The big-ticket items on the 60th anniversary season at Santa Fe Opera are Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West” and Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” which got 10 performances each. And Richard Jones’s new production of “Fanciulla” (heard on August 2) could make viewers agree with Puccini, who called this unwieldy work his favorite.
Periodic titters in the Crosby Theater confirmed that the absurdities of the libretto — like “Madame Butterfly,” based on a work by David Belasco — remain problematic. The title figure, Minnie, runs a saloon in a California Gold Rush town; rebuffs the attentions of the local sheriff, Jack Rance; and falls for a stranger calling himself Dick Johnson, who turns out to be the highway bandit everyone in town is hunting. Somehow the town’s residents decide not to hang Johnson, and Minnie runs off with him. Characters include “Red Indians” named Billy Jackrabbit and Wowkle, described as “his squaw.”
Patricia Racette had the vocal power and the dramatic presence to make Minnie almost believable. The top notes were a bit of a smear, but she overwhelmed the house with her ecstatic, almost unhinged shrieks (“È mio!”) at the end of Act II. As Dick Johnson, the tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones made the best impression when he deployed the more subtle sides of his voice. Baritone Mark Delavan had the swagger and snarl for the besotted bully Jack Rance, matched by the more restrained Ashby of Raymond Aceto. A posse of apprentices filled out the rest of the cast, including the baritone Andrew Paulson, a native of Great Falls, Va., as Happy. The singing in the male chorus numbers (prepared by Susanne Sheston), both full-bodied and nostalgic, was one of the highlights of the evening.
Jones’s production was first staged at the English National Opera, where it won an Olivier Award last year. Although the libretto is set around 1850, at the height of the California Gold Rush, Jones moves it into the early the 20th century, with buildings illuminated by electric light. The small size of the Polka Saloon in Miriam Buether’s sets, with its tiny chairs, low ceiling and cramped side hall for the men to dance, made the characters seem more childlike, and underscored the men’s longing for home; while Minnie, in her tiny cabin, was like a doll in her dollhouse. Conductor Emmanuel Villaume led a clean and beautifully varied reading of Puccini’s most beautiful score, whose subtleties are better appreciated live than on recording.
Mozart may be a staple at the Santa Fe Opera, but Mozart is rarely the highlight of any season here, though “Lucio Silla” in 2005 was a rare exception. This year’s “Don Giovanni” supported the trend: mostly pleasant but with some inevitable disappointment.
Daniel Okulitch made a physically attractive Don Giovanni, but his voice sounded oddly shallow on stage. Kyle Ketelsen made a fine company debut as Leporello, although he needs to find another mannerism besides the foot stomp he turned to in almost every scene. Edgaras Montvidas had an effective but not pretty sound, the runs not quite smooth enough to justify not cutting Ottavio’s second aria, “Il mio tesoro.” Jarrett Ott, an apprentice, was a sympathetic Masetto, and Soloman Howard reprised his booming Commendatore, heard in 2012 at the Washington National Opera.
The women were generally stronger, led by the powerhouse Donna Anna of Leah Crocetto, whose spitefulness made one suspect the character’s innocence. Keri Alkema was an incisive Donna Elvira, a bitter foil to Okulitch’s playful Don Giovanni. The Zerlina of Welsh lyric soprano Rhian Lois, in her American debut, was cute as a button, with a sweet musicality.
In this puzzling new production, the director Ron Daniels, known in Washington for his “Othello” at the Shakespeare Theatre Company last spring, said that he wanted to create “the interior of a dream space.” The set (by Riccardo Hernandez) recalled something like Trump Tower, with curved walls of polished black, a gold bathtub, and other tacky decor. The only object of interest was a huge statue that rose up at the back of the stage, crept forward, and then receded. The statue suggested different things to different viewers — a skull, a sphinx, a woman wearing a veil — and projections of flowers and colors (designed by Peter Nigrini) washed over it.
Musically, the evening foundered on the conducting of John Nelson, with slightly erratic tempos and problems coordinating the pit and the stage; Nelson had similar problems in the 2013 “Marriage of Figaro” here. The piece came to life a bit more in the recitatives, when Glenn Lewis took over on the fortepiano, seated at the left corner of the pit so he could see and interact with the singers. More than once, Lewis worked witty allusions to other arias into his continuo realization, coinciding with mentions of the characters who sing them.
As part of expansions built for the 60th anniversary season, Santa Fe Opera has nearly doubled the size of its backstage space, making more complicated set changes possible. A new Opera Club space affords beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and of the theater.
The Santa Fe Opera’s 2017 season includes the world premiere of the new opera “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” by Mason Bates as well as new productions of Handel’s “Alcina,” Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Golden Cockerel,” Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” and Johann Strauss’s “Die Fledermaus.”
The Santa Fe Opera’s 2016 season continues through August 27.