Saturday, August 17, 2013

Traviata at Santa Fe

Charlene Baldridge
Photo by Ken Howard

La Traviata at Santa Fe Opera

Santa Fe, Saturday, August 17, 2013 – Last night we drove up the freeway for the final of this season’s five-opera Santa Fe experience, Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata, produced by Santa Fe Opera (SFO). The production itself, by Laurent Pelly (direction and costumes) with scenic design by Chantal Thomas, premiered at SFO in 2009. This year’s production, give or take a few scenic elements and musical cuts, is conducted by Leo Hussain.

Brenda Rae, Michael Fabiano and Company
Photo by Ken Howard

The production itself so screams for attention – Look at me! Look at me! – that I would like to ignore it temporarily and concentrate on the principal singers; each having earned the right to shout and scream look at me, and each admirably game when it comes to Pelly’s outlandish, exuberant and downright odd staging. I am happy to say that Francesco Maria Piave’s text, based on Alexandre Dumas’ 1848 novel, La Dame aux Camelias, prevails despite the distractions. No matter the underlying implications or implied profound meaning in Pelly’s staging of the death scene, Violetta’s lover, Alfredo Germont, still arrives in time (or does he?) and Violetta still dies (assuredly), but alone. I suppose it’s up to each onlooker to decide what that means other than automatically assuring the diva first place in the order of curtain calls.

Papa Georgio Germont (baritone Roland Wood) is stiff, but that is a given of the role no matter the terrain (a mountain goat the baritone is not) or directorial intervention. Additionally Pelly’s stage direction often puts the Germont père on the other or upside of a chasm (I’ll explain later), not conducive to musical ensemble in that the all-important continuo is lost. Wood has a darkly covered baritone, but when he lays the gruff cover aside at the conclusion of “Di provenza…” as a singer must do, he achieves gorgeous high voice.

Brenda Rae and Michael Fabiano
Photo by Ken Howard
A 2005 SFO apprentice singer, tenor Michael Fabiano (Alfredo Germont) is an agile actor with an impressive, sincere ardor and a fine voice with gleaming top tones. He rids the role of the petulance so frequently observed.

As Violetta Valéry, soprano Brenda Rae is adept as Pelly’s Act One party girl, the essence of which is the arms-over-the-head-means-of-showing-abandon school of histrionics. Perhaps it’s not subtle, but the soprano wears the persona intent on pleasure and her hot pink flounces as well despite the unsubtle pallor of her illness. Verdi’s music helps, especially Violetta’s “Ah, fors’ è lui /Sempre Libera,” exceptionally sung, tonally accurate and mostly crisp on Friday night. To prove it’s good for something the hands-in-air technique was cleverly employed to prevent applause between the “Ah, fors’ è lui” and “Follie!” sections.

The Thomas-designed production places Violetta’s and Flora’s homes and even the countryside estate in magnified cubist terrain. Violetta’s wild after party takes place on a mountainous heap of packing crates or granite or marble slabs of various sizes. Again, it’s up to the eye of the beholder to decide the symbolism. There are walkways and steps between the monolithic cubes. In the country, the boxes become modified to resemble pieces of the sky wherein the ecstatic Violetta and besotted Alfredo dwell, unfortunately on her dime. Georgio arrives while Alfredo is in Paris, and persuades the dying Violetta to leave his son by way of sacrifice to save his family’s honor. She departs for a party at Flora’s
Brenda Rae as Violetta and Roland Wood as Georgio Germont
Photo by Ken Howard

In Flora’s house the packing crates are disguised as gambling surfaces, where the angry Alfredo throws his winnings at Violetta in retribution for what he believes is her desertion.

In the deathbed scene the boxes are covered with white sheets and Violetta’s bed, a former slab, is set downstage slightly left of center. Rae’s is not the clearest nor most affecting letter reading ever heard, but otherwise her singing here is fine, as is Fabiano’s. Earlier in the evening, he ably performed “De’ miei bollenti spiriti” and she, a lustrous “Addio del passato.”

Pelly interpolates scenes and changes others at will. The performance begins with a funereal procession, umbrellas straight out of Wilder. During Violetta’s orgiastic party, she removes Flora’s (Jennifer Panara) panties before copulating with Alfredo. She passes out, and when the guests depart she wakens to find Alfredo gone — a clue to begin her marathon series of arias, truncated here.

