Opera -- and decication -- in Santa Fe

In a time when gimmick is the ruling stage word, one can only applaud when one finds directors gathered in one place who respect music, not merely their own egocentric willfulness.

The Santa Fe Opera's season, which happens to be the company's 25th, was the by-now accustomed mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar repertory cast with the best available American and selected European singers.

Each season director John Crosby presents something new. This time around, it was the US premiere of Richard Strauss' "Daphne." Also novel was the revival of Hindemith's "News of the Day," which the composer had conducted in its US premiere here in 1961.

Still another novelty (sad to say of a masterwork first heard in 1951) was Igor Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress," given its sixth new production in the company's history, and generally ignored everywhere else. One could hardly call Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" a novelty, but the production it received was unusually stylish and elegant.

Finally, there was the de rigueur staple that draws in the sort of guaranteed crowds to enable the company to afford the novelties. This year it was "La Boheme," and not surprisingly, it sold out everytime.

It happened that all but the "Boheme" received exceptional productions. The season also showcased the state of American singing, and there is no cause for celebration on that front.

The only three genuine "star turns" came from Roberta Alexander as Daphne, Hakan Hagegard as Seville's redoubtable Barber, and James Morris as the "Rake's" Nick Shadow. Otherwise, it was a series of mostly blandly efficient, sometimes barely acceptable, and occasionally downright disturbing performances from a roster of singers whom many observers are calling the future of American operatic vocalists.

Miss Alexander was singing her last of eight Daphnes the night I attended. It took her almost half of the one-act, hour-and-three-quarters works to really warm up, and even then nothing she did that night seemed truly her best. Nevertheless, it was an assured performance. She clearly possesses a soprano of some potency, an evenness from top to bottom, and a timbre that remains true in all ranges. If hers is not yet a truly distinctive voice, distinctively used, she at least has the makings of something to celebrate.

Mr. Hagegard is best known as Papageno in the Bergman film of "The Magic Flute" and as Malatesta in the Metropolitan Opera's "Don Pasquale" telecast a few seasons back as Beverly Sills' Met farewell. This ultrastylish singer turned in far and away the best all-around performance of the Santa Fe season. He is a star who does not need to hog the stage or bully his way through the music to make his presence known, and he is in complete mastery of his voice.

The four productions other than "Boheme" were all marvelous. In the case of Lou Galterio's Hindemith, it was a triumph of staging over material, since the work has musically next to nothing to offer. The idiom is cabaret-parody, reminiscent of Kurt Weill without the inspiration. Hindemith chugs along in his setting of a story about divorce, takes potshots at his fashionable betes noires like Strauss-Wagner, jazz, and so forth, and otherwise assigns devilishly hard but turgid, faceless music to it all.

But from the moment the orchestra was elevated up to stage level and the show began, one could forget the score and enjoy the show. Maxine Willi Klein's sets were witty and engaging '20s fabricated in black and white, abetted by Steven B. Feldman's black, white, and red costumes. In lead roles, Mary Shearer again proved lively, William Workman ratehr strained and overemphatic, but all performed honorably. And in the pit, Bruce Ferden made the complexities of the score seem almost carelessly easy -- no small accomplishment.

The excellent orchestra also shone in the Stravinsky. Raymond Leppard has the ability to make rhythms clean and precise without undermining the lyric sweep of the music at hand. In this score in particular, that combination is pivotal to the ultimate success of the performance. Bliss Hebert's sixth production is as fresh and vital as if he were on his first go-around. Allan Charles Klein's stunning unit set of arches and brick wall puts the viewer in the midst of 16th-century England at once pretty and tawdry.

One might rightfully feel that the brothel scene was a bit too replete with gyrations and gutter behavior not entirely suited to the work at hand, but one would be wrong in complaining about the devastatingly on-target characterization of auctioneer Sellim as a Fagin-like operator. Throughout, Hebert's inventiveness was clever yet restrained.

"The Rake's Progress" has yet to find its audience in the repertory houses. It may be flawed, but it has far more merit than, say, a "mahagonny."

"Daphne" has usually been dismissed as middle-to lower-drawer Strauss. Conductor Crosby and director Colin Graham revealed it as a truly fine work, one that offers two tenors and a spintom soprano marvelous showcase roles. Miss Alexander made her effect. But the others left much to be desired, and this Strauss score with two tenors in constant distress makes for at best a compromised event.

Had Mr. Crosby kept the orchestra down to accommodate the two men, the audience would have been cheated of his often luxuriant work with that excellent ensemble. William Dooley held his own as Peneios, as did Miss James in the low, low role of Gaea. Mr. Graham's production is mostly excellent, though Daphne metamorphoses into a scruffy little shrub rather than the imposing arboreal specimen one expects from the music. And in the final moments, the cascading vapors that pour down the set do not look like a river reborn, rather a mist or a supernatural, motivationless emanation. John Conklin's unit set suited the primitivistic mood handsomely.

The chance to see a "Barber of Seville" that reminds one that, after all, Rossini was setting Beaumarchais, Mozart's inspiration for "The Marriage of Figaro," is rare indeed. Rather than the broad 19th-century slapstick shenanigans we have all but taken for granted, Galterio offered real counts and countesses, humor derived from the music not imposed upon it, and elegance, taste, and ensemble performance rare in opera today. Mr. Hagegard set the ideal tone, and around him a generally reliable cast performed well. As Rosina, Janice Hall found a richly compatible role for her soft-grained soprano. She sang the role in the original keys (usually assigned to a lightweight mezzo), and the voice took on colors and shades one rarely hears from her in the vastness of the New York City Opera. She has grown as an actress and artist as well, and seems well on her way to important things. Neil Rosenshein has likewise improved greatly over the past years, and though his first act was often well below any acceptable standard (in music that should be ideal for him) , he warmed up the second act, and acted well throughout. George Manahan took over from Mr. Leppard in the pit, and he made the small orchestra sound convincingly full. In the second act in particular, he found the ideal balance between musical sensitivity and dramatic continuity.

Mr. Galterio's production is surprisingly unfussy, despite the presence of four commedia dell'arte clowns. The simple Zack Brown set is framed with a false proscenium and backed by three revolving panels. Throughout there is an intentional theatrical artifice that slowly evanesces into the familiar set plot pieces of the opera.

Lighting this summer at Santa Fe was especially good, and the productions all sought the inspiration in the music, never overshadowing it. Even the "Boheme" did not mangle Puccini, which otherwise was as dour an evening as could be imagined. Here was a gathering of young American talent where in no one managed the Italian gracefully, or sang well. What is most disturbing is how tired and downright shopworn most of the up-and-coming singers sounded this summer.

From the conducting of John Crosby right down the line, this was an antipoetic, heartless "Boheme," with no sense of text projection (except for the live-wire if occasionally shrill Musetta of Mary Shearer). And even the production -- aside from some handsome costumes -- was not up to Santa Fe standards.

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