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Ionarts in Santa Fe: Final Thoughts on 2008

The ideal way to review an opera production would be to attend the entire run of performances. Singers have off nights and on nights, they get sick and get better, have allergies and get over them, struggle with or get used to being at an altitude of 7,000 feet. The orchestra and the conductor get comfortable, or complacent, with the score. The staging's kinks get ironed out, and new kinks get worked into it. The whole thing becomes laden with the performers' own emotional histories, as the gigantic collaboration of an opera works its way to its inevitable end.

Reviewing an opera production from beginning to end is just not possible (or is it? *gears turning*), especially in a place like Santa Fe Opera, where the season is stretched out in repertory over such a long period. However, the rare chance to hear four of the five operas another time last week, in the company of critics from several major dailies, yielded the following second thoughts about the four successful productions.

Elizabeth Watts (Susanna), Susanna Phillips (Countess), and Mariusz Kwiecień (Count) in Le Nozze di Figaro, Santa Fe Opera, 2008 (photo © Ken Howard)
Elizabeth Watts (Susanna), Susanna Phillips (Countess), and Mariusz Kwiecień (Count) in Le Nozze di Figaro, Santa Fe Opera, 2008 (photo © Ken Howard)
#4. Le Nozze di Figaro
The truth about how differently singers can sound on successive evenings came out the most at the second hearing of the Mozart on Saturday night, my last night at Santa Fe Opera. Elizabeth Watts sounded much stronger as Susanna, and the Countess of Susanna Phillips had more noticeable struggles with intonation, mostly a tendency toward sharpness in some of her attacks. Mariusz Kwiecień's Count was just as suave and blustery, and Isabel Leonard's Cherubino seemed more stable in terms of color and vibrato right from the start. The casting miracle of Luca Pisaroni, who sang Figaro again, after singing Tiridate in Radamisto just the previous night, continued to amaze. It is a lot to ask a singer to perform two demanding roles in such proximity, but Pisaroni held up vocally and managed to keep the two men distinctly characterized. If his Figaro had shown up with a false beard, I would hardly have been surprised.

What had seemed so effortless and natural about the staging was less so the second time around, as a number of gags and exchanges flopped. A closer look at the critical edition before the second evening made me realize that Santa Fe Opera was perhaps not using the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe, or at least making some changes to it. In the terzetto "Susanna or via sortite," the NMA gives all three of those eighth-note roulades (the first up to high G, the others up to high C) to the Countess. In the Santa Fe production, the Countess sang only the first one, and the other two were given to Susanna. The comic effect was cute (Susanna muffled her mouth with her hand, realizing her high note would reveal her hiding place), and as I wrote before, Mozart thought of the two roles as somewhat musically interchangeable, which reinforces their role reversal at the end of the opera. He apparently switched many of their parts back and forth in his manuscript.

#3. Billy Budd
Teddy Tahu Rhodes sounded a little more in the right place last Thursday, with more control at the top of his voice. It was still a performance distinguished more by rough rusticity, naive of spirit and vocal refinement, than smooth power. My impression of the other two leads, the terrifying Claggart of Peter Rose and the hand-wringing Vere of William Burden, changed very little. One note on the staging that I noticed only because of seeing the production twice: the handerkerchief that Claggart takes from Billy also appears at the beginning of the opera, in Vere's hands during the prologue. Claggart holds it as a reminder of his attraction to/repulsion by Billy, Vere discovers it on Claggart's body, and keeps it in his hands during the prologue and epilogue, which take place long after the main action. It is the symbol of the motivating force of Billy's destruction, the attraction that Claggart feels to Billy.

#2. Adriana Mater
One of the things that Kaija Saariaho, Peter Sellars, and Amin Maalouf joked about at the symposium on Adriana the morning of the premiere was how Sellars' staging of Saariaho's operas disregarded so much of the composer and librettist's vision. Saariaho confided that she saw so much of L'Amour de Loin in her mind's eye and wrote long letters about it to Sellars. He responded that she was welcome to write him about it all she wanted, but he could not guarantee that he and his collaborators would use any of it, and indeed they did not. So, for Adriana she left most of her thoughts about the staging out of the discussion, with one exception. For her, the symbolism of the door to Adriana's house, its opening and closing to Tsargo, was the only thing she insisted on. Of course, there was no door in George Tsypin's set.

