Odious and Peculiar

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Saturday, August 11, 2012
Operas so far....

We actually went to opening night this year, as it happened to be Mrs. Peculiar's birthday. Tosca was on offer, and it was a decent workmanlike Tosca. The tenor, Brian Jagde, stepped in late in the game after the scheduled performer found himself afoul of New Mexico allergies; he was quite good, if not quite stunning. The same goes for Amanda Echalaz, the soprano. Raymond Aceto was sadly rather underpowered as Scarpia, a disappointment as much of Tosca's appeal is to delight in Scarpia's black villainy. The productions main characteristic was that vertical objects like the church dome and the heights of Castel Sant'Angelo were turned horizontal. I suppose what this achieved was to make the audience disoriented and therefore more willing to suspend disbelief, and to exhort them to contemplate death by falling. But it wasn't really distracting, and aside from a clumsy scene change the whole thing chugged along nicely. We're thinking of going back in standing room for one of the last performances, which will have the estimable Thomas Hampson stepping in as Scarpia.

Last night was The Pearl Fishers by Bizet, which turned out to be an exceedingly silly opera. I've never been a huge fan of Carmen, alas, so I was happy to hear something else from Bizet. It's pretty much a paint-by-numbers grand opera: love triangle; decent, loyal baritone in a bad position; virgin soprano priestess who turns out to be remarkably easy; bass oppressor; and an ardent tenor with the foresight and self-control of an ungulate during the rut.

The famous baritone/tenor duet proved indeed to be the opera's highlight. Bizet apparently knew it too, inasmuch as he later quotes it whenever he wants to evoke some easy poignancy. But there were certainly some other good bits. The tenor had a very nice aria in Act II, the love duet wasn't bad, and there was a good thunderstorm with angry mob. And the end, in which the entire village is burned so the feckless tenor and soprano can escape, was entertainingly amoral. Bizet's orientalist touches were unfortunately pretty weak in this one, and it generally felt like the plot wasn't enough to carry a full-scale opera; it would have done better condensed to a one-act offering in the fashion of Les Indes Galantes*.

The soprano, Nicole Cabell, was excellent and held the evening together, with the added benefit that she looked her part, beautiful and dusky with no suspension of disbelief required. Tenor Eric Cutler also cut a fine figure. Wayne Tigges, the wicked bass, was a bit wasted on the small role; I really wanted to see his character take charge and start dishing it out, but it's not that kind of opera. The set was a rather spare subcontinental temple, complete with stone Buddha foot, but with the odd addition of a giant picture frame. This worked nicely to frame a dumbshow flashback during the big duet, but failed to be very meaningful otherwise.

Lest I sound too negative, it's always worth remembering that the sheer amount of human genius required to compose and stage even a merely adequate opera is staggeringly high. I can't muster much reverence for The Pearl Fishers, but a night of fine singing, an excellent orchestra (always the case in Santa Fe) and melodrama is a pleasure never to be sneezed at. I'm looking forward to some odder offerings in the next couple week: Strauss' Arabella and Rossini's obscurity Maometto Secondo.

* Speaking of which, I regret to say that I don't think we'll be seeing this production at the Santa Fe Opera, adjacent to Tesuque Pueblo, anytime soon:

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"Walk like an Egyptian" Bangles video from the 80's plus pipes? I mean WHAT IS WITH THE FRICKIN PIPES???
Dans le livret, c'est une "Danse du Grand Calumet de la Paix, exécutée par les Sauvages."
Who's that in the back row, the Jamestown colonists?
French and Spaniards: this is of course "the deserts of Louisiana" (to quote a different opera) that we're dealing with.
I should have known that from the traditional Choctaw feather headdress.
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