Regardless of this critic’s opinion of the Pelly production, Friday’s audience enthusiastically received La Traviata. It receives an additional performance on August 22. The season closes August 24.

Plan to attend SFO’s 2014 season, comprising Carmen, Don Pasquale, Fidelio, a double bill of The Impressario and Le Rossignol, and the world premiere of Huang Ro’s Dr. Sun Yat-sen.

Go to for more information

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein at Santa Fe Opera

Charlene Baldridge
Ken Howard photo
Santa Fe, Friday, August 16, 2013 --Seen Thursday night at Santa Fe Opera, Jacques Offenbach’s The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein premiered in Paris in 1867. It is one of a string of operettas the German-born French composer wrote in the mid 1800s. Among the others were Orpheus in the Underworld, La Belle Hélène, and La Perichole. Offenbach is perhaps best known for the popular ballet, Gaîté Parisienne and his unfinished grand opera, The Tales of Hoffmann. By his own estimate, he wrote at least 100 operettas. Many parodied Rossini, Meyerbeer, Berlioz and Wagner. The latter two were not amused. Offenbach was in turn parodied by Gilbert and Sullivan along with many other opera composers.

No one loves a good spoof more than I. It’s great fun sitting in the dark listening for the references and quotes with which this score is rife.

As staged by Lee Blakely upon Adrian Linford’s ingenious, hydraulics-dependent scenic scheme, and enhanced by Jo van Schuppen’s clever costume design and Peggy Hickey’s can-can-infused choreography, The Grand Duchess is a visual delight as well. There are so many clever mechanical props and so much shtick over the course of three acts one is quite tested to find adequate descriptors. Some battlefield accouterments are merely unfamiliar, though merrily employed, and there are canons, sabers, rifles and pistols galore. In addition, the limousines and smaller conveyances are thoroughly amusing.

Susan Graham as the Duchess
Photo by Ken Howard

A major reason to produce this sparkling feast for the senses is the singer one chooses to portray the Duchess. In a program note it is suggested that the character might we now term a “cougar.” Even though mezzo-soprano Susan Graham may be a tad young for the appellation, she embodies the lusty Countess with glee.

The character is wooed by the foppish Prince Paul (baritone Jonathan Michie, got up in a pink, rhinestone-studded pink suit and red shoes). She is so bored that Gerolstein has invented a war with which to entertain her. While inspecting the cadets, she stumbles upon a lowly private named Fritz (tenor Paul Applegate) whom she promotes until he eventually becomes a General, charged with leading the legion into battle. Though he would deny it, his promotion and victory, achieved by getting the opposing forces drunk, quite goes to Fritz’s head, much to the consternation of his lovely and innocent fiancée, Wanda (soprano Anya Matanoviĉ).

Fritz is seen in Act I, handing out towels for the cadets’ calisthenics. He is bullied and abused mercilessly by the others as well as General Boum (Kevin Burdette), who all find him indecisive and incompetent.
Susaa Graham as the Duchess
Paul Appleby as General Fritz
Photo by Ken Howard

When Fritz is promoted by the scheming Duchess, Gen. Boum, Prince Paul and Baron Puck (Aaron Pegram) are so incensed that they plot his assassination. When he spurns the Duchess’ advances after his victory, she joins the others and in the end demotes Fritz back to private again, whereupon he declares he will serve his country at home and weds Wanda. Meanwhile, the Countess marries Prince Paul, enticed by his diplomatic attaché Baron Grog’s (baritone Jared Bybee) promise of accessibility. When she discovers Grog is married with children, she resigns herself to life with Prince Paul.

The production is sung in French (with English and Spanish language projections) and uses English dialogue (written by the director) as well, something that may bother purists but bothered me not at all, though the spoken language was not clearly projected.

Kevin Burdette as Boum, Jonathan Michie as Prince Paul,
and Aaron Pegram as Baron Puck
Photo by Ken Howard

Matanovic as Wanda
Appleby as Pvt. Fritz
Photo by Ken Howard

Graham looks stunning, especially in her ball gown (see photos above). The role seems to lie a bit low in her vocal register, but it certainly suits her personality and she seems to have great fun performing it. Appleby is adorable as the incompetent Fritz and has a particularly lovely high voice. I found Matanoviĉ the perfect, charming soubrette.

