Santa Fe: a place for the new and obscure in opera

The Santa Fe Opera has made a vital contribution to America's cultural life throughout its 26-year history.

Under the artistic direction of John Crosby, Santa Fe has become known as a forum for new works, obscure works, or both. This season, which runs through Aug. 28, is a good example of this. It includes the world premiere of George Rochberg's ''The Confidence Man'' and the American professional premiere of Richard Strauss' ''Die Liebe der Danae'' - two novelties in a schedule that also includes Mozart's ''Marriage of Figaro,'' Johann Strauss' ''Die Fledermaus,'' and Ambroise Thomas's ''Mignon.''

The newsworthy event was the Rochberg, although the artistic success was, as it turned out, the Strauss. There has been a good deal of ballyhoo concerning Rochberg's musical transformation from a stringent serialist to an unabashed tonal-romantic. Four quartets, two quintets, a violin concerto, and other works later, Rochberg seemed ready to try his hand at opera. The move proved premature.

For his story, he chose Herman Melville's darkly comic novel dealing with a day in the life of a consummate confidence man. This is tough stuff to turn into opera. Gene Rochberg, the composer's wife, has taken a small chapter of the work as the basis of the libretto - the story of China Aster. Curiously, it is one of the few stories in the novel not involving the confidence man. Rather, it's a tale told to him. Thus, Mrs. Rochberg has had to insert him into the work. She has also distilled several important characters and scenes into tiny vignettes and sentences and grafted them onto the plot about China Aster.

Allusions to important Melville themes fly by as pithy one-liners without explanation or context. The story is embellished with the expansion of the role of China's wife, nameless in Melville, dubbed Annabella in the opera. Several other people barely mentioned in the story become notable character roles here.

Mrs. Rochberg has merely turned Melville's turgid, tortuous novel dealing with the nature of man, of good, of evil, of faith, of trust, into a sadly static story of a man ruined by accepting a loan from a friend. Mr. Rochberg has set it to music that sounds put together very much the way George Forrest and Robert Wright have gone about creating their musical hits ''Kismet'' or ''Song of Norway'': sewing together tunes (in their case, from another composer) into a big patchwork-quilt pastiche. Unfortunately, none of Rochberg's tunes have any real profile. Rather than Rochberg, we get vague allusions to, or specific imitations of, any number of composers. A barber sings of no trust, in a Kurt Weill-type ballad. The Angel of Bright Future twitters away almost above the range of human hearing in Alban Berg dissonances and leaps. China Aster himself sings a farewell in grand Gian Carlo Menotti style. An epilogue is tagged on with no particular self-justification, although it lends a retrospective, mean opera-buffa tone to the entire evening.

Rochberg seemed unwilling to trust his own melodic inspiration, and his sense of integrating the various elements into a unified, conceptualized whole seems to have eluded him altogether. None of the writing is particularly ingratiating for the voice, though it sounds as if it should be - lots of high notes peppered along the way to test a singer's stamina without challenging his or her artistry.

And what of the cast? Each and all work to the limits of communicative power, trying with sincerity and artistry to make this piece come to life. Brent Ellis sings the title role, which, ironically, becomes one of the least important in the opera in the Rochbergs' treatment. Musically and dramatically, he is merely the tailor, rather than the catalyst. In most scenes, after the stultifying prologue he has to deliver, Mr. Ellis is reduced to a nonvocal observer. He does it all well, but such a waste of a fine singing actor!

Sunny Joy Langton's Annabella is so much sweetness and loyalty that her dramatic powers in her final scene come as a huge surprise - a soprano with exemplary diction, lovely tone, and compelling powers of communication, both vocal and histrionic. She is well matched by Neil Rosenshein's China Aster, a vivid creation, handsomely, strongly sung, and acted with skillful fervor. Deborah Cook (the Angel) and Michael Fiacco (Orchis) turn in powerful performances. The cast is rounded out by fine character performances from Joseph Frank, Carolyne James, Robert Osborne, Richard Best, and Greg Ryerson.

