SANTA FE, N.M. – The pandemic era has been especially tough for opera companies. The most complex of art forms, opera requires considerable advance time and financial investment for each production, and concerns for lighting, stage facilities, and acoustics make it more difficult to move outdoors. Companies have improvised, with streaming performances and inventive productions mounted in tents, parking garages, and drive-in theaters. Still, nothing beats the real thing. Santa Fe Opera, which lost its 2020 season to COVID, is the first major U.S. company to reopen with a season that is mostly “normal,” with masked, socially distanced patrons gathering in the Crosby Theatre for fully staged operas featuring singers without masks. After such a long drought, any live, staged opera in a proper theater would be welcome, but Santa Fe Opera’s stunning 2021 season reminds us of what we’ve been missing. Opera is back.
The Lord of Cries
Have the creators of The Lord of Cries, which premiered here this season, offended the forces of “the Dark Side”? It seems possible. Days before opening night, the lead soprano, Susanna Phillips, was mysteriously replaced by her apprentice cover, Kathryn Henry. Then at the performance I attended (July 21), the composer, John Corigliano, was wearing a cast: He had fractured his wrist and was scheduled for surgery the following day. Ominous lightning filled the skies all evening. The opera survived it all. It might not be a masterpiece, but it’s a darned good show.
Cries is a joint project of Corigliano and his husband, Mark Adamo, who wrote the libretto. Corigliano’s lone previous opera was The Ghosts of Versailles, which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1991, but he is justly renowned as a prolific concert composer. Adamo is himself a busy opera composer, best known for Little Women (1998). His idea for The Lord of Cries, which evolved over time, is “to tell the story of (Euripides’) Bacchae through the characters of (Bram Stoker’s) Dracula. Both works deal with repressed desires, and thankfully the opera deals more with these and less with the kitschy vampire business. There’s no crucifix, and the word “vampire” isn’t in the libretto. In one of several online interviews, Adamo suggested that Cries focuses on Freud’s idea of “the return of the repressed: when you deny parts of yourself, they come back as monsters.” The repression is “about sexuality, but it’s larger than that.”
In the Bacchae, Dionysus, having been disrespected, wreaks havoc on Thebes. In Cries, he arrives in the London area to assert title to his ancestral castle, now Carfax Abbey. When he is rejected, he begins a reign of terror that expands from the insane asylum near the castle into London itself. Doctor John Seward, who runs the Carfax asylum, has sent his friend Jonathan Harker to meet the stranger (Dionysus), and Harker has returned a madman, raving about the “Lord of Cries.” Seward, who secretly loves Harker’s wife, Lucy, incarcerates Harker. As others are “infected,” they too are brought to the asylum, even including Dionysus himself, who frees himself and brings on an earthquake and sundry disasters when Seward refuses to hand over his castle. Lucy ultimately surrenders herself to Dionysus. Finally, Seward is tricked into beheading her, thinking she is Dionysus. (Beheaded sopranos are apparently Corigliano’s signature: One is also featured in The Ghosts of Versailles.)
The libretto nicely mixes Freud with a compelling yarn. The problem is that it’s quite wordy, so that the first act is mostly a talk-fest. A non-singing correspondent (Kevin Burdette) reads dispatches from his newspaper and, as in Stoker’s novel, the story unfolds via diary entries, letters, and speeches. It works, after a fashion, but not in the same way as a sung opera. What saves the act, turning it into more than a staged reading, is Corigliano’s wild score. His best work has always been carried along by his huge, eccentric range of orchestral sounds and his inventive way of putting them together, and he thrives in works that deal with fantasy. So, even as we listen to all this chatter, there’s a wondrously varied, percussion-heavy score underlying it all. And thankfully, we get a few old-fashioned arias as well. There’s even a “mad scene,” though this one is for Harker (tenor David Portillo, in a bravura performance), a “witches’ sabbath” scene that harks back to Boito’s Mefistofele, and a haunted ship scene that channels Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer. Corigliano tells us that he formed the opera’s harmonic world from the letters of the Bacchae, using the German note spelling to make the “B” a B-flat and the “H” a B natural. For us laggards who might not have figured that out on our own, the score is tonal but often quite dissonant.
Things change significantly in the second act, where the score sometimes seems like a “greatest hits” homage to Benjamin Britten, which, to my ear, isn’t a bad place to be. And here, as the drama intensifies, the opera turns more operatic, so to speak, with nightmares, wolf cries and, of course, that severed head.
