Some companies celebrate anniversaries with a world premiere; but the Santa Fe Opera, which has staged its share of them over the years, is celebrating its 60th anniversary this summer with three rarely-performed 20th-century masterpieces, instead. Samuel Barber’s “Vanessa,” heard for the first time in the company’s history, crowned the season in its opening performance on Saturday evening.
In Gian Carlo Menotti’s taut libretto, set in a manor house in rural Denmark, Vanessa has been waiting for over twenty years for her lost love, Anatol, with her silently hostile mother and her niece Erika. At the start of the opera, an Anatol arrives who turns out to be the lost lover’s son, and he sets about seducing both aunt and niece. When Vanessa asks Erika to read to her in the first scene, Erika chooses Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex,” lines spoken by Oedipus just at the moment when he is revealed on stage having struck out his own eyes. You can guess that the story will not end well.
Soprano Erin Wall had shattering power in the title role, her voice revealing all of Vanessa’s pent-up frustration, but with a striking high pianissimo also in her arsenal. Santa Fe is using Barber’s revision of the score, in three acts instead of four; unfortunately, this meant removing Vanessa’s coloratura escapades in the skating aria, although Wall could surely have done them justice. The mezzo-soprano Virginie Verrez, winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, was equally strong as Erika, both her gestures and her steely voice suggesting the character’s tightly wired repression.
The tenor Zach Borichevsky had a light, controlled sound, bringing out Anatol’s comic goofiness and crass insensitivity. Contralto Helene Schneiderman made a fine company debut as the old Baroness, and James Morris was exemplary as the family doctor, in his drunken excess and paternal care. Leonard Slatkin led a polished rendition of this most beautiful score, with only one moment of disconnect coordinating the onstage orchestra in the Act III party scene, with its charming hints of accordion.
In James Robinson’s stylish staging, black, white, and gray set (by Allen Moyer) and costumes (by James Schuette) were bleached into a 1940s film finish by Christopher Akerlind’s stark lighting. A claustrophobic sitting room, with vertiginously tilting angles, cracked open to reveal more of the grand house, only to clamp back down at the opera’s conclusion when Erika takes Vanessa’s place in the closed-up stillness.
Robinson’s subtle approach suited Barber’s score, in which music gives voice to uncomfortable Strindbergian silences, as in the devastating quintet (“To leave, to break”) near the end of the opera. In Act I Erika, costumed like a prim housekeeper, sat on a tiny child’s stool, leading one to wonder about her place in the drama. Is she Vanessa’s niece or, perhaps, born slightly after Vanessa’s unexplained rift with Anatol the elder, her illegitimate daughter? Suddenly that quotation from “Oedipus Rex” took on new meaning.
Under its founder, John Crosby, Santa Fe was long a bastion of Richard Strauss performance, and that composer’s final opera, “Capriccio,” decidedly odd but intellectually sparkling, had its American professional premiere here in 1958. Two wealthy patrons invite a group of artists to their house outside Paris to discuss a work to be commissioned for the Countess’s birthday. All the arts are represented among the guests, vying for the attention of their patrons, but the plot centers around a discussion of what comes first in opera, music or words; in the end, the Countess commissions an opera that will tell the story of the very evening that has just played out. Unfortunately, Tim Albery, the director, did little to make the work jump off the page. He updated the action to the time of the opera’s premiere in 1942, but without any reference to the horrors that Strauss was trying to forget by writing this escapist work.
The cast has no great Straussians, with the possible exception of Susan Graham, who had some charm here as Clairon. Tenor Ben Bliss, in a strong company debut, excelled in the sonnet scene, which put his high range, light at the top in the best way, in a lovely light. The finest comic acting came in the La Roche of bass-baritone David Govertsen, and the strongest singing by far was the excellent company debut of Galeano Salas, a second-year Santa Fe Opera apprentice from Texas, as the Italian tenor.
Stephen Lawless directed a new production of Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette,” also heard at Santa Fe for the first time. Ailyn Pérez was a firecracker Juliette, a role she sang a decade ago at Wolf Trap, making her a girlish klutz with a fiery spirit. The top of her voice was secure, broad, and confident, with the exception of the high Ds, where the voice turned a little acidic. The tenor Joseph Guerrero was called in to cover for the ailing Stephen Costello as Roméo on July 29, and he had a heroic, beautiful sound with spot-on intonation, including the B-flats in the balcony scene (“Ah! lève-toi, soleil!”). Singers familiar to Washington audiences were highlights in the supporting cast, including Deborah Nansteel as a saucy Gertrude and Soloman Howard as the imperious Duke.
Lawless moved the action to the time of the American Civil War, with the Capulets and Montagues in blue and red uniforms, and the ladies in huge hoop skirts and bonnets (sets and costumes by Ashley Martin-Davis). For a while the concept almost worked, until Roméo’s page, Stéfano, appeared costumed as a cantinière with a ridiculous fake mustache. For reasons that are not entirely clear, Lawless turned this scene into a sort of drag cabaret act, complete with choreography (by Nicola Bowie) involving two supernumerary dancers. Emily Fons, who had an excellent company debut as Cherubino in the 2013 Santa Fe Opera “Figaro,” probably sang this piece beautifully, but it was impossible to pay much attention to anything other than the travesty “en travesti” in the staging.
The Santa Fe Opera season continues through August 27th.