Blogging the Santa Fe opera season is a tradition here on O&P, and this year will be no exception. However, high standards for individual posts on each production have led me to blow off blogging the last couple performances over the last couple years. This sucks, not least because I didn't post on The Letter last year, which was awesome, bringing to mind Puccini, Janacek and Strauss, made one happy about the future of opera. So I'm doing them all in one mildly drunken post this year, in the order we saw them. We gave Life is a Dream a miss; the plot actually sounds rather good and well-suited for opera, but the music was not recommended unless you were in the mood for atonalism. We were not.
Tales of Hoffman: This was my first listen all the way through, and I must say it's not going to become one of my favorite operas. Poets and their muses; one woman in three aspects; drunken, artistic stupors: I just don't have the sympathy for these things that I did in high school. Hoffman is a study in random weirdness, and this year's production decided to amplify the weirdness rather than organize it. However, I had no complaints about the musical performance. The orchestra was in good form, and the singers rocked it. There was a stand-in as Lindorf/Various Bad Guys/Satan; alas, I didn't catch his name, but he was clearly having the time of his life, and stole most of his scenes. Also of note was mezzo Kate Lindsey, who played Hoffman's Muse/Nicklausse: besides being really good looking, her singing was a delight, whenever the production could spare her from sprawling languidly on the furniture. And in her Nicklausse incarnation, she got to be the only character who talked a word of sense. Some ambitious composer could make a rather good sequel in which Nicklausse leaves Hoffman in a gutter and proceeds to do something intelligent and worthwhile.
Madame Butterfly: Just about perfect. Puccini performs so well, he made these things pretty foolproof. Still, this was just bloody good, the kind of production Santa Fe really does well, naturalistic but light, making a little scenery go a long way. The only criticism I could think of was that the set representing Butterfly's home shouldn't have had to spin around quite that many times. Kelly Kaduce (also easy on the eyes; the fat lady stereotype is really a thing of the past) absolutely nailed the title role, and committed very satisfyingly convincing and gory seppuku at the end. Pinkerton got booed at the curtain call; I assume this is a tradition, as the tenor did not at all disappoint. (This is a mild response to a despicable opera character; Italian baritones have had to dodge real bullets when playing Iago.)
The Magic Flute: This was a revival of the production from a few years back. I liked it well enough the first time, but it may please be retired. It did not reward a second viewing. Maybe it was an off night, but the performance seemed a little phoned-in in every way. The conductor's pacing was a little flabby, and Audrey Elizabeth Luna was just not up to The Queen of the Night. Her coloratura was out of control, the high notes in the Act I aria brought to mind a countertenor camel, and she managed (deliberately or otherwise) to get laughs out of the Act II number by her bodily twitching. That's just wrong. The opera is comic, but Der Hölle Rache is not.
The performance was saved by a very good Pamina (Ekaterina Siurina) and an amazing Sarastro (Andrea Silvestrelli). (I do see a certain logic to the current trend of casting the better singers as Pamina; a good Pamina is an excellent thing, but this breaks down if the Queen is absolutely not up to it.) Silvestrelli's first notes made you feel like the sound was coming from inside your own chest, giving rise to fears about the resonant frequencies of ribcages. He sounded like an opera-singing walrus, and I mean that as a complement!
Happily, we had friends in town for this one, and they got a perfect Santa Fe opera experience. We tailgated, with a lot of great Vietnamese food and New Mexico's excellent Gruet blanc de noirs. The sunset was absolutely incredible, even by our high standards, with ranks of clouds traversing every shade of yellow, vermilion and red, while each finger mesa of the Jemez stood out in shades of purple. And when we went to take our standing-room spots (we planned this one a little late), the staff practically dragged us by our necks to fill some inexplicably empty sixty-dollar seats. Such boons incline one to forgive a lot in a performance.
Albert Herring: One has to see any opera with the word herring in the title. God, this was good! The plot is as perfect a plot as exists anywhere: no young ladies of sufficient virtue are to be had, so a young man is elected Queen of the May. Then he gets drunk. Santa Fe has been doing great things with Benjamin Britten for a while now, and everything about this was perfect. Kate Lindsey was in this one too, as a village tart (Nancy) of outwardly loose but inwardly compassionate morals; she can act as well as sing. The Vicar (Wayne Tigges) embodied everything that annoys one in vicars. The Mayor (Mark Schowalter) was straight out of Graham Oakley's Wortlethorpe. The village brats were cute but decidedly bratty. Lady Billows (Christine Brewer) was perfectly insufferable (how nice it musty be for physically large singers to play fat English ladies instead of 16-year-old ingenues!). Mrs. Herring (Judith Christin) may possibly have been a Monty Python member in drag ("Oooh, well I never!"). And Albert himself (Alek Shrader) gave a very, very fine performance. So did everyone else. And the scenery was spot-on, convincing and detailed without being distracting. At this point, I'd say any Britten in Santa Fe is absolutely a must-see.