I’m willing to say that my overwhelming is due to The Duchess being the fourth opera seen in as many nights, the others including Oscar and The Lady of the Lake, which being unfamiliar required a lot of attention and energy, and The Marriage of Figaro. Tonight completes the quintet with La Traviata, which is quite familiar to me.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

La Donna del Lago

Charlene Baldridge
Photo by Ken Howard

And they lived happily ever after

La Donna del Lago at Santa Fe Opera

Santa Fe, August 15, 2013 – Last night, we attended Santa Fe Opera’s hit production of the season, Gioachino Rossini’s La Donna del Lago, a co-production with New York’s Metropolitan Opera. So popular is the production here that SFO added a performance August 19. The reasons are the opera’s glorious bel canto score and the glorious company assembled to sing it.

Joyce DiDonato as Elena
All photos by Ken Howard
Courtesy Santa Fe Opera
Based by librettist Andrea Leone Tottola on a long poem by Sir Walter Scott, La Dona del Lago (The Lady of the Lake) premiered in 1819 in Naples, received numerous productions worldwide, and then went unperformed for nearly a century before being resurrected in 1958 in Florence. The work became a vehicle for major divas and divos such as soprano Kiri Te Kanawa and mezzo-sopranos Frederica  von Stade, Marilyn Horne and Stephanie Blake, and on the distaff side, tenors Bruce Fowler, Juan Diego Flórez and Lawrence Brownlee. Brownlee sings the role of Uberto/King James in Santa Fe with mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato in the title role. DiDonato has sung the role to great acclaim at Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and Opera Garnier in Paris.

The plot is fairly inscrutable. To simplify, just know that all the men are in love with Elena, the Lady of the Lake (DiDonato), so called because she lives on a lake in the Highlands of Scotland and commutes daily by skiff to the mainland, where she makes her first entrance, picks lots of heather, and encounters numerous shepherds and hunters as well as a stranger named Uberto (actually King James V in disguise, sung by Brownlee).
Brownlee as Uberto

Unknown to Elena, he has been looking for her to find out if she is as beautiful a woman as they say. Elena and James were tutored in his father’s court by Elena’s father, Duglas (bass Wayne Tigges), who in exile took her to Lake Katrine where they live the simple life, tended by Duglas’ servant Serano (tenor Joshua Dennis) and Elena’s confidante Albina (soprano Lucy Sauter).

Uberto, who has fallen in love with Elena, appears visibly shaken and so in the Scots tradition of hospitality, she takes him home with her. Apparently it is morning, a time when a couple dozen of Elena’s closest friends appear with food and consolation. Though she doesn’t confess all to Uberto, Elena, too, is disconsolate because she loves Malcolm (astounding Italian mezzo-soprano Marianna Pizzolato in the trouser role, in this case, a kilt role).

His advances having been spurned, Uberto departs, and then Malcolm appears, followed shortly by Duglas, who announces to Elena that she is to be wed to the Highland warrior Rodrigo (tenor René Barbera). Elena delays her departure for the military encampment long enough to share a rapturous duet with Malcolm, who follows and pledges his allegiance to Rodrigo’s forces, soon to battle the King James’s army.
Pizzolato as Malcolm

Rodrigo, too, is passionately in love with Elena, so that makes three vying for her love. No wonder – a woman so beautiful who sings like that and remains unsullied even through fierce battle! Elena has yet to discover that Uberto is actually the king, but even that does not sway our virtuous, faithful beauty, who spurns Uberto a second time unknowing. Uberto gives her a ring to protect her and her family in the coming battle, saying he received it from the king in return for a favor.

Thus it is, that with Rodrigo killed in battle and the Highlanders defeated, Elena, Duglas and Malcolm go to James’ court where they are received by Uberto, to whom his courtiers bow. Finally, the stupefied Elena realizes who he is (she may be a slow learner), thanks him for the boon, and, her beloveds pardoned, sings the great bel canto paean of forgiveness and joy, “Tanti Affretti.”
Barbera, DiDonato, and Brownle

All depart in joy, especially the audience, regaled with splendid singing and beauty for nearly three hours. DiDonato, Brownlee and Pizzolato are the dream company, and they are stalwartly supported by tenor Barbera, Tigges, the magnificently trained chorus, male, female and tutti, and director Paul Curran, who de-obfuscates as much as humanly possible, assisted by Kevin Knight’s imaginatively designed set and Highland drab costumes. One wishes only for better time of day delineation in Duane Schuler’s lighting, but after all it is the Scots Highlands.

