The Santa Fe Opera, Highway US 84/285
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Truth be told, my outing was actually a trifecta, rather than a marathon, but perhaps you’ll get the idea. Over the years, I have wondered what it would be like to attend multiple performances in a single week at our wonderful Santa Fe Opera, so I took finally took the opportunity to learn for myself.
Every year, the opera offers subscription rates that are a good 20% lower than standard prices, and these options include a trio, quartet or quintet of performances. Since the box office is both intelligent and understanding, these performance blocks always take place in August, when the curtain time drops down to 8:30pm for the first two weeks and then to 8:00pm for the last two weeks. If you know you’re up for a full dose of grand music, then this is definitely the way to go!
With my faithful opera companion in tow, I started this opera trifecta with The Last Savage, Gian Carlo Menotti’s forgotten opera buffa, premiered in 1963 at the Opera Comique in Paris. Aided by the able stagecraft of all departments, Director Ned Canty has boldly brought this neglected gem back to life. Simply put, entertainment in spades! Fluffy, yes, but stuffed with characters and ideas that make one think and so beautifully sung. In fact, we loved it so much, we went back again, bringing an 11-year-old for her first SFO experience, as this production is a perfect introduction to the joys of opera.
I make a point of not reading the program before I see the performance, but even without seeing the credits, as the lights went down and the sprigtly sounds floated up, years of attendance at SFO told me immediately that the talented George Manahan was in the pit for The Last Savage. Baritone Daniel Okulitch was alternately touching and tough (and buff!) in the role of Abdul, the aforementioned Savage, who learns the difference between the savagery of the jungle and that of the city, discovering that he wants “no more of your false light that so deceived me.” Listening to Anna Christy, the soprano who “tames” this savage, one is simply awed by the big voice coming out of this single-minded little package. Kevin Burdette gave an amusing performance as Kitty’s father, Mr. Scattergood, evincing both perception and distraction as an American millionaire and over-indulgent father. Jamie Barton and Thomas Hammons made a convincing royal couple as the Maharanee and her Maharajah, while tenor Sean Pannikkar sang ardently as their son, Kodanda, secretly in love with the sweet-voiced Jennifer Zetlan as Sardula. And oh, those hilarious dancing servants; choreographer Sean Curran, we thank you!
Our next outing brought us to Antonio Vivaldi’s Griselda, representing SFO’s commitment over the years to mixing the baroque with the lyric, the early centuries of opera with the more recent past. With director Peter Sellars, one always knows that there will be a surprise, and indeed, this staging was no exception. Framed with a massive backdrop painted by L.A. artist Gronk, and with the firm hand of Grant Gershon guiding the orchestra (including a theorbo!), a stellar cast brought this challenging and somewhat cruel story to life in a distinctly modern setting. As the lowly-born but truly loving Queen Griselda, contralto Meredith Arwady kept her innate majesty intact throughout the series of trials and tribulations imposed by her husband King Gualtiero, sung by tenor Paul Groves. Soprano Isabel Leonard was sweetly innocent as their long-lost daughter Costanza, and in her Santa Fe Opera debut and first ever pants-role as Griselda’s would-be lover, Ottone, Amanda Majeski was silken and persuasive. The embarrassment of vocal riches in this baroque piece includes the rarity of two, yes two, counter-tenors, David Daniels and Yuri Minenko, both ably demonstrating their unusual gifts. The story line and libretto offer concepts of love, loyalty and leadership to ruminate upon, with Griselda’s comment that “the wise helmsman knows the proud fury of the waves” seeming quite apt in these highly-charged political times.
Our opera week came to a denouement with Alban Berg’s powerful and sorrowful Wozzeck. A revival of the 2001 production mounted by SFO, this season’s production felt fresh and fit the story perfectly, with scenic design that was claustrophobic and crazy by turns. With the terrific Richard Paul Fink embodying the title role, it was impossible not to grieve for this tormented character and his seemingly inevitable fate. Nicola Beller Carbone gave an intense performance as his unfaithful lover, who reaps the nasty consequences of her actions, leaving an orphaned son behind. (As an aside, I take this moment to note how terrific all the child actotrs have been this season; as the opera folk say “Toi, Toi, Toi! to all the kiddies.) Supporting characters were well-cast, with the ever-so-slightly menacing Eric Owens as The Doctor, Stuart Skelton as the self-satisfied Drum Major, and Robert Brubaker as the unnervingly hysteric Captain, who expresses the timely sentiment that he’s “scared for the world when I think of eternity.” Indeed!
Yes, a marathon of performances is doable, I did it and so can you, since there is still time in which to do it. Although the summer is waning, the Santa Fe Opera season runs through August 27, and rumor has it that tickets are still available. Curtain time for these last two weeks is a very reasonable 8:00pm, and that means you can go to sleep to hear beautiful music in your dreams and still wake up early enough to enjoy the great Santa Fe weather. The soaring chorus may tell us in song that “In this world, all things must change…,” but the glorious musical theater that the Santa Fe Opera brings us every year changes only for the better.
Images by Ken Howard, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera, all rights reserved.