Simply Sublime Opera Stagings

THE Santa Fe Opera could easily rely primarily on its spectacular setting - a modified outdoor theater high on a hill just outside of the state capital, but it has always challenged itself to be artistically better from summer to summer. The current season has to be one of its finest in recent memory, if the three productions I saw - of rarely seen operas by Richard Strauss, Kurt Weill, and Handel - were any indication.

Santa Fe Opera founder and general director John Crosby has always favored Strauss: This summer, he turned to the composer's farewell to opera, "Capriccio." Many have dismissed the work - Strauss dubbed his musical testament a "conversation piece" - as merely a tract on the operatic battle between words and music. In the Santa Fe production, sung in Maria Massey Pelikan's English translation, there was not a whiff of the pedantic. And though the original director, Willy Decker, was ordered (for health re asons) to stay in Germany, James Robinson executed Decker's concept convincingly. The effortless delineation of characters, situations, actions, and reactions made this potentially tedious opera captivating.

Designer Wolfgang Gussmann gave the wedge-shaped stage a perimeter of Wedgwood-blue walls with doors cut into it; props, furnishings, costumes, wigs, and the insides of all the doors were stark white; the period was clearly the one Strauss prescribed, circa 1775. With Craig Miller's gorgeous lighting, something poetic and haunting emerged from great simplicity.

The success of the opera rises and falls on the communicative abilities of the Madeleine, and here, Sheri Greenawald was near ideal - a compulsively watchable countess, especially splendid in the crucial final scene, one of Strauss's most sublime creations. Also outstanding in this large cast was Eric Halfvarson as La Roche. This is a long role with a big monologue near the end, which Halfvarson sailed through magnificently, with spectacular diction (without question the best of the cast), colorful chara cterization, and a rich firm bass.

Mark Thomsen and Erie Mills shone in their respective roles. Also in the principal cast were James Michael McGuire (Olivier), Katherine Ciesinski (Clairon), and Richard Stilwell (the count). In the pit, Crosby conducted with deep affection and an unexpected pliancy and even tenderness; the orchestra responded with particular enthusiasm and care.

Though Handel's "Xerxes" is not one of the composer's best-known works, it is perhaps his most fleet of construction, with propulsive plot and character development. Director Stephen Wadsworth chose to update Handel's tale of a love-struck Persian king to the composer's 18th-century England, and the transition was a bonus. One could argue with Wadsworth's English translation-adaptation - which often bordered on pandering to get laughs - but it was hard to quibble with a production of a 3-1/2 hour Handel opera that kept the audience engrossed to the end.

Thomas Lynch's handsomely designed English manor house, Martin Pakledinaz's stunning costumes, and Peter Kaczorowski's evocative lighting added up to a visual delight. As for the singing, the top honors went to Dawn Upshaw as Romilda. Her voice has never sounded fresher or more beguiling, and she handled the considerable histrionic demands with panache. Erie Mills made the role of Atalanta a true star turn - the perfect foil for Upshaw's Romilda, and a dazzling vocal and histrionic display in its own rig ht.

As Arsamenes, Brian Asawa brought an uncommonly pure and beautiful countertenor and a confident acting style that bode well for the career of this young singer. Mimi Lerner made the role of the thwarted Amastris utterly credible in all its facets; Kevin Langan's Ariodate was delectably pompous, yet likable.

In the title role, Ciesinksi, deputizing for an ailing Frederica von Stade, performed with poise and confidence. In the pit, Kenneth Montgomery brought vigor, nuance, and great conviction to the score; his work with the outstanding Santa Fe Opera Orchestra helped make this an exceptional evening of Handel.

The evening of "new" works was devoted to a double-bill of Weill: "The Protagonist" was given its North American premiere, and "The Tsar Has His Photograph Taken" its United States professional stage premiere.

Once "The Protagonist" got going - shortly beyond the halfway mark - the score brought great excitement to the story of the Brother, an actor who so lost himself in his roles that he murdered his beloved Sister in a fit of "in-character" jealousy. True, the plot owed a good deal to "Pagliacci," but the score proved to be a solid representative of the gritty, knotty genre of German expressionism. Director John Eaton (who also did the translation) placed the action in a seriously cluttered 1920s basement r ather than the indicated Elizabethan-era rehearsal hall, and therefore blurred the action somewhat, but Jacque Trussel was so galvanizing in the title role, that finally nothing mattered but the character's harrowing dilemma and his ghastly denouement.

Where designer Robert Perdziola opted for dark browns and other dingy shades for the above-mentioned basement, he created an cool, elegant white Art Deco photographer's studio for "The Tsar" which Eaton also set in the 1920s - even though the last czar was assassinated in 1918. This capricious romp became a bit tedious in Eaton's staging, but the score was full of fascinating and wonderful dances and jazz-suggested moments that kept a buoyancy to the proceedings. Angeline Reaux, the false Angele, was sad dled with poor direction and a desperately inappropriate costume, but in David Malis the production boasted a czar both regal and charming, and one who enunciated Lionel Salter's translation with exemplary clarity.

George Manahan conducted both scores with his accustomed thoroughness, and the orchestra played impressively.

* The Weill pair closed Aug. 13; "Capriccio" is performed Aug. 26; "Xerxes" Aug. 25; "La Boheme" Aug. 21 and 28; and "The Magic Flute" (tonight, Aug. 24 and 27).

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