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Santa Fe Opera Offers Evil Nazis, Chinese Revolutionaries And A Superb Carmen

by Jerome Weeks 11 Aug 2014 9:27 AM

Greer Grimsley (as Don Pizarro), Alex Penda (Leonore)  and Paul Groves (Florestan) in the Santa Fe Opera’s Fidelio. Photo credits: Ken Howard SANTA FE — Five of the Santa Fe Opera’s six productions this summer are by mainline dead composers. One is by a live musician virtually unknown in the United States. But that doesn’t […]


FID_3500a(1)Greer Grimsley (as Don Pizarro), Alex Penda (Leonore)  and Paul Groves (Florestan) in the Santa Fe Opera’s Fidelio. Photo credits: Ken Howard

SANTA FE — Five of the Santa Fe Opera’s six productions this summer are by mainline dead composers. One is by a live musician virtually unknown in the United States.

But that doesn’t accurately state the balance of old versus new. Santa Fe doesn’t mind playing games with tradition, so only a couple of the operas would please die-hard purists.

The lineup includes Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, Beethoven’s Fidelio, Bizet’s Carmen, Mozart’s The Impresario paired with Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol, plus Huang Ruo’s Dr. Sun Yat-Sen.

I came prepared to hate this Carmen. Rumors that Escamillo makes his first appearance riding on a mechanical bull and that the United States Border Patrol was involved put me on high alert.

Both rumors were true, and there was more besides (how about Escamillo doing Elvis gyrations at Lillas Pastia’s nightclub?). But that was as close to Eurotrash as it got, and as the performance continued it became clear that director Stephen Lawless wasn’t making fun of Carmen but rather trying to make it fit into a 2014 environment. Two or three slips can be forgiven.

Lawless moves the action to the present, sets it in Mexico, and has the smugglers doing drugs and child transportation (the opening scene shows boys hiding in Dumpsters). Having Carmen waterboarded by a couple of soldiers is another, not-so-sly reference to current affairs.

What really made Santa Fe’s Carmen one of the season’s top scorers was the superb and engrossing musical performance (heard on Aug. 6). It was led briskly by Scottish maestro Rory Macdonald and sung lyrically and with passion by Ana Maria Martinez (Carmen), Roberto De Biasio (Don Jose), Joyce El-Khoury (Micaela), Kostas Smoriginas (Escamillo) and a fine supporting cast.

Benoit Dugardyn, Jorge Jara and Pat Collins enhanced with scenic, costume and lighting design, and Jon Driscoll’s projections and Nicola Bowie’s choreography were important elements.

Don Pasquale, heard on Aug. 4, was another winner, but this time without updating. The cast was consistently strong, though it came close to being dominated by Andrew Shore in the title role; he managed to be pompous, ridiculous and pathetic at the same time. You couldn’t help but feel a pang of sympathy at the end.

Brenda Rae, who was in town for The Impresario and Le Rossignol, stepped in on short notice to take the place of an ailing Laura Tatulescu in the role of Norina in Don Pasquale. Rae was clearly a veteran of the part; she gave a spectacular performance.

Zachary Nelson’s Malatesta and Alek Shrader’s Ernesto ably filled out the principals’ cast. Shrader deserves a medal for singing in high places in Chantal Thomas’ scenic design. No vertigo for Shrader.

The conductor was Corrado Rovaris, the director was Laurent Pelly and the lighting designer was Duane Schuler. The only topsy-turvy element in the production was an upside-down room — chandelier hanging up from the floor, chair hanging down from the ceiling — as poor Don Pasquale finds his world turned inside-out.

Fidelio is presented fairly straight, though, in what is becoming something of an operatic cliche, it’s set in the Third Reich. Well, the Nazis do make great villains.

Aug. 5’s performance was quite a thriller, with superbly dramatic playing by the Santa Fe Opera orchestra under Harry Bicket’s direction, dramatic stage direction by Wadsworth, and a strong cast including Alex Penda (Leonore), Manfred Hemm (Rocco), Devon Guthrie (Marzelline), Paul Groves (Florestan), Greer Grimsley (a leeringly evil Pizzaro) and Joshua Dennis (the Jawohl mein Herring German soldier Jaquino).

Santa Fe is trying to tie together two very different short operas in The Impresario and Le Rossignol. Director Michael Gieleta makes The Impresario a chaotic audition session for Le Rossignol, set in the era of Sergei Diaghilev. The Impresario is wildly revised; Le Rossignol is played straight.

It’s a clever idea, I guess. There were plenty of laughs in The Impresario, seen on Aug. 7, though I much preferred the striking beauty, in both music and stage design/costumes, of Stravinsky’s lovely creation.

The amazingly versatile cast did double duty, appearing in both operas. Rae, back from Don Pasquale, made it three hits in a row. Her colleagues were Anthony Michaels-Moore, Kevin Burdette, David Govertsen, Meredith Arwady, Bruce Sledge and Erin Morley.

Conductor Kenneth Montgomery gets credit for the musical performance, and James Macnamara, Fabio Toblini, Christopher Akerlind and Andrzej Goulding deserve kudos for brilliant design work, especially in Le Rossignol.

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, seen on Aug. 8, is mystifying. Composer Huang Ruo’s musical style, reflecting two worlds, is pretty consistently dramatic though highly original and complex. The text is in Mandarin and Cantonese. Combining these elements, this must be a bear of a piece to learn. Medals to conductor (Carolyn Kuan), orchestra, chorus and cast.

And especially to tenor Joseph Dennis. A second-year apprentice at Santa Fe (he’s from McKinney), he stopped in to take the title role when tenor Warren Mok pulled out. Dennis’ performance was quite creditable — even miraculous if you consider the circumstances.

Ruo and librettist Candace Chong tell the story of the early Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-Sen. There really are two parallel stories that don’t blend together very well: Sun’s love life and his political activities.

The latter are harder to deal with poetically. Lines like “Last month the Qing court signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki. What a disgrace!” and “How difficult is it to put my Three Principles into practice?” seem unlikely to inspire much creativity.

They also assume some knowledge of early 20th century Chinese history that most Western audiences are unlikely to have. Those planning to see the opera should plan to brush up or be left out.

Santa Fe’s performances continue through Aug. 23.