By James Paulk
SANTA FE – New Mexico has experienced record rainfall this year. As a result, each night during the quieter moments at Santa Fe Opera, a chorus of crickets, its intonation appalling, competed with the forces onstage. There are other changes. During the four decades the company was led by founder John Crosby, arguably the opera world’s last impresario not named Wagner, it could be counted on to mount a Richard Strauss opera each season, an eccentric and endearing tradition that has gone by the wayside.
But the daring focus on new works and far-flung adventures with obscure works has remained under Richard Gaddes, who succeeded Crosby in 2000, and Charles MacKay, general director since 2008, who this season presented the American premiere of Huang Ruo’s Dr. Sun Yat-Sen.
In recent decades, there have been numerous operas, including several at Santa Fe Opera, that attempt to fuse Western and Chinese musical sounds into something new, with varying success. To date, the works of Chinese-born composer Tan Dun, which draw from Chinese, Tibetan, Japanese, and Western sources to create an original language, have generally been the most successful of these.
Huang Ruo does something similar in outline, but the result is a very different, original sound universe. The score of Sun is at once more Chinese and more daringly modernist than anything I’ve heard in this genre. The romantic scenes are set in Japan during Sun’s exile, and these get a relatively gentler, melismatic sound. But Huang never falls back on Puccini to soften the edges. Like Tristan und Isolde, but without that last scene, the score for Sun refuses to resolve itself in the traditional Western way. The result is quite moving and often riveting.
The libretto, by Candace Mui-ngam Chong, draws from the biography of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, the founder of modern China. While Sun is leading a series of revolutions, first against the Qing dynasty and then against his former compatriots turned warlords, he forsakes his old-fashioned traditional wife for his secretary, a young, modern revolutionary and the daughter of one of his early supporters. This yields the most elegant of several metaphors. The first wife sings of how “these bound feet cannot keep up with the times,” a reference to the draconian change from feudal to modern China put into motion by Dr. Sun.
Sun was written for a Chinese audience, and there are subtleties that surely are missed by Westerners. For example, most of the opera is in formal Mandarin, but Sun and Soong Ching-ling, the secretary who becomes his second wife, switch to Cantonese for the love scenes. And few Westerners are likely to know the elaborate history underlying the work. No background is really required, but a bit of homework is definitely rewarded.
The score, with its leaping pitches, demanded much from the cast, and this was a cast that delivered. There was apparently a problem with the tenor originally assigned the arduous title role. Joseph Dennis, from the company’s apprentice program, stepped in at the last minute and performed with the secure sound of a veteran. Sopranos Rebecca Witty and Corrine Winters, as the first and second wives, were especially impressive.
This was obviously a challenging night for the orchestra, which mixed Western and Chinese instruments. Conductor Carolyn Kuan held things together nicely. James Robinson’s production took place inside bamboo scaffolding walls, a metaphor for the new China under construction. A heavy dance component was occasionally irritating, perhaps because the choreography was so quirky.
Back to the matter of impresarios, the season featured a pairing of Mozart’s singspiel The Impresario with Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol (the nightingale). Impresario, it must be said, was revised beyond recognition. A new English libretto by Ranjit Bolt placed the action in Russia at the time of the 1917 revolution and filled the evening with zany opera insider jokes, including some about operas staged here in recent years. As with Mozart’s opera, the focus was on competing divas, but with the “madcap meter” turned up several notches and with a catalog of Mozart arias pasted in. For much of the audience, this was the runaway success of the season. The lady behind me was so overcome with mirth that I feared she would injure herself. I found it a long sit. Comedy is tricky.
The impresario’s production of Rossignol became part of the plot, setting up the improbable transition. Here we got a peerless performance of this graceful work, based on Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale.
The same cast sang both operas, and all sounded better in Rossignol, with the camp factor gone. Soprano Erin Morley was a dramatically powerful Nightingale, with lovely colors and fine coloratura. Bruce Sledge, who portrayed the Fisherman with his sturdy tenor voice, was another standout.
Kenneth Montgomery conducted with finesse. Stage director Michael Gieleta seemed intent on adding as much baggage as possible, filling every moment of music with frenzied activity that even carried over to the Stravinsky to reinforce the “opera within an opera” conceit. An army of dancers and extras came and went, busying themselves with such tasks as “painting” the walls with a nightlong retrospective of modern painters. Sometimes less is better.
Director Stephen Lawless’ Carmen was supposedly set in 1960’s Mexico. In truth, it was hard to figure out just where it was or, quite often, what was going on. From the factory girls, who removed their work smocks to prance around in slutty underwear, to Escamillo’s arrival onstage sprawled across a mechanical bull, presumably having passed out, the production unfolded as a series of quirky, unrelated tableaux. There were moments of insight, and this is an opera that can withstand a range of treatments. But confusion is not one of them.
The Carmen score is full of colorful orchestral passages, and Lawless found it necessary to stage every note, often using black and white vintage-looking video projections. Some were obvious, others just distracting. A few, such as the clip portraying the simple funeral of José’s mother, or the one showing the entrance of the various banderilleros, picadors, etc., in the last act, were quite effective.
The title role was double-cast, and the Carmen on the night I attended was Anna María Martínez, a soprano. As such, she lacked the darker sound normally associated with the role but compensated with a ringing, fluid top. Very attractive and believable as a seductress, she defined her character with a certain coolness, sultry rather than passionate.
The José of Italian tenor Roberto De Biasio, in turn, lacked the usual innocence and often projected an amused detachment from his surroundings. As with Martínez’s Carmen, these quirks can be written off as collateral damage from Lawless’ attempts to give the work a film-noir sensibility. De Biasio made up in sonority and tonal beauty whatever he lacked in technique and style.
Joyce El-Khoury was a magnetic Micaëla, physically and vocally projecting her character’s purity and charm. The Escamillo, Kostas Smoriginas, lacked both the power and the lower notes needed for the role.
Conductor Rory Macdonald held things together well, but there was an evenness to his approach, as if he’d fallen under the spell of Lawless’ bloodless production. He used the original Opéra-Comique version, rarely heard in the U.S., which features spoken dialogue rather than recitative.
Donizetti’s Don Pasquale is the ultimate opera buffa. Sumptuously beautiful and wickedly funny even today, it offers each of the four principals ample opportunities for display. These roles are also famously difficult, which is why the work is done so rarely.
Director Laurent Pelly avoided slapstick and, refreshingly, gave us a rather straightforward production of the real thing, set in mid-20th-century Italy and accented with Pelly’s trademark surrealism. The English titles took some liberties with the libretto but did no damage.
Veteran baritone Andrew Shore’s performance in the title role was unforgettable, as he combined his rich, resonant voice and flawless diction with finely honed acting skills, acrobatics, and facial expressions. Young baritone Zachary Nelson brought a huge, focused sound to the role of Dr. Malatesta. Tenor Alek Shrader struggled as Ernesto.
The Norina in this performance, the third soprano to sing the role this season, was Brenda Rae. She has a flexible voice and a nice trill, but the high notes were a challenge for her. And though you might have expected a more vernacular, flexible reading of the score from an Italian conductor, Corrado Rovaris gave things a buoyant feeling.
James L. Paulk is a freelance critic and writes regularly for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.