In Santa Fe, Concepts Without Connections

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 27, 2009

SANTA FE, N.M. -- When John Crosby founded the summer opera company here in 1957, he came up into the hills north of town and fired a gun to find a setting with the perfect acoustics and the right echo.

Shots were fired again Saturday night, opening the world premiere of the opera "The Letter." But they sounded a little flimsy, as if fired from a cap gun. The opera could have offered a lot more bang for the buck.

The Santa Fe Opera's open-air theater, its sides and backstage open to the mountain night, remains one of the best places in the country to hear opera and has introduced many leading singers. This season marks the start of the company's third administration since its founding (Charles MacKay, formerly of Opera Theater of St. Louis, has succeeded Richard Gaddes as general director), and the season follows the traditional formula of five productions that mingle war horses and more unusual repertoire, with a few established singers leading generally young casts.

Most notable, this season, are Natalie Dessay's first "La Traviata" -- a role the French soprano is scheduled to sing at the Metropolitan Opera and La Scala -- and "The Letter," Santa Fe's first commission since Bright Sheng's "Madame Mao" in 2003.

Unfortunately, neither production hits the mark. Each appeared to be the result of a group of talented people energetically following the instructions in some hypothetical opera playbook and proudly producing an array of carefully wrought details while entirely missing the actual point.

"The Letter" is by an impressively credentialed team -- the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul Moravec and the prolific theater critic Terry Teachout (who has written in the past for The Washington Post) -- working, laudably, in the service of entertainment.

Basing their opera on the Somerset Maugham play and short story that inspired two Hollywood films (including William Wyler's 1940 version with Bette Davis) and two made-for-TV adaptations, they set out to write an opera that would match George Bernard Shaw's description of "Il Trovatore": dramatic, fast-paced, appealing to the senses rather than the intellect.

But they failed. "The Letter" is all form and little content. The material, to be sure, is eminently dramatic: Maugham based it on the true story of a married woman who killed her lover in a jealous rage, then claimed she was acting in self-defense because he tried to rape her. (Maugham upped the ante, and found his title, by having the heroine, Leslie Crosbie, write the victim, Geoff Hammond, a letter that becomes potentially incriminating evidence; her lawyer buys the letter to save her life.)

But in adhering to the rules of opera -- we must have arias and ensembles -- Moravec and librettist Teachout repeatedly show a tin ear for the exigencies of drama. The arias keep obtruding at inopportune moments to spell out things that don't need spelling out ("What have I done? I've killed him. He is gone forever"). They bring the action to a screeching halt.

And Moravec's music, though adroitly written, stays behind the words, supporting the action rather than dictating it. The arias hardly emerge, and the music proceeds one phrase at a time.

Santa Fe rolled out the red carpet for its production. Patricia Racette, Anthony Michaels-Moore and James Maddalena were the three leads; Patrick Summers conducted; and the fashion designer Tom Ford designed costumes so strongly influenced by the 1940 film that he tried to dress Racette like Bette Davis -- managing to make a beautiful, curvaceous woman look dumpy.

The singers did their best with roles from which most character or interest had been stripped. Michaels-Moore sang strongly but played a wimpy husband; Racette was as passionate as possible playing a woman reduced to cliche.

The spirit of the film also hovered over the approach of the director, Jonathan Kent, particularly in the demeanor of Ong (Rodell Rosel), who arranges the purchase of the letter, and the Chinese woman who was Hammond's other lover (Mika Shigematsu, looking better than she sounded). The opera also resurrected the dead Hammond, in flashback, to provide Racette with a tenor partner for a love duet; Roger Honeywell wielded his voice with force and some good individual notes, but the duet's music never got off the ground.

'La Traviata'

Natalie Dessay's Violetta, seen Friday, appeared to divide audiences into two camps. For those who liked Dessay, there was a lot to like, since she did what she usually does. In Act 1, she was a party-hearty girl, looking like a visitor from an Offenbach operetta in a hot-pink dress and lace-up boots, making her entrance with a piercing scream, which she repeated as she lunged, pirouetted, and even walked on the raised hands of the men's chorus like a Chinese acrobat.

In Act 2, she reprised her portrayal of "The Daughter of the Regiment," a ragamuffin tomboy in pants and her lover's shirt. In the last act, she was more conventionally clad in a white nightgown. All of this liveliness and variety went over fabulously with most of the audience.

But it didn't add up, for me, to a convincing Violetta. And vocally, the role was about three sizes too big for her. It's possible to sing Violetta with a smaller voice -- Elizabeth Futral managed the feat at Washington National Opera last fall -- but Dessay kept hurling herself at the score as if her voice would grow, and she often sounded worn and patchy as a result. Her best moments came when she held still and focused -- some of the coloratura in "Sempre libera," the concluding pianissimo in "Addio del passato" -- but they were isolated.

The production didn't help. This was a very French "Traviata": Laurent Pelly directed, Chantal Thomas designed the blocky sets (which reminded many of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin), Frederic Chaslin made his company debut with a meticulous and nuanced reading in the pit, and Germont was portrayed by Laurent Naouri, Mr. Dessay in real life, looking uncannily like Giuseppe Verdi and singing with moments of real beauty in his voice. Naouri ended Germont's aria embracing his son almost like a lover; when Alfredo (the bright, monochromatic tenor Saimir Pirgu) angrily cast him off, Naouri stepped back and delivered the cabaletta, seldom done in performance, with such genuine feeling that it was one of the most moving moments in the opera.

The problem was that there were too few genuine moments. The performances -- even Chaslin's clean work in the pit -- felt calculated. The result was a "Traviata" that aimed at achieving effects rather than delving into the characters, the emotion or the music. It was as if visitors from another planet had found an unknown object and offered a detailed scientific analysis of it without ever understanding what it was.

The Santa Fe Opera season continues through Aug. 29. The other three operas this season are "The Elixir of Love," "Don Giovanni" and "Alceste."

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