Fine singing, acting distinguish 2014 Santa Fe Opera season

Fine singing, acting distinguish 2014 Santa Fe Opera season

A cloudy week didn't dampen the spirits of Santa Fe Opera fans.
A cloudy week didn't dampen the spirits of Santa Fe Opera fans. (Credit: T. Ponick)

SANTA FE, N.M., August 8, 2014 – Your peripatetic reviewer has arrived back in Virginia after spending an interesting musical week in not entirely sunny Santa Fe. I’d traveled out West at the tail end of July to take in the Santa Fe Opera’s intriguing 2014 offerings, and now I’m reporting back on what I discovered this year at one of the nation’s most interesting and distinctive opera venues.

Although this company’s opera season actually starts quietly earlier in the summer, it kicks into full gear in late July each year when it stages its entire slate of operas in repertory over the following month or so. Hence the timing of my trip.

Not entirely sunny we say? Old friends of this reviewer, who had moved permanently to the southern part of New Mexico two years ago, tell us that the months of July and August are traditionally the “monsoon” season in much of the American Southwest. So daily bipolar weather is to be expected around this time.

During these annual summer monsoons, the bulk of the region’s otherwise scarce rain generally falls in abundance on parched desert landscapes, filling reservoirs, liberating dry riverbeds to flow once again, and bringing desert plants to bloom.

Unfortunately for the region, over the last several years these monsoonal rains have been decidedly unproductive, leading to severe drought conditions. 2014, however, is proving to be a blessed exception. The rainstorms have been so heavy that, according to newscasts and first-person reports, short-to-intermediate terms drought conditions have nearly been cleared throughout much of New Mexico.

There’s been a bit of a price to be paid for that, though. As we drove up to Santa Fe from the Albuquerque Sunport where our Southwestern jet touched down last week, our tiny Chevy Spark rental car was forced to hide under a bridge for a while to escape an intense thunderstorm and downpour.

After arriving in Santa Fe, thunderstorms like this one descended, almost like clockwork, each and every afternoon, dropping the temperature accordingly.

The Thursday, July 31 storm in Santa Fe was extraordinarily violent. As I headed for the opera, I quickly spotted ominous, heavy, black and almost tornadic cloud formations approaching rapidly and quickly engulfing the peaks of the not-too-distant mountain range. In what seemed like seconds, my plucky little Spark was engulfed in a torrential downpour so heavy that traffic up the hill to the Opera’s Crosby Auditorium slowed to a crawl.

Trapped for quite some time in the parking lot upon arrival, I was late for a pre-opera event and ended up getting fairly soaked en route. But fortunately, the rains diminished before the 8 p.m. curtain time even as lightning bolts flickered ominously in the distance and a surprisingly chill evening wind made most veteran opera patrons glad they’d dressed in layers which is generally a good idea here, as the high desert is not always as hot in the summer as you think it is.

Oddly, however, the slashing storms and chill wind provided an almost ideal atmospheric backdrop to the opening night performance of the company’s new production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio.” Half this opera is set in the gloomy dungeon where the evil Pizarro’s victims await their dismal end, and the weather actually enhanced the mood and verisimilitude of an opera that viscerally explores the themes of freedom, oppression and redemption.

Weather aside—and we really don’t have any complaints, as the rest of each day proved suitably sunny if cloudy—2014 proved a great time to revisit the Santa Fe Opera, where we last reviewed a couple productions in 2012. Taken as a whole, this year’s offerings were, in the main, highly successful productions. The singing was generally quite good. The orchestra was genuinely impressive. And perhaps most importantly for this reviewer, the acting was often extraordinary.

When I started out in the business of reviewing many years ago, I began by reviewing community theater for a pair of local newspapers in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. The area’s theater environment was (and is) surprisingly rich, and I came to appreciate the often-extraordinary effort put out by many of the part-time actors, many of whom could have actually had an acting career if professional theater equity positions were not so relatively scarce in this country.

In any event, it was perhaps not surprising that when I eventually began reviewing music, opera, and occasionally theater for the much bigger Washington Times in 1994, that I often paid as much attention to the acting in operas and Broadway musicals as I did to the music and the singing.

While meaning no offense, today’s opera audiences are no longer satisfied with Brünnhilde-size sopranos and out-of-shape tenors who plunk themselves on stage in costume, singing gloriously on one hand while failing to inhabit their roles on the other.

While understanding that the average opera premise may be faintly ridiculous from the point of realism, today’s audiences want and indeed expect these singing characters to come to life anyway, or at least get close to it. Hence, the expectation that today’s opera stars not only at least resemble the characters that they are playing; but, in fact, try to embody their characters as realistically and believably as possible.

And that was the genuinely notable thread that united all this season’s productions at the Santa Fe Opera. The acting, the very believability of these productions was a significant cut above the ordinary, whether the subject was serious or comic in nature.

In the main, each and every principal singer in each of these operas exhibited extraordinary acting chops that equaled or exceeded his or her vocal abilities. And that was quite a plus, not only for the productions themselves, but also for the paying customers who’d come to see something special and actually did.

A nasty summer cold has slowed my productivity a bit since arriving back in the D.C. area last week. But now I’m good to go, and I’ll be reviewing in rapid succession each of the Santa Fe’s new productions for you over the next few days.

The season includes three operas being presented for the first time in Santa Fe: Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” a pair of one-acts, namely Mozart’s “The Impressario” and Stravinsky’s “Le Rossignol”; and Chinese American composer Huang Ruo’s “Dr. Sun Yat-Sen,” which is receiving its first American production during these performances.

In addition, the company is staging a new “Carmen,” which takes Bizet’s classic and re-imagines it in 20th century Mexico; and a genuinely wacky new production of Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale,” an opera that was last produced here in 1983.

Taking the productions in the order they were seen, we’ll begin our series with a review of SFO’s new “Carmen,” which we’ll be posting shortly.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17