Opera Lovers Exposed: Greatness Outdoors in Santa Fe

If things were getting unbearably nasty onstage, they were

also heading in that direction offstage. We were in the second scene of Lucia di Lammermoor , which tells of a

Scottish damsel driven mad by a feud between her brother and her lover, when

the wind began howling and the rain began blowing into the Santa Fe Opera

House, whose sides are open to the surrounding sierras. Plastic head coverings

were put on; jackets were pulled tighter; and yet nobody stirred to leave. A

riveting young German soprano named Alexandra von der Weth was making her

American debut in the title role, and as she sang to her maid about

premonitions of doom, the typically volatile weather conditions on an August

night in the mountains of northern New Mexico

and Donizetti’s relentlessly soaring and crashing music seemed to spur each other

on. In the end, of course, it was no contest. The wind and the rain came and

went and came again. But nobody gave it a thought. All around me were cold,

damp people oblivious to everything except the playing out of Lucia’s

forebodings. Once again an opera, performed to the hilt, had rid the universe

of everything but itself.

This has been an exceptional summer for opera in the

elements. In Cooperstown, N.Y., on the shores of Lake Otsego, the Glimmerglass

Festival has had its most artistically satisfying season in years, producing four operas of widely different periods and styles

with invigorating panache: Chabrier’s 19th-century French farce, L’Étoile ; Mozart’s Enlightenment

masterpiece, Le Nozze di Figaro ;

Britten’s World War II reworking of classic tragedy, The Rape of Lucretia ; and Handel’s comic Baroque extravaganza, Agrippina . For me, the high

point was Britten’s first mature, seldom-performed

opera, a musically patchy but powerful work that revisits an ancient tale of

macho violence from the perspective of a war-battered couple in mid-century England.

Christopher Alden’s production neatly merged past and

present with a set divided between bleak Notting Hill domesticity and stark,

golden-lit Roman pomp, and a staging that allowed the strong principal players-Michelle

De Young in the title role; Nathan Gunn as her predatory abuser, Tarquinius;

and William Burden and Christine Goerke as the modern-day Chorus-to show

themselves as standard-bearers for the next generation of keenly committed

American opera stars. Afterward, the work’s descent into Christian moralizing

provoked considerable heat between those who found it offensive (why are so

many members of the American culturati put off by references to God?) and those

(myself among them) who replied, “Why can’t we let Britten, who was a Christian

conscientious objector of unimpeachable conviction, be Britten?” In any case,

we had all been struck once again by the lightning bolt of an opera that would

not let us go untouched into the night.

A couple of weeks later, I found myself in Santa Fe, N.M.,

where there is an older-and far more heavily financed-adherence to the

seductions of summer opera. The Santa Fe Opera, which has been instrumental in

this once-sleepy hamlet’s well-managed evolution into a mecca for sophisticated

tourists, getaway homeowners and art lovers, has entered a new phase in its

distinguished history. Having rebuilt the auditorium’s seating area a few years

ago such that there is now a billowing canopy over the heads of everyone in

attendance, the company has acquired a new general director, Richard Gaddes,

who replaced his old boss, S.F.O. founder John Crosby.

For more than 40 years, Mr. Crosby, who recently turned 75,

had run the summer festival pretty much according to his own highly cultivated

tastes-an opera by Richard Strauss, his favorite composer, was obligatory-and

the loss of control has not been easy for him. During lunch one day at the

company’s 50-acre complex a few miles out of town, I saw him sitting by himself

on the terrace outside the cafeteria, staring morosely into space and looking

like Napoleon on Elba. It was a sad sight, especially

since he has every reason to be gratified by the triumphs of his chosen

successor’s first season.

I saw four of this summer’s five productions-missing only Mitridate , one of Mozart’s earliest

forays into opera seria -and three of

the four were exemplary stagings of well-established masterworks. (Despite

wonderfully assured conducting by John Crosby himself, the Strauss offering, Die Ägyptische Helena [ The Egyptian Helen ], was understaged and

badly cast, with a vocally and physically unalluring Helen in the soprano

Christine Brewer and an unmusical, bellowing Menelas in John Horton Murray.)

The summer’s great crowd-pleasers have been Thor Steingraber’s

uncluttered direction of Lucia and

Jonathan Miller’s robust staging of Falstaff .

The former, vigorously conducted by Richard Buckley, was memorable for the

striking Ms. von der Weth, who has some of Joan Sutherland’s chalky timbre in

her wildