Santa Fe Opera presents rare Strauss work, plus favorites

If Santa Fe Opera director John Crosby has done nothing more than prove that Richard Strauss's later operas are apt stage pieces, his place in music-performance history will be assured. Every season but one this past decade has seen some neglected Strauss work staged here, all conducted by Mr. Crosby. Not that he ignores the standard operas: Puccini's ``Madama Butterfly'' and Mozart's ``Le nozze di Figaro'' are also in the repertory.

This year, the Strauss opus is ``Die Schweigsame Frau'' (``The Silent Woman''). The title refers to the sort of wife Sir Morosus - a hard-of-hearing bachelor and retired admiral - dreams of having. The idea is put into his head by his barber after the joy of the unexpected arrival of his nephew Henry turns to fury because Henry has become an opera singer and has married another singer, Aminta.

Because Sir Morosus disinherits his young heir, the Barber and the opera troupe all plot to wake the old man up to reality. They devise a little drama in which Morosus is made to fall in love with and ``marry'' a disguised Aminta. She will then turn so shrewish that he will cry for divorce, at which point they will reveal the entire ruse.

It is a plot best known from Donizetti's ``Don Pasquale,'' but it was Ben Jonson's play ``Epicoene,'' or ``The Silent Woman,'' that Stephan Zweig used as the basis of this libretto. It all ends up happily: Morosus realizes his silliness and blesses his nephew and Aminta.

One of the reasons the opera is so rare is the fiendish demands placed on the leads. The Aminta must be a superlative actress and consummate coloratura; the tenor Henry Morosus must have high notes that never tire; the Sir Morosus must be a vivid character actor possessed of a sonorous, rich, communicative bass; the Barber must be a robust baritone with a Danny Kaye sense of comedy. In this production, Erie Mills (Aminta), Mark Thomsen (Henry), and William Workman (the Barber) managed very well.

In fact, Miss Mills gave that sort of tour de force performance that made her Cunegonde in Bernstein's ``Candide'' so dazzling. She has grown as an actress and was able to cope easily with all the vocal demands of this taxing role. Mr. Thomsen fared as well as any tenor is going to in this treacherous music, and he cut a handsome figure on stage. Mr. Workman's baritone may no longer be robust, but he commands the stage impressively.

Alas, Marius Rintzler failed to make much of a mark as Morosus, so one had to listen with compensating ears to get a full sense of just what a splendid part Strauss has given the singer - a less-crude, softhearted Baron Ochs. In various smaller roles, Gimi Beni, Jean Kraft, Judith Christin, and Jamie Louise Baer all shone.

G"oran J"arvefelt is something of a genius when it comes to staging these operas. Just as he managed in ``Intermezzo'' back in '84, Mr. J"arvefelt made this ``Frau'' believable and natural. He filled it with real people, real emotions, and real confrontations. On Carl Friedrich Oberle's quaint yet effective ship-deck apartment set, nary a false note was struck.

In the pit, Crosby's conducting may have lacked pliancy and subtlety, but the orchestra played well for him, and as is always the case with his Strauss, his love of the music comes through.

Puccini's `Madama Butterfly'

The ``Butterfly'' introduced a new singer, Miriam Gauci, to Santa Fe and the United States. The Malta-born soprano has a slender but beautiful and expertly trained voice. Butterfly is really far too heavy a role for her to be singing at this point in her career. She managed to sing it beautifully, however, without forcing, and with utter candor of interpretation.

Richard Stillwell is always at his best with this company, and his utterly sympathetic Sharpless was no exception. Judith Christin's Suzuki was particularly well acted, and Gimi Beni made much of the brief role of Yamadori. Unfortunately, Neil Rosenshein has been singing repertoire beyond his vocal capacities, as his disastrous Pinkerton showed.

In the first act, director Bruce Donnell let his young choristers act like robust Americans in Japanese clothes. Later on, Butterfly's personal drama unfolded with touching simplicity. The John Conklin sets were pretty, though presenting a slightly Danish-modern view of turn-of-the-century Nagasaki. Crosby's conducting proved dutiful rather than poetic. Mozart's `Figaro'

The ``Figaro'' began with an inventive, vibrant first act and devolved to a somewhat stock, intermittently overacted exercise in broad comedy. Ken Cazin had the unenviable task of partly restaging a production most viewers deemed two seasons ago to be quite eccentric.

The performance revolved around Katheryn Gamberoni's delectable Susanna - charming of gesture and skillful of vocal interpretation. Baritone Marcel Vanaud brought an appealing, gentle gruffness to the title role. Zehava Gal acted Cherubino superbly but was unable to match her own histrionics either vocally or musically. Edward Crafts attempted a young, flirtatious Count but lacked the deftness of acting style to make it work. And Edith Weins neither sang with alluring tone, nor acted with sufficient depth of emotion for us to care about the Countess's tragic plight.

In smaller roles, Jean Kraft, Ragnar Ulfung, and especially Kevin Langan were most impressive. Conductor George Manahan managed a fleet, propulsive account of Mozart's sublime score.

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