Promising 'Adriana' Could Use a Drama Lesson

David Daniels sings the title role in the Santa Fe Opera production of Handel's 1720
David Daniels sings the title role in the Santa Fe Opera production of Handel's 1720 "Radamisto." (By Ken Howard -- Santa Fe Opera)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 4, 2008

SANTA FE, N.M. -- The music is brooding, pregnant with feelings left unspoken. Clouds of sound swirl in the orchestra pit, pierced with shafts of light from a solo flute or the touch of a bell. Kaija Saariaho, the Finnish composer, knows how to write for an orchestra.

"Adriana Mater," her second opera, which had its American premiere at the Santa Fe Opera last week, is a story of war and rape and revenge, told from a woman's point of view. On paper, it is laudable; to the ear, it is powerful; and Santa Fe, which had a success with Saariaho's "L'Amour de Loin" in 2002, has cast it well.

But as a drama, the piece fails. In Peter Sellars's static production, with luminous sets by George Tsypin, it sits onstage like an undigested lump of oratorio. Amin Maalouf's libretto repeats itself over and over, driving the story into the ground, though the music, conducted with some sensitivity by Ernest Martinez Izquierdo, surges around it, trying to bring it to life.

The Santa Fe Opera is known for putting on new and unusual works. Of course, when John Crosby founded the company in 1957, Richard Strauss's operas qualified as "new and unusual." Crosby staged a Strauss opera every year; Richard Gaddes, his successor, has given the audience some respite from this regimen, but said that the company has "essentially . . . not changed in its mission from the repertory of 40 years ago." Gaddes has been involved with the company in one way or another, on and off, since its inception; but at the end of the summer he will be replaced by Charles MacKay, heretofore the general director of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, which Gaddes founded in 1976. (In opera, the incest isn't only onstage.)

The end of an era? That idea had more currency when Gaddes took over from Crosby in 2000. But Gaddes only built on Santa Fe's traditions: a balance of new work and standard repertory, a mix of stars (like the countertenor David Daniels, who made his company debut this summer in Handel's "Radamisto") and new talent (like Heidi Stober, who played the prince Tigrane in the same opera). He has improved the conducting, instituting a music director for the first time: Alan Gilbert, who will take over the New York Philharmonic in 2009, held the post for four years, though it is now in the more prosaic hands of the mediocre veteran Edo de Waart. Gaddes, furthermore, appears to be leaving the company in good financial health: The budget has nearly doubled during his tenure, to $17 million.

On Friday night, "Radamisto" was a good illustration of what conducting can do for a performance. Harry Bicket has been pigeonholed as a baroque specialist for a reason; he led a vivid, taut reading, with crisp details, that seemed to energize everyone involved. It was particularly striking that the brass generally sounded so good under Bicket, since in Britten's "Billy Budd," the night before, they had sounded quite awful under de Waart.

"Radamisto," the first opera Handel wrote for the Royal Academy of Music in London, is infused with the freshness and drama that in 1720 carried it to success. The arias are telling and varied, from the heavy anguish of Polissena (Laura Claycomb), who has the misfortune actually to love her tyrannical husband, Tiridate, to the ardent Radamisto, conveyed with fire and mellow sweetness in a performance by Daniels as good as any I have heard from him. As Tiridate, Luca Pisaroni showed an exciting bass-baritone that got a little barky (he is also singing the title role in "The Marriage of Figaro" here); Stober sang with commitment and brilliance.

In this production, Tigrane was a fat, balding, fez-wearing bureaucrat from central casting, incongruous amid the robed princes around him. It was the most conspicuous interpretive gesture from the stage director, David Alden, whose work many people hate but I have always found at worst ineffective and at best intriguing. This production landed somewhere in the middle. Gideon Davey's sets spread a loud floral pattern reminiscent of Chinese restaurant wallpaper across an abstract, constricting set with a few animals (crows, peacocks, a tiger) to provide symbolism; the wallpaper gradually yielded to a mirrored surface, echoing the crumbling of Tiridate's facade.

If Gaddes has partly replaced Strauss with Britten in Santa Fe's pantheon, "Billy Budd" was evidence, if any is needed, that this step is justified. Even de Waart's sloppiness couldn't mask the authority of the orchestral writing, culminating in the keening, spasmodic chords during the offstage confrontation in which Captain Vere informs his crewman Billy that he has been condemned to death.

Paul Curran's production was unexceptional. The ship's deck, in Robert Innes Hopkins's set, looked fine against the sunset (Santa Fe's theater is open at the sides and back), and the sailors flung themselves into the rigging with authentic-seeming gusto. But the whole thing was earthbound by literalness from the first entrance, when Vere in his old age (the opera is a flashback) came staggering onto the scene. William Burden, the tenor who played Vere, has the ringing yet light firmness this role requires (though he cannot bring off a strong vocal climax). Claggart, the master-at-arms determined to bring Billy down, is a difficult part, partly subtle and partly a cartoon villain; Peter Rose, though a doughty bass, was slightly shallow. With Teddy Tahu Rhodes, the company had a singer with the looks and physique to play Billy, who is supposed to be a perfect human specimen. But Rhodes was not always able to use his fine voice effectively, lacking an upper register and some of the communicative skills to carry, for instance, his hauntingly beautiful last-act aria past simple notes into real expression.

"Adriana Mater" has a similar problem. While it is drenched in emotion (Jonas, the child of Adriana's rape, is a bundle of adolescent rage, sung by Joseph Kaiser with adolescent rawness), it lacks the specificity that creates credible character. The figures seem meant to be larger than life: Adriana (Monica Groop, a lyrical mezzo) approaching sainthood, her sister Refka (the able soprano Pia Freund) a hand-wringing worrier, and the rapist Tsargo a blunt villain (powerfully sung by Matthew Best). But in lieu of telling details, we got the dull drumbeat of repeated confrontation, though the moment when the son faces his father, only to find he cannot kill him, was illustrated with beautiful musical restraint, a counterpoint to the force of the moment.

Gaddes is leaving Santa Fe with another new opera for next summer: "The Letter," with music by Paul Moravec, libretto by the critic Terry Teachout, and the soprano Patricia Racette in a lead role. On paper, in short, it looks great: and like "Adriana Mater," even if it proves flawed it should be worth seeing -- upholding a generally good track record.

The Santa Fe Opera continues through Aug. 23; more information athttp://www.santafeopera.org.

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