature of its resident opera festival in this, the company’s 57th season. It turned out to be a representative sampling of what MacKay is bringing his out-of-town and local constituents in the open-sided amphitheater spectacularly situated atop a mesa in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico.

There were the usual five operas, including a couple of familiar works (Verdi’s La Traviata and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro), a couple of lesser-known pieces (Rossini’s La Donna del Lago and Offenbach’s The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein), and a world premiere (Theodore Morrison’s Oscar). I was sorry to have missed the Verdi, but by skipping Traviata I was able to take in one of the more adventuresome programs at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival.

With barriers to same-sex marriage struck down by the Supreme Court and in an ever-growing number of states, the Morrison opera, about the trial and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde, was nothing if not timely. It’s hard to believe no composer – until now – has based an opera on the life of the famed Irish poet, playwright, novelist and wit, just the sort of famous, larger-than-life figure the art form adores.

'Oscar' trial scene, sets by David Korins (Ken Howard)
Daniels in ‘Oscar’ trial scene, sets by David Korins. (Ken Howard)

Composer Morrison and his co-librettist, the veteran opera director John Cox, based their work on the poet and playwright’s scandalous trial and conviction in 1895 London for “gross indecency.” Wilde lost the case, and his two-year incarceration in Reading Gaol on morals charges left his career, health and reputation in tatters. He found refuge in Paris where he died in 1900, at the age of 46, broken and penniless.

When Morrison and Cox came to countertenor David Daniels – himself openly gay and outspoken about gay social issues – to interest him in taking on the title role in their projected opera about Wilde, he jumped at the chance. Indeed, his deep personal involvement in the project was crucial in steering it from commission to realization.

Although the opera, a co-production with Opera Philadelphia (formerly the Opera Company of Philadelphia), received a worthy performance under the rising young conductor Evan Rogister, the work itself struck me as problematic.

'Oscar' traces Wilde's brutal suffering at Reading Gaol (Ken Howard)
‘Oscar’ traces Wilde’s devastating fall from grace. (Ken Howard)

Oscar’s two acts moved smoothly from scenes of Wilde out on bail, and finding shelter with friends while awaiting the verdict, to his brutal treatment during his imprisonment. Director Kevin Newbury paced each scene deftly, with handsome designs by David Korins that evoked a towering stone courthouse to which iron bars were added, suggesting a dark and dismal prison. Give it that.

Morrison’s tonal score was certainly easy to take and went down well with the audience at the performance I attended on Aug. 9. But the creative team was so fixated on turning Wilde into a tragic hero, if not actually deifying him, that they neglected to show us why he was held in such high esteem before his fall from grace and following his death.

I also would question the decision to turn Lord Alfred Douglas – Bosie, as Wilde called his young lover – into a mute role enacted by a dancer. Bosie, as danced by the excellent Reed Luplau to choreography by Sean Curran, glided in and out of each scene. But because the figure was nothing more than an airy abstraction, it made no sense dramatically that Wilde would risk everything on his behalf. (What’s more, the conceit wasn’t even original: Benjamin Britten used it in his final opera, Death in Venice, in which the part of Tadzio also was taken by a dancer.)

Morrison, 75, a professor at the University of Michigan during Daniels’ student years there, is an experienced vocal and choral composer, and Oscar is his first opera. He writes expertly for voices, Daniels’ in particular. But his music is derivative and predictable, lacking the edge needed to draw us into Wilde’s tragedy, a problem it shares with the libretto.

Daniels threw himself into the title role with a vocal and dramatic brilliance one associates with the best of his Baroque opera assumptions. His sometimes ethereal vocal timbre conveyed Wilde’s “otherness,” his lofty remove from the rigid, hypocritical mores of Victorian England. But even so resourceful a singing actor was at a loss to tell us who Wilde really was, given how little Daniels had to work with, theatrically.

Dwayne Croft was admirable in the narrator-emcee role of Walt Whitman (the famed poet whom Wilde actually met during a tour of America in 1882), while Heidi Stober and William Burden also were quite fine as Oscar’s sympathetic friends, the writers Ada Leverson and Frank Harris.