La Donna del Lago’s sold-out final performance is August 18. The curious must wait; along with the ecstatic SFO opera lovers who witnessed it live (among them Ruth Bader Ginsberg and composer Jake Heggie), to see the production at the Met, and hopefully in HD transmission as well.

Tonight we see the highly anticipated SFO production Jacques Offenbach’s comic opera, The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein with Susan Graham in the title role.

As an aside, composer Heggie is currently writing an opera for DiDonato with Terence McNally. DiDonato and Graham are among his frequent interpreters, collaborators and friends. It is a treat to see both divas so elegantly showcased.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Charlene Baldridge
Photo by Ken Howard

Marriage of Figaro at Santa Fe Opera

Santa Fe, August 14, 2013 – We viewed the second of five operas on our Santa Fe Opera agenda – a very traditional, no surprises production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Textually (da Ponte) this is the bittersweet comedy that in the canon of works derived from Beaumarchais stories continues the adventures of the young lovers, Rosina and Count Almaviva, who spoiled Doctor Bartolo’s plans to marry Rosina in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.

Some years have passed. Rosina, now Countess Almaviva (Susanna Phillips) laments the fact that the Count (bass-baritone “barihunk” Daniel Okulitch) no longer desires her. Indeed, he fancies, among others, Susanna (soprano Lisette Oropesa), his lady’s maid, who is that day, with a promised dowry from the Count, set to marry his manservant, Figaro (baritone Zachary Nelson). It’s the same clever Figaro who aided Rosina and the Count’s elopement in the Rossini opera. The other libidinous male in the household is the young and inexperienced, yet randy, Cherubino (mezzo-soprano Emily Fons in the trouser role), who fancies every skirt in sight, the Countess’s, Susanna’s, and even those of the Gardener’s (bass Adam Lau) daughter Barbarina (soprano Rachel Hall). When it comes to love and lechery, there are no bounds of class.
Emily Fons as Cherubino, Lisette Oropesa as Susanna
All photos by Ken Howard

Doctor Bartolo (bass-baritone Dale Travis) and his housekeeper Marcellina (mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer) arrive. Marcellina intends to force Figaro to marry her because she holds an old promissory note stipulating that in the event he forfeits, he must wed her.
Susanna Phillips as the Countess

Daniel Okulitch as Count Almaviva

To say that complications ensue is understatement. To attempt to explicate the twists and turns, lies, alliances, motives, and switches of identity would be foolhardy. Let us just say that all are properly chastised and wed at the end of the opera. The denouement takes a century to arrive; the path as twisted as that in scenic designer Paul Brown’s flower garden, which seems to cultivate nosegays already differentiated, profuse, ready for the picking, and thorny enough that they present difficulty of navigation to costume designer Brown’s period skirts. Thereby may hang a metaphor. No matter how twisted and briery the path, however, the trip is worth taking due to Mozart’s genius for melody and intricate ensemble work. The production is directed by Bruce Donnell, lighted by Duane Schuler and conducted by John Nelson. Susanne Sheston’s chorus is well heard and delightfully turned out.
Zachary Nelson as Figaro
Lisette Oropesa as Susanna

Each Nelson and Okulitch arrives touted as the nth degree of machismo and intense stage virility and vocal allure to match. Though Okulitch’s jackets were the envy of my male companion (I was impressed with the cut and fabric as well), I was underwhelmed by these paragons of masculinity. Neither has the rich operatic voice that calls one to jump in and luxuriate a while.

Phillips fielded a passable “Porgi Amor” and an interesting “Dove Sono.” Her noisy quaff and slamming down of the Count’s drink in Act II displayed her anger and determination, but as my companion remarked she should have lobbed her badly styled, unflattering wig into the garden as she made exit. The high point of vocalism was Oropesa’s “Deh Vieni.” She is a sweet, wily Susanna and quite literally leaves the men behind in the shrubs and garden houses.

Tonight we see the SFO and Metropolitan Opera coproduction of Rossini’s La Donna del Lago (The Lady of the Lake) with Joyce DiDonato and Lawrence Brownlee.

For further information about SFO productions this season and next, go to