Decades ago, Corigliano was commissioned to write a piece for the National Symphony Orchestra, and the work included a boy soprano. At the 11th hour, the boy they had cast underwent the beginnings of a voice change and couldn’t sing the part. A 13-year-old substitute was summoned, who aced it, saving the night. That kid was Anthony Roth Costanzo. This time the role of Dionysus was written specifically for Costanzo, now a renowned countertenor, and he supplied just the right degree of androgynous otherworldliness for the part, never venturing into caricature. His voice, secure and powerful, cast a spell on the room.
As the last-minute Lucy Harker, soprano Kathryn Henry acquitted herself nicely in a difficult role. She has an old-fashioned fast vibrato, almost a fluttering sound, with excellent intonation and effortless high notes. For now, at least, she lacks the kind of charisma the role would seem to welcome. Henry is least persuasive in the second act when she succumbs to desire. She seems entirely too strait-laced for that, although some of the problem lies with the way her character is transformed a bit too suddenly.
The performance of baritone Jarrett Ott as Dr. Seward, the asylum director, was a tour de force. In the opera, he is the face of the repressed Victorian establishment but is also tormented by his obsession with Lucy, the wife of his best friend. The opera is built around his disintegration, and his portrayal is the key to its success. Vocally powerful, he is superb. Bass-baritone Matt Boehler, who portrays Seward’s advisor Van Helsing, sang with commanding authority, although he looks entirely too young for the role.
This was a demanding score in every sense. Conductor Johannes Debus, making his debut here, led a performance that underlined the score’s most powerful elements and never lacked for energy and precision.
Director James Darrah’s production was functional if not especially imaginative, letting the story unfold in front of a simple unit set which served nicely as a variety of venues. Adam Rigg was the set designer and Chrisi Karvonides-Dushenko created the costumes, including dazzling outfits for Costanzo.
“Sound enhancement” is being used in this production. According to a company spokesman, “The cast and chorus are lightly sound enhanced with wireless body microphones as well as boundary/area microphones around the stage. We use this technology to help balance the spoken voice with the other full voice roles – and in relation to the orchestra’s relative density and dynamic.” The discussion of amplification versus natural singing is one of opera’s flash points. But Corigliano indicated through the spokesman that sound designer Mark Grey had done similar work for John Adams’ operas and elsewhere. Whatever the case, the system worked unobtrusively. In a less controversial technological innovation, all of this season’s operas are being simulcast onto giant LED video walls in the company’s lower parking lot. Patrons can listen to the sound through their car radios, with tailgating permitted. At $100 a car, this option didn’t seem to be packing ‘em in on the nights I looked.
The Marriage of Figaro
The plan had been for Frenchman Laurent Pelly, a Santa Fe favorite, to direct The Marriage of Figaro. Pelly, however, was stuck in Europe, unable to come here due to COVID. So, like everything else these days, this became a sort of “Zoom project,” with Laurie Feldman, a Pelly associate, listed as director, but with Pelly viewing videos and sending instructions. The result, though not a disaster, was definitely not up to Pelly’s usual high standards. The team updated everything to the 1940s, presumably for the stylish period look. Despite the obvious incongruity (um, Spain in the ’40s), this did no great damage. But neither did it add anything, unless I missed a metaphor. The set, by Chantal Thomas, featured a crowded unit set atop a rotating platform designed with gears like a giant watch, so it served as an homage to Beaumarchais, a watchmaker who wrote the original play, and focused attention on the fact that the opera takes place in a single day. It was attractive, but clunky and much too busy. Singers bending down to unlock or lock the movable walls, often as they began their arias, became a running motif.
This performance (July 23) got off to a rocky start as veteran conductor Harry Bicket, now music director here, led a subdued overture fraught with coordination problems and errors. Things improved somewhat after that, but the orchestra never sounded quite right. I wonder if the difficulties might have stemmed from the giant plexiglass barriers erected in the pit as a COVID precaution. These would surely have changed balances and created a tricky problem for each conductor to surmount. Whatever the cause, on this night we weren’t hearing enough Mozartian spark, or even enough sound, from the orchestra.
The night was redeemed by the singing. Figaro is the ultimate ensemble opera, and this ensemble was an utter delight. British baritone Ashley Riches, originally cast for the title role, could not get here, so the company turned to Nicholas Brownlee. From his first entrance, opera fans could be seen snapping their heads back as if to say, “Where did that kid come from?” (Mobile, Ala.) A former apprentice here, he has been singing smaller roles in Europe and at major American companies, then last year sang the title role in Frankfurt’s Der fliegende Holländer. His sound here – commanding, rich and polished, with power to spare – emerged as a revelation. It helps that, like everyone in this youthful cast, he is an accomplished actor with tons of charisma.