Lisette Oropesa (Susanna), Susanna Phillips (Countess) (Ken Howard)
Oropesa and Phillips in the ‘Figaro’ Letter Duet. (K. Howard)

Matters improved considerably with Santa Fe’s felicitous revival of Le Nozze di Figaro. John Nelson conducted a well-mannered Mozart, graciously bowing to the needs of the singers. They made a stylish and convincing ensemble, strong from top to bottom. Susanna Phillips’s Countess Almaviva was a study in delicate pathos, her singing deeply expressive in both arias. The Letter Duet between her and Lisette Oropesa’s brightly engaging Susanna went like a dream. Cherubino has become a signature role for Emily Fons, and the Chicago Lyric-trained mezzo-soprano sang and played the gangly adolescent to perfection. Zachary Nelson made a clever and agile Figaro, and Daniel Okulitch excelled as a dyspeptic Almaviva. Those practiced Mozarteans Dale Travis (Bartolo) and Susanne Mentzer (Marcellina) wrung maximum mirth from their buffo roles. Stage director Bruce Donnell kept the action moving elegantly through each scene-change of designer Paul Brown’s flower-bedecked production.

Much of the audience buzz centered around the new productions of La Donna del Lago and The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein  – each one a showcase for the gifts of two of America’s finest mezzo-sopranos, Joyce DiDonato and Susan Graham.

DiDonato’s success as titular heroine of Rossini’s opera seria at the Paris Opera in 2010 prompted Santa Fe to mount a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera as a vehicle for this brilliant singer, along with the comparably stylish team of colleagues that surrounded her in Paul Curran’s staging. The long neglect suffered by Rossini’s 1819 operatic adaptation of Sir Walter Scott’s narrative poem The Lady of the Lake surely has something to do with the implausible narrative. It finds the heroine, Elena, juggling the attentions of three suitors — the soldier Malcolm, her true love; Rodrigo, chief of the rebellious Highland clansmen, whom her father Douglas d’Angus wishes her to marry; and Giacomo V (a.k.a. King James of Scotland), who roams the loch country disguised as a peasant, Uberto. A conventional love-versus-duty plot is the result, out of which only Elena emerges as a multi-dimensional figure.

Lawrence Brownlee (Umberto) and Joyce DiDonato (Elena) in 'La Donna del Lago' (Ken Howard)
Brownlee and DiDonato in ‘La Donna del Lago.’ (Ken Howard)

Fortunately the score is packed with prime Rossinian invention, wonderfully atmospheric set pieces and spectacular arias, duets and choruses that give everybody, including two star tenors and two star mezzo-sopranos, gobs of florid, bravura singing. The Santa Fe cast, chorus and orchestra were fully invested in this masterpiece, which Stephen Lord paced with grace and vigor.

Elena’s music proved an ideal fit for DiDonato, who brought supple phrasing to the heroine’s tender, lyrical arias and soaring duets. She also commanded enough vocal weight to do justice to the heavy-duty dramatics of Act 2, and to retain enough voice by the end of a long evening to float a lavishly ornamented “Tanti affetti” at the opera’s improbably happy close.

Lawrence Brownlee braved the rigors of Uberto’s high tessitura splendidly, his effortless, crisply articulated runs and embellishments a natural for his shining, plangent bel canto tenor. Rodrigo’s heavyweight music was a bit of a stretch for Rene Barbera’s medium-sized lyric tenor, but this highly musical American artist made it through Rossini’s vocal minefield with vocal resources intact. Sicilian mezzo-soprano Marianna Pizzolato, in the trouser role of Malcolm, looked rather frumpy in her battle gear, but she sang beautifully. Bass Wayne Tigges gave a sturdy accounting of Elena’s calculating father.

Curran’s gritty production took its dramatic and scenic cues not from Rossini’s music so much as the bloody turf wars between rival clans in 16th-century Scotland – think of the Mel Gibson movie Braveheart. Kevin Knight’s stage designs incorporated the spectacular scrub-pine terrain of the New Mexico foothills — the desert sunset clearly visible through the open rear wall of the stage — as a stand-in for Rossini’s Loch Katrine.

