Santa Fe, N.M. — The Santa Fe Opera has built its reputation on its adventurousness in matters of repertoire. This year, many have argued, the entire season is adventurous to the point of excluding all but the specialized operagoer. And yet, the two most esoteric works of the season - Hans Werner Henze's ''We Come to the River'' (in its United States premiere) and Richard Strauss's ''Intermezzo'' - have become sellouts in these final weeks of the company's season.
Henze - in partnership with noted British playwright Edward Bond - clearly meant to offer a scathing condemnation of war, as well as of the kind of capitalistic society that places militarism above all other social values. At the same time, he strove to depict the plight of the little people - Henze's cherished proletariat - helplessly sucked into a maelstrom of brutality and spit out in unrecognizable pieces.
Unfortunately, polemics and diatribes rarely have much effect in opera: Cant set to music militates against true audience involvement, particularly when presented in the once-chic, always pretentious fashion of the pampered intellectual elite of the late '60s.
That said, one can only marvel at the ambitious nature of Henze's undertaking. He creates a kaleidoscopic panorama involving three stages, three orchestras, some 110 roles. The story focuses on The General, the great hero of some mythical empire. When he actually connects with some of the ''little people'' who are being forced into ghastly deeds to survive the horrors of everlasting war, he does an about-face, insults The Emperor, and is incarcerated for his act. He is eventually blinded, and finally murdered - but not before he is haunted by visions of his principal victims in their post-suffering state.
Scenes are played - often three at a time - to a droning, dogmatically atonal score, which only evanescently cracks to reveal what Henze can manage when humanity rather than message or posture is his aim. Among those moments are a beautiful aria for The Emperor, parts of an overlong madhouse scene, and a scene for a Soldier to assassinate The Governor.
Quibble as one may with the piece, the Santa Fe forces have been marshaled into a tour de force presentation. John Conklin's beautiful and supremely functional set gave a panoramic sweep to the action in the manner of a Cinerama super-spectacle. Craig Miller's extraordinary lighting only enhanced the proceedings. Director Alfred Kirchner kept the action tightly focused - clear, direct. The action splayed out across the stage; it spilled over the special apron and down into the audience. ''River'' was allowed to make all its points without directorial intrusion or spotlit overemphasis.
Of the huge cast, particular mention must go to Victor Braun's wrenching General, James Atherton's haunting Soldier, and Carolyne James's Old Woman. The Santa Fe Opera Orchestra played the score with what sounded like total conviction, under the direction of Bernhard Kontarsky. Whatever the future of ''We Come to the River'' (the last Santa Fe performance is Saturday), it is safe to say it will not receive a more accomplished, faithful production. 'Intermezzo'
The company also triumphed in ''Intermezzo,'' another genre altogether. This 1924 work found Strauss writing his own libretto and setting to music a slice of his own domestic married life (using the names Robert and Christine Storch). ''Intermezzo'' was a sensation for several years, then dropped out of the repertory. Today, removed from the strictly autobiographical impact, we can focus on the more absolute aspects of the characters, without forgetting that the work is Strauss's deeply personal tribute to the shrewish wife he loved so dearly. So successful is he that by opera's end we are all able - as he was always able - to overlook and forgive her antipathetic aspects.
The opera rises and falls on the casting, particularly the role of Christine. Elisabeth Soderstrom has been intimately associated with that role since the famous Glyndebourne revival of the opera in the '70s. In her Santa Fe debut, she always managed to show us the tender aspects behind the harpie facade. And when Christine thinks her husband has been unfaithful, the soprano made the misery devastatingly real and heartrending. Miss Soderstrom's fragilely warm soprano added to the vulnerability of her presence, and - consummate actress that she is - every histrionic moment rang true to life.
In Alan Titus, Miss Soderstrom had the ideal Robert to play off of - handsome , mellifluous of voice, tender of gesture, able to communicate great reserves of affection and devotion. Together, in the final scene, the two artists made one tangibly aware of just what a special, cherishable - yet utterly fragile - work this really is.
The frosting on the cake proved to be Goran Jarvefelt's seemingly effortless production. Carl Friederich Oberle's gloriously art nouveau sets and costumes, and Mr. Miller's superb lighting, sustained a mood and a texture that supported and showcased the performances. Jarvefelt plotted the action with effortless ease and superb attention to naturalistic detail. By opera's end, one wanted the spell to last forever.
In the pit, John Crosby's pacing allowed for a convincing talkiness to the singing, although he too often allowed the orchestra to play full force, sometimes burying the singers. But he clearly loves this score, and that love managed to peer through time and time again.