Santa Fe Opera: shrewd planning, skillful staging. Company shows off best with works by Handel, Shostakovich

The Santa Fe Opera's mix of popular, lesser known, and contemporary operas has, for the most part, kept this company in the forefront of the United States summer opera scene for 31 years. Director John Crosby has ruled his quasi-open-air operatic aerie, perched high on an adobe hill from its inception. He watched his first theater burn down (in 1967) and the second (and present) structure rise before the following summer. And he built his modest company into an internationally renowned phenomenon.

The season, which ends this Saturday, has been a typical Santa Fe venture. For the familiar works, patrons have heard Puccini's ``Madama Butterfly'' and Mozart's ``Le Nozze di Figaro.'' For the Richard Strauss opera - virtually de rigueur because of Mr. Crosby's particular fondness for the composer - the rarely performed ``Die Schweigsame Frau'' (``The Silent Woman''). (All three performances will be discussed in these pages tomorrow.)

But the shows that emphatically captured the public were Handel's ``Ariodante'' - Santa Fe's first try at this composer - and Shostakovich's ``The Nose,'' a work given its US premi`ere by the company in '65. Both productions were Santa Fe at its very finest, yet the two works could hardly be less alike. The Handel is all style, form, and formality, the Shostakovich all scalding, pessimistic satire. Handel demands a cast of superlative singers; Shostakovich, remarkable singing actors.

``Ariodante'' received as sumptuous and visually stunning a production as I have ever seen at Santa Fe. Set designer John Conklin sheathed the stage walls in blue and gilt suggestive of cloud-painted walls in a sumptuous palace. Trapdoors and side doors allowed for massive chunks of scenery - a column's crumbling capital, a ruined statue face, etc. The feeling, tellingly abetted by Craig Miller's remarkable lighting, is one of eroding civilization, which has little to do with the opera's plot, but created an unforgettable series of images.

Michael Stennett's costumes were equally stunning, particularly when the singers moved about. Happily, John Copley's direction stressed movement, which also served to keep the audience's interest alive within the potentially static trappings of Handel's operatic style.

Top vocal honors at the final performance went to Benita Valente as the Princess Ginevra, who sang with such sensitivity, such assured sense of style, and such unstinting tonal beauty as to make one wonder how it is possible to stage Handel without her. Tatiana Troyanos, in the title role, was not in the best voice, but showed the animated alertness to nuance and vocal pyrotechnics that makes Handel such an exciting experience. Janice Hall, as Dalinda, tossed off her arias with great 'elan and managed to do some exquisite quiet singing as well.

Unfortunately, the men in the performance were not of the same caliber, except for bass Kevin Langan as the King of Scotland. James Bowman's countertenor is uncontrolled, harsh and hooty to the ear, and surprisingly lacking in agility, considering the music he has to sing.

On the basis of this performance, it is distressing to have to note that Neil Rosenshein, who used to sing Handel with ease and interpretive finesse, is becoming an effortful and hollow-voiced singer.

Nicholas McGegan, an early-music specialist, conjured up consistently magical sounds from the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra, which plays on modern instruments. In his debut with the company, he proved that style and commitment are what count in this music, not the authenticity of the instrument played. And he proved to be a particularly sensitive accompanist.

To experience the Shostakovich opera the night after the Handel proved a bracing jolt. From the opening phrases - but particularly by the time of the percussion interlude - it was obvious the performance was in superb musical hands. Conductor Edo de Waart came alive in this musically challenging, emotionally sardonic score, finding colors and evocations that could only come from a sure knowledge of a good deal of Shostakovich's output, early and late.

On stage, the show rests on the shoulders of the Platon Kovalioff, a major who wakes up one morning to find his nose missing (it had found its way into the Barber's morning bread loaf). As he pursues his nose - by now masquerading as an important councilor of state - he runs into various facets of Russian society. It is through these scenes that the full sarcasm of the satire unfurls.

Because baritone Alan Titus is such an exceptional actor - even with a mask that hides all but his eyes and jaw - the audience could feel every subtle shift of emotion as Kovalioff runs the gamut from horror to frustration to downright incredulity. That he sang the part so well was an added bonus to an already exceptional achievement.

Lou Galterio's production focused on clear visual images to support the score. He sustained an energetic farcical undertone throughout the two brief acts. Transformations from one scene to another were seamless.

The large cast performed its often fiendishly difficult tasks with aplomb. Of particular note were tenor James Schwisow's firm singing of the treacherously high-lying Yarizhkin, contralto Gweneth Bean's vocally generous Madame Podtotchina, Anthony Laciura's outlandish servant Ivan, and Gimi Beni's delectably befuddled Barber. The company's apprentices filled in most of the smaller vignettes with remarkable professionalism.

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