Monica Groop (Adriana, foreground), Pia Freund (Refka, background), and Matthew Best (Tsargo) in Adriana Mater, Santa Fe Opera, 2008 (photo © Ken Howard)
Monica Groop (Adriana, foreground), Pia Freund (Refka, background), and Matthew Best (Tsargo) in Adriana Mater, Santa Fe Opera, 2008 (photo © Ken Howard)
Much was made of the dreams in Adriana, which were important for Saariaho during the compositional process. Sellars set the dreams, more or less as Maalouf indicated in the libretto, except for one, the vision of Yonas that "acts as a link between Scenes 4 and 5," according to the libretto (in the typo-heavy translation by Barbara Bray, sold in the SFO gift shop):
Adriana heads for the door. Yonas sits down on the floor and buries his head in his hands. Then they both freeze, and in the somber red light that always heralds a dream sequence a kind of sacrificial is enacted in slow motion. A masked character whom we identify as Yonas, tears off the others' masks and throws them on the fire. It's as if he were stripping them of their souls, and they all collapse one after the other, in a blaze that at once destroys and purifies. A short dream this time, without any commentary -- only music, and perhaps a few recaps of previous words and phrases, including some from the preceding scene.
Now, to be fair to Sellars, that is a stage direction that hardly takes into account the difficulty of actually staging it -- not unlike the first dream sequence, in which Tsargo is supposed to change into a bottle (he did not, in Sellars' staging). For this transition, Sellars instead has Yonas collapse to the floor, with his hand clasped over his own face, representing the oppressive thought of his father's blood in his own body. He writhes on the floor that way, as the music becomes frantic, and then rises for the following scene with Refka. There is another Sellars addition at the end of the first act, where Adriana asks herself, "Which will my child turn out to be -- Cain or Abel?" During the orchestral postlude that follows, Adriana and Refka are on the roof of the apartment and they track with their eyes something invisible that circles around them in the sky. Nothing like that is indicated in the libretto, but the sense of a forbidding omen is an effective addition by Sellars. Unfortunately, Sellars also could not avoid his worst cliché, what I have called the high school show choir hand movements, which always seemed to undermine emotionally intense scenes in Adriana just as they have in his other productions.

The score continued to unfold in my ears on a third hearing. It opens with a crashing opening cluster, followed by a tense introduction in which what I have been calling the "sighing motif" is almost immediately introduced, downward glissandi in flute and then chorus on "Oh." Adriana's opening Rondeau ("Quand les yeux de la cité se ferment, je dévoile ma voix") should become an adventurous option for mezzo-soprano recitals. The piece has a sinuous, memorable main melody that is repeated -- the libretto's stage directions indicate that "a young woman leans against the wall of her house, relaxing at the end of the day and singing a kind of traditional rondeau full of longing and passion"). The word cité usually means apartment block instead of city, and it is especially used of HLM buildings, or public housing, which probably tells us something about what Maalouf envisioned for Adriana's home. The opening vista, with the curtain at 8:30 instead of 9 pm, was that stunning, clear view of sunset over the Jémez Mountains.

More little solos peeped out of the larger texture -- cello and violin, suspended cymbal (a sort of snappy jazz flavor at the opening of Scene 4), snare drum (which rattles away in association with martial words in the libretto), insectoid rustles and tremors from various percussion instruments or from the "Ts-ts-ts" of the chorus. The "regret motif," an accented downward half-step, is first really heard in the score just after the wild, dissonant crashes of the rape scene, in the transition between Scenes 2 and 3. Saariaho spoke about the importance of heartbeats in the score at the symposium, saying that each character had a pulse that accompanied him or her throughout the score, changing as it went along. I associated this pulsing motif with the idea of regret, because it is sung, very clearly, with the words "J'aurais dû" (I should have) in the final scene, but it could also represent the pulse of Yonas, at the moment of conception after the rape scene. Another motif, of seven to eight repeated notes, appears in the third scene but is less pervasive, and this could be the baby's pulse, too, as it appears when we see Adriana pregnant. I am still waiting for a chance to see the score on paper.

Laura Claycomb (Polissena) and Luca Pisaroni (Tiridate) in Radamisto, Santa Fe Opera, 2008 (photo © Ken Howard)
#1. Radamisto
Some more traditionally minded viewers, including a commenter or two here, hated David Alden's staging of this Handel opera. Truth be told, it was not all that postmodern, was visually quite beautiful, and made even more sense after a second viewing. Contacts at the company felt sure that the sculpture of the elephant was surmounted by a leopard -- not a bear, as I originally thought. George Loomis observed in his review that the leopard is triumphant over the elephant when Tiridate is at the height of his power, only to be strung up, pierced with arrows, at the moment of his downfall. As noted in my review, Alden's decisions, although sometimes radical, are usually based on careful reflection.

The singing remained among the most stunningly virtuosic displays of the season, especially David Daniels' Radamisto and Laura Claycomb's Polissena. The latter's performance was occasionally marred by occasional flatness, very slight, the embellishments of "Barbaro, partirò" were just as breath-taking, especially the plunge from an extremely high to an extremely low note in the cadenza. As mentioned above, Luca Pisarino's brilliance and stamina in a sensational double casting was nothing short of exceptional. Tomorrow, some thoughts about Santa Fe Opera's 2009 season next summer.

Performances of all five operas of this summer's season continue at Santa Fe Opera through August 23. The best of the year's apprentice singers will present opera scenes on the next two Sundays, August 10 and August 17. There is still time to get to Santa Fe if you can.

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