Graham as the Duchess of Gerolstein, Santa Fe Opera 2013 (Ken Howard)
Graham, effervescent as Grand Duchess of Gerolstein. (Ken Howard)

It was good to find the marvelous Susan Graham, a longtime Santa Fe resident, taking a break from the tragic heroines she’s been singing in recent years to remind us of her flair for light comedy.

Offenbach’s operetta gets in some mild digs at the military caste-system, but mostly this 1867 confection is a frothy romantic comedy: the unnamed Grand Duchess’s amorous pursuit of a young army private, Fritz, leads to a clumsy assassination plot and several more complications before the inevitable song-and-dance finale. Some dandy Offenbach tunes carry the day even if the farce is forced.

Lee Blakeley’s production heaped frantic slapstick and mildly risqué double-entendres atop a worthy musical performance. To no discernible purpose, the director transplanted the action from mid-19th-century Europe to a midwestern U.S. military academy in the early 20th century. The conceit made about as much sense as singing the musical portions in the original French and delivering the spoken lines in English.

As the eponymous duchess, Graham radiated diva glamour, sang gorgeously, kicked up her heels gamely, and clung to her dignity even when required to crawl libidinously across a table adorned with a giant battlefield map. Paul Appleby and Anya Matanovic as the sweethearts Fritz and Wanda; Kevin Burdette, Aaron Pegram and Jonathan Michie as the trio of assassins; and Jared Bybee as Baron Grog all threw themselves into the proceedings with proper elan. Conductor Emmanuel Villaume enforced clear textures and buoyant playing from the orchestra. The colorful production design was by Adrian Linford (sets), Jo van Schuppen (costumes) and Rick Fisher (lighting).

Oscar is the first of a series of new works, including a Santa Fe Opera commission (Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain, based on Anthony Minghella’s 2003 film, and an American premiere (Judith Weir’s Miss Fortune), to be given by the company in 2015 and 2014, respectively. Next year also promises the American premiere of Huang Ruo’s Dr. Sun Yat-sen.

Harry Bicket
Harry Bicket

Along with the Ruo opera, the company’s 2014 festival season is to include new productions of Beethoven’s Fidelio (conducted by the company’s newly appointed chief conductor, Harry Bicket; Bizet’s Carmen; Donizetti’s Don Pasquale; and a double bill of Mozart’s The Impresario and Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol.

When one is in Santa Fe for the opera season, it’s always a worthwhile side-trip to take in a couple of performances at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival [santafechambermusic.com]. In its 41 seasons, the organization has become the model for numerous other such festivals in the western states.

Unfortunately, my week in town did not coincide with any of the contemporary music events that help to give the festival much of its cachet. I did, however, manage to catch an absorbing program of chamber works that moved from fin du siècle/early 20th-century post-romanticism (Schoenberg’s 1921 arrangement of Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer and Georges Enescu’s 1906 Dixtuor for winds) to early Viennese modernism (Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, from 1912).

Lucy Shelton
Lucy Shelton

The Enescu piece was another reminder that there is much more of interest in the composer’s large output than his greatest hits, the two Romanian rhapsodies, would suggest. Schoenberg’s shrewd distillation of Mahler’s orchestration for a Pierrot-like ensemble drew a committed performance from baritone Matthew Worth. Schoenberg’s early, atonal masterpiece remains bizarre, even disturbing, no matter how many times one has heard it. Delivering the virtuosic Sprechstimme part from memory, Lucy Shelton may have overplayed the crazed intensity for theatrical effect, but her half-sung, half-spoken crooning, whispering and shrieking held her listeners spellbound; and the accompanying ensemble had fully mastered the score’s rigorous difficulties. Lawrence Foster conducted all three pieces, and very well, too. Santa Fe has a great thing going in its chamber festival, and its musically sophisticated public knows it.

John von Rhein has been the classical music critic of The Chicago Tribune since 1977.