Santa Fe Opera Enjoys a Unique Cachet 

<>                                              By Paul Hertelendy 
        artssf.com, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area music and dance 
                                                                 Week of Aug.  6-13, 2012
                                                                  Vol. 15, No. 6
            SANTA FE, NM---The Santa Fe (summer) Opera offers prime voices that would be a credit to any company anywhere, understandably drawing audiences both local and out-of-state. And the ultra-dry 7,000-ft. altitude doesn't faze them in the least.

            The cognocenti come prepared for vagaries of weather---shirt-sleeves these balmy evenings, and wraps for the late-season chills. Sometimes an umbrella too. The adventure of the high-desert weather more than compensates for the frequently  Spartan productions on stage. It all adds up to the impetus of opera-going, which devotees consider an indispensable ingredient of the ritual..

            Richard Strauss's "Arabella" (1933) recaptured the glories of earlier romanticism, reprising the spirit of "Rosenkavalier" of a generation earlier, without quite matching the intoxicating melodiousness of before. This scene set in pre-World-War-One Vienna is a social critique of the shallow Old-Guard families gone decadent, unable to cope with the changes, concerned only with their egos, clothes and clubs, plus the desire to marry off their daughters to some wealthy, socially prominent man. The one who captures the heart of daughter Arabella is a nouveau-riche outsider from Slavonia (Croatia) who represents a contemporary vitality, but is saddled with a sense of inferiority. The tale marks the end of an era: the decline of the old, Arabella giving up her "girlhood" to marry the outsider Mandryka, and the silliness of dictates of convention in society. This is also a theme that speaks to our times.

            The ultimate excess of the family’s pretentions  was in dressing up Arabella's sister Zdenka as a young man so as to focus all male attention on the other eligible girl.

            Strauss quite clearly fell in love with his heroines, Arabella being glorified as few heroines on stage today. He (and his brilliant librettist Hofmannsthal) idolized the image of the perfect eligible virgin, surrounded by suitors, unblemished by innuendo, heroic on her own way.    

            The mainstay was Mark Delevan playing Mandryka the outsider, showing the robust well-founded bass-baritone that has made him a formidable Wotan in various "Ring" cycles around the world. He showed the contrasting facets of the swain: Inhibited before Arabella, confident with the father, generous in his spending, and totally cowed with the seeming infidelity of his fiancee.

            Faced with possible suicide of another swain who was spurned, Arabella's sister Zdenka plays the boy  role and gives the latter the alleged key to Arabella's room, where Zdenka plays the stand-in under cover of darkness. (We will conveniently overlook the fact that she is about 6 inches shorter than the sister.) When the whole cast meets up in the lobby at midnight, every one is duped as well until Zdenka confesses to her ruse to save a man's life, and to save her sister's betrothal as well. Just like "Rosenkavalier," this plot was seen as pretty racy for the early 20th century.

The Canadian soprano Erin Wall, heard at the S.F. Symphony in Beethoven’s Ninth in June, played the title role with a serviceable voice that finally opens up attractively above the staff, and did Arabella convincingly when heard Aug. 1. She was abetted eloquently by mezzo Victoria Livengood (Adelaide) and the canary tones of Kiri Deonarine (Fiakermilli) reaching a stratosphere even higher than the Sangre de Cristo Mountains looming nearby. As is common in Strauss, there are no serious tenor roles. With Sir Andrew Davis conducting, the orchestra was sumptuous, playing with inspiration as if they were twice the number. Can any one pinpoint just where all the Davis magic is coming from?

            San Francisco Opera devotees have a real treat in store in the upcoming "Capulets and Montagues," as the superb young lyric soprano Nicole Cabell previewed her talents in Bizet's "Pearl Fishers" here. There was not much to praise about the show visually, with its skimpy, mishmash of sets and superficial cultural fidelity to Ceylon. But when the Leila of Ms. Cabell launched into duets with the lover Nadir, the opera house came resoundingly alive. Nadir was played by the spinto tenor Eric Cutler, whom I can readily visualize triumphing in the very sort of roles that the young Placido Domingo used to take on. The lyrical score of this opera of course is highly appealing, showing even influences of Verdi (in the act-two finale). But apart from a sterling chorus, and the conducting of Emmanuel Villaume, there was little else to recommend this opus. The melodies are soaring, but the tale is pure hokum, thin as a reed.

            If the Santa Fe productions are often sparse, blame it on  the absence of overhead space to fly scenery and make quick changes. All the sets have to be laboriously wheeled on and off the stage by stage-hands, who by this stage of the season must surely be muscular enough for the Olympics.

            Santa Fe Opera in repertory. Strauss' "Arabella," through Aug. 23, three hours; Bizet's "Pearl-Fishers," 2.5 hrs. English translations provided. Opera House, Santa Fe, NM through Aug. 25. For info: (505) 986-5900, or go online.
        ©Paul Hertelendy 2012

           Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish -- and a certain amount of salsa -- for years.
    These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.

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