Ying Fang, who sang as Susannah, seems to have been born to sing Mozart, combining a creamy soprano, flawless legato, tones that float in the air with powerful acting chops, and the kind of stage personality that just makes you smile.
As the Countess, Vanessa Vasquez displayed a lovely timbre, sweet, soaring high notes, and noble bearing. While her “Porgi, amor” lacked dramatic punch, she was glorious in “Dove sono.” The fact that Vasquez is pregnant – visibly so – adds an interesting dynamic that might have been better exploited. Australian baritone Samuel Dale Johnson played the role of Count Almaviva with more youthful zest than dark menace, an approach that felt a little awkward. His voice is attractive, if not gigantic. This was his Santa Fe debut; it appears that he has mostly worked in Europe.
Megan Marino’s Cherubino was effervescent and charming. Her small stature made her believable as a young boy. Patrick Carfizzi, as Bartolo, and Susanne Mentzer, as Marcellina, both brought wry wit to their roles, as did Brenton Ryan as Don Basilio.
Patrons settling in for the first performance (July 24) of Alessandro Talevi’s production of Eugene Onegin might be forgiven for glancing at the ornate palace walls of the set (there isn’t a curtain here) and assuming, happily or not, that this would be a “traditional” period production of Tchaikovsky’s operatic masterpiece. Those sentiments would soon be abandoned as an androgynous dance troupe in flamboyant masks (animal skulls and elaborate headdresses) showed up during the overture to expand on Tatiana’s obsession with romantic fiction. The dancers would reappear regularly in various guises but always wearing surreal masks, becoming animals, peasants, traditional ballerinas, or the nobility of Imperial Russia. Their role: to focus us on Tatiana’s hopes, dreams, and obsessions in this Tatiana-centric production. The troupe included circus performers whose dazzling backwards somersaults brought gasps from the audience.
Tatiana arrives onstage seated atop a ladder, reading a book, via an elevator in a midstage trap door. And throughout the opera, that portal opened for the dramatic arrival of central characters and images, including a miniature replica of Tatiana’s childhood home, which arrived in the final act as she looked back on her innocent youth and her consuming passion for Onegin. Santa Fe’s stage is unique, and uniquely challenging for stage directors. But it also offers opportunities, especially the ability to leave the back open to the stunning view of the mountains.
Talevi and his designer, Gary McCann, chose this option and added a grassy meadow that functioned as the wooded surroundings of Tatiana’s rural childhood home or the forest setting for Onegin’s dual with Lensky. McCann’s costume designs, like his sets, were vaguely period, but with modern suits for the men and fantastic designs for the dancers. Tatiana often wore an exaggerated ball gown, even in rural settings. When we witness unscripted romantic episodes with Onegin, her gown was one of several slightly surreal touches that blurred the boundary between reality and Tatiana’s fantasies.
In this case, the husband-and-wife team of Etienne Dupuis and Nicole Car had been cast as Onegin and Tatiana. When they were unable to come to the U.S., SFO’s casting folks tracked down Lucas Meachem and Sara Jakubiak as their replacements. Physically imposing, Meachem is an ideal Onegin, with an expressive and stentorian baritone voice. Like James Morris, he commands the stage with relatively little movement, and his transition from the haughty figure of the first act to a pathetic loser at the opera’s end was most impressive.
Jakubiak is a formidable actress, and her portrayal of the teenage Tatiana was incisive, balancing vulnerability and dangerous impulsiveness. A dramatic soprano, she has solid top notes, while the middle and lower range are less secure.
Dovlet Nurgeldiyev, as Lensky, has a beautiful timbre. His rendering of Lensky’s aria was one of the highlights of the evening. Contralto Avery Amereau was impressive as a perky Olga. Bass James Creswell was a solid Prince Gremin. Tenor Matthew DiBattista gave a nicely nuanced performance as Monsieur Triquet. Katharine Goeldner was an ideal Larina. Mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel sang nicely as Filipyevna, the nanny.
This was the orchestra’s night to shine. Fast-rising Australian conductor Nicholas Carter led the orchestra in a brilliant, dramatic, beautifully articulated reading of the score. COVID protocol prevented the chorus from appearing onstage, so they sang, wearing masks, from bleachers alongside the audience. This proximity enhanced their sound, which had a distinct Russian resonance.
With a stellar cast, a fascinating, beautiful, cerebral production, and the orchestra in exceptional form, Eugene Onegin may well be the big hit of the season here, which also will include a new production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, staged by Netia Jones and conducted by Bicket (opening July 31).
Performances continue in rotation until August 27. For more information, go to santafeopera.org.