C. William Harwood conducts with vitality and passion. The problems with the libretto may have prevented director Richard Pearlman from bringing more than a few of the characters to life. John Scheffler's set - an overgrown doll's house made of mill-box curio walls stuffed with parts of overgrown clocks, heads, hands, etc., may not exactly have spoken of Crystal City on the Mississippi, but it did have a nice look to it.

The sets to ''Danae'' also had a ''look,'' but it was the wrong look. Rouben Ter-Arutunian chose to place this tale of Greek mortals, gods, and princesses in what can only be described as a glittery late-'50s Miami Beach hotel lobby, as depicted by a series of unsightly plastic-and-silver side panels that swamped the rest of the set. The outrageous costumes teetered too often into tastelessness.

Fortunately, one could close his eyes. Again fortunately, things musical were in fine shape by the third performance.

''Danae'' has been dismissed as incidental Strauss, perhaps because it took so long to achieve public performance. The scheduled 1944 Salzburg premiere was canceled - though the Nazi bureaucracy allowed the work to proceed to the final dress rehearsal so the composer could see his opera staged (as a belated 80th birthday gift). The actual premiere took place in 1952 at Salzburg, after Strauss' death. A few flurries of interest aside, it has rarely been seen since.

It contains a good deal of fine music, some duets of ravishing beauty, a few monologues of vintage Straussian inspiration and fullness, and some comic scenes of wit and sparkle. The Josef Gregor libretto, however, never quite reaches distinction.

The opera unfolds the tale of Jupiter's courting of the gold-loving Danae. The god sends Midas, of the golden touch, as his emissary, only to have Danae fall for him. Her love of Midas overpowers her love of gold. Jupiter never wins her heart; in the end he willingly concedes that human love is worthy of godly respect.

In Santa Fe, none of the singers were genuine Strauss vocalists or interpreters. Nonetheless, the cast bore up to the demands of the score with surprising conviction. Victor Braun's Jupiter - as Wotan-like a role as Strauss ever created - was tender, arrogant, wise, and funny, and full of clean, focused tone throughout. Tenor Dennis Bailey's throaty, muffled vocal delivery undercut the effectiveness of his Midas, and made a somewhat compromised figure throughout.

Ashley Putnam's Danae was not exactly captivating interpretively, but this was the best singing (in one of the rare non-bel canto roles) I have heard this soprano do in the past five years or so. It was secure and well modulated from register to register, with only fleeting problems in the upper reaches in the final scene. She looked like a pre-Raphaelite vision of beauty in her first two costumes. Ragnar Ulfung's Pollux and Mary Jane Johnson's meltingly sung Xanthe must also be cited.

The comic relief in Gregor's libretto is supplied by four aging ladies - Semele, Leda, Europa, Alkmene - who recognize Jupiter in his disguise and court his favors anew. As performed by Melanie Helton, Carolyne James, Ruth Jacobson, and Judith Christin, they were outrageous almost to a fault, yet splendid in their robust vulgarity.

It may not have been the Offenbach French comedy Strauss strove for, but it surely matched the tone of the sets. In fact, director Colin Graham was constantly trying to stage around the monumental ugliness of the production, and at most times, he succeeded. John Crosby has been on a one-man Strauss campaign ever since he began Santa Fe Opera. Thanks to him the United States has seen ''Capriccio'' and ''Daphne.'' Other, better-known works have featured prominently in the repertoire over the years.

But Mr. Crosby's loving work in the pit for ''Danae'' this year must be commended as well. I have rarely heard him conduct with such attention to sonority, such care for balance within the orchestra and with the singers on stage. His orchestra performed handsomely, and, at the third performance of the opera, Crosby's reading proved reverent, colorful, and lovely to listen to. The opera abounds in the sort of ripe Strauss writing that clearly marks it for renewed attention. If Crosby proved nothing else, he validated the idea that ''Die Liebe der Danae'' deserves exposure in theaters well enough equipped to cast the operas suitably.

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