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It’s a fact that some times of year are just more exciting than others. And for Santa Fe and its myriad of opera-lovers, that time of year is right now! A July 1st opening night found this opera fan (who, it must be noted, is not a music critic) delighted to be in attendance at the Santa Fe Opera‘s first-ever performance of Charles Gounod’s Faust. A devilish tale of life lessons, laced throughout with haunting melodies, Gounod’s grand opera premiered in Paris in 1859 with a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré. Based on Carré’s play Faust et Marguerite, which was in turn fashioned after Goethe’s Faust, Part 1, this is the story of an aging philosopher, who re-discovers the passion and excitement of youth, just as he is ready to take a suicidal exit from his wearying existence. How to get that new lease on life? Simply forfeit your soul to the devil! A cautionary tale indeed, since the result is “the torment of eternal remorse,” as Faust himself so tellingly puts it.
Energetically conducted by Frederic Chaslin, at the beginning of his first full season as the Opera’s Music Director, Faust came to life with an orchestra that sounded rich and sprightly throughout, and Craig Smith’s loan of an electronic organ was nicely worked into the staging. The production was inventive and exciting, the costumes were appropriately evocative, and the incidental music was choreographically well-served. Mark S. Doss cut an impressively commanding figure as Mephistopheles, and Bryan Hymel’s interpretation of the title role was nuanced and assured. Ailyn Perez sweetly voiced the role of Marguerite and sorrowfully embodied her character’s tragic fate, in the face of repudiation by her brother, Valentin, portrayed with honesty and strength by Matthew Worth. Jennifer Holloway, memorable as Price Charming a few seasons back, sang the role of the young lover, Siebel, with passion and grace (I confess, I do love a pants role). One leaves the theatre with deep satisfaction after such an engaging premiere, especially when the 3.5 hour running time seems to pass so quickly! Bravo!
Founded in 1957 by the late John Crosby, a young conductor and devoted Richard Strauss fan (Strauss’ Arabella returns for the 2012 SFO season) from New York, the Santa Fe Opera was born out of a desire to give American singers an opportunity to learn and perform new roles in a peaceful rural setting with plenty of time to acclimate to the mountain air and rehearse accordingly. While Mr. Crosby himself spent plenty of time in the pit, engaging young conductors have been welcomed by the orchestra and the audience alike. From its humble beginnings, with wooden benches and a roof-less stage, over the course of the last 54 years, the Santa Fe Opera has grown into a powerful cultural and economic engine for the Land of Enchantment. Its reputation for daring new productions and commissions attracts both artists and patrons to the tune of about $200 million annually. That’s not chicken feed, particularly for a state rich in culture if not in cash!
Opening night is always a wonderful event, not only for the performance, but also for tail-gating parties and those who like to observe and learn from them. From a simple pair of TV trays to white linens and crystal flutes, it’s all out there in the parking lot, and we have our beautiful outdoor Crosby Theater to thank for this opportunity to dine al fresco. Bring your own or reserve a picnic, either way, it’s a whole lot of fun. One may conceivably be able to wolf down a sandwich on the fly outside Lincoln Center, but it’s not quite the same as sitting down under a beautiful sunset enjoying fine food, favorite friends and the frisson of excitement generated by the knowledge that the orchestra is tuning up and the lights are about to go down.
Also making its opening appearance over the weekend was Giacomo Puccini’s perennially popular La Boheme. Premiered in Turin in 1896, with a richly emotional libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, this enduring favorite was based a set of tales by Henri Murger entitled Scènes de la Vie de Bohème. Performed in ten previous seasons at SFO, this lyrical opera never fails to thrill, from the first notes right through to the sad denouement. What’s not to love about a love story? Especially when when it’s an Italian opera conducted with passion and verve by an Italian conductor, Leonardo Vordoni, leading a cast of beautiful voices, headed by tenor, David Lomeli, and soprano, Ana Maria Martinez! Although mine was a dress rehearsal experience, no one held back – Mr. Lomeli sang ardently, and Ms. Martinez’ performance was touching and tender. The role of Musetta was ably sung by Heidi Stober, familiar to Santa Fe audiences from her role in the amusing production of Platee in 2007. Reprising his 2007 Boheme role as her on-again, off-again lover, the artist Marcello, Corey McKern painted his portrayal boldly. This particular tale always resonates in a city like Santa Fe, where artists of all types come to pursue their passions, although with our adobe architecture, we are rather short on garrets.
With a total of five operas programmed each summer, there are three other choices in the repertoire, thoughtfully chosen to appeal to the eclectic tastes of opera fans. And with the adventurous spirit that SFO has always demonstrated, two more are premieres for the company! Noted director Peter Sellars returns to Santa Fe to conduct the first U.S. production of Antonio Vivaldi’s Griselda, with Meredith Arwady in the title role, Paul Groves (last year’s Hoffmann) as her husband Gualterio, and as Roberto, the exciting countertenor, David Daniels, returning to the Santa Fe stage for the first time since 2008. The light and lyrical touch of Gian-Carlo Menotti will be on display in a witty new production of his opera buffa, The Last Savage, also a first for the company. The final piece to make an appearance onstage (with only four performances, so reserve tickets soon) will be Alban Berg’s powerful masterpiece, Wozzeck, with Richard Paul Fink making his SFO debut in the demanding title role.
One of the consistently remarkable features of the Santa Fe Opera is the stellar apprentice program. At the time the Opera came into being, esteemed founder Mr. Crosby had the foresight to create an environment designed to nurture and cultivate young singers who have in turn blessed the company with their youthful enthusiasm. Many talented singers whose names can be found in the programs of the world’s leading opera houses enhanced their singing careers with a summer in Santa Fe, and well over 1000 aspiring artists have been part of the summer program. Some may continue with professional singing careers, and others might morph into voice teachers or coaches who pass the torch on to others. In 1965, an apprentice program for the technical aspects of theater was added, and it too has developed through the years into fine training tool that complements the performing arts, thus enriching both sides of the stage. You can get a sneak peek at the stars of tomorrow on August 14 or August 21 by attending one of the two apprentice showcases, excellent opportunities to introduce younger family members to the joys of opera without a deep commitment of money or time (you can just leave if the kids get fidgety).
In conjunction with the training programs at the Opera, there is a broad set of informative community outreach programs and amenities aimed at creating future audiences by ensuring that opera is accessible and appealing to a new generation. The very unique Pueblo Opera Program welcomes Native American youth from the nineteen pueblos and three reservations located throughout New Mexico. Opera attendees also get educated; rather than distracting super-titles above the stage, the Crosby theater is one of the lucky few with unobtrusive opera titles – in either English or Spanish (translated by the erudite Fernando Mayans, well-known to many local Spanish language students) – on individual screens right in front of each seat, enhancing appreciation of the stage action. And there are other educational benefits for visitors, from daily backstage tours beginning at 9:00 a.m. Monday through Saturday to prelude talks before performances, as well as a series of community events. If you don’t have time for the theater tour, just hop onto the Opera’s new blog for a sneak peek at what’s happening on the back deck!
Even for those who are not die-hard opera fans, the Santa Fe Opera should be part of a Santa Fe vacation. It is one of the real jewels of the City Different, and like all precious gems, its lustre shines brightest when you see it in person. As always, tickets are selling fast, so don’t delay! Dress up in your finery (with a warm wrap for changeable high desert weather) or come in your jeans, but don’t miss out. As Mimi sings in La Boheme “I love enchanting things…,” and this is truly one of the most enchanting ways to spend a night in the Land of Enchantment!
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