The Santa Fe Opera, the iconic New Mexico opera festival and the oldest festival in the country, has weathered the economic crisis with some shrewd cost-cutting, but this summer’s season, heard last week, stayed true to the company’s tradition of combining many performances of audience favorites with a few of less-familiar operas.
As if to justify these ventures off the beaten path, the triumph of the summer was a revival of Daniel Slater’s psychologically penetrating staging of Berg’s “Wozzeck,” from 2001, in which the paranoia and auditory hallucinations experienced by the title character are reinforced onstage, most memorably by a menacing, even zombie-like, chorus. The minor role of the Fool, who has a two-line exchange with Wozzeck, is expanded as a supernumerary (played with creepy menace by apprentice singer Randall Bills) who shadows Wozzeck, prompting murderous thoughts and propelling the opera to its tragic end.
The season’s other 20th-century opera, Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Last Savage,” is about a spoiled American girl who captures and tries to civilize an Indian man who has never encountered modern society, or so she thinks. This comic opera, eviscerated by critics at its premiere, was given a worthwhile second chance in a blockbuster production by Ned Canty, complete with bearded, tattooed swamis dancing in white turbans and loincloths. It provided an ideal screwball counterweight to Berg’s tragic intensity, and its melodic beauty and adherence to traditional operatic forms such as arias and ensembles call for a reassessment.
“The Last Savage” may not be a masterpiece, and some trimming would be a good idea, but the composer’s admiration for Rossini, Verdi and Puccini is clear in some haunting tunes and a rhythmically rollicking overture. Menotti’s embrace of tonal tradition is made evident polemically in a parody of the “aleadodecaphonic style,” a brilliant aping of a Sprechstimme song by Schoenberg or Webern in the second act. Although dissonance is a part of his harmonic vocabulary, Menotti here attempted a fusion of opera with jazz, musical theater and Gilbert and Sullivan-style operetta.
At the podium, it was the first season for the company’s new chief conductor, Frédéric Chaslin, whose career abroad included work in Rouen, France; Mannheim, Germany; Vienna; and Jerusalem. In Chaslin’s first appearance at Santa Fe, in 2009, he led an idiosyncratic “La Traviata” for Natalie Dessay’s debut as Violetta, and his suave handling of Gounod’s “Faust” this year, the company’s first staging of this French romantic classic, had the company’s talented orchestra sounding its best. Chaslin’s latest book, “Music in Every Sense,” includes some provocative ideas about the future of French composition after Boulez, adding up to what is sure to be exciting leadership at the Santa Fe Opera during Chaslin’s tenure.
Among the guest conductors, David Robertson, music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, gave an opulent, assured reading of “Wozzeck,” and the zany romp through “The Last Savage” was ably overseen in the pit by George Manahan, whose position as music director at the New York City Opera was just eliminated.
“Faust” received the most lavish production, in a circus-flavored setting by Stephen Lawless, oddly with none of the grotesquerie saved for the restored Walpurgisnacht ballet, which seemed bloodless and a little polite. Standing out among the cast was the magnificent Siébel of mezzo-soprano Jennifer Holloway, with velour-smooth legato and shining high notes in the character’s two poignant arias. Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, featured in recent seasons by Wolf Trap Opera, displayed a full-throated tone and agile comic timing as the elephantine Maharanee in “The Last Savage” and the randy Marthe in “Faust.”
Contralto Meredith Arwady and mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard sounded in top form, with virtuosic da capo embellishments, in the first major American production of Vivaldi’s “Griselda,” a garishly colored but incoherent staging by Peter Sellars, in collaboration with mural artist Gronk.
The vocal discovery of the season was Mexican tenor David Lomelí, a winner of the 2006 Operalia Competition, who sang a world-class Rodolfo in the revival of Paul Curran’s rather drab production of Puccini’s “La Bohème,” from 2007, seconded by the plangent Colline of Christian Van Horn. Character singer Thomas Hammons, an apprentice at the Santa Fe Opera in the 1970s, had hilarious cameos as Benoît and Alcindoro in “La Bohème” and a meatier role as the Maharajah in “The Last Savage,” matched at every step in the latter by bass Kevin Burdette as Mr. Scattergood, with comic timing as sharp and a more robust voice.
In a funny textual interpolation in “The Last Savage,” the Maharanee, flowing over the edges of her rolling pink chaise, listened to some options for her favorite pastime, playing the stock market. When her assistant read, “Santa Fe Opera, down seven points,” Barton responded with a knowing wink, “Buy!” Go and do likewise.
Performances continue at the Santa Fe Opera through Aug. 27.
Downey is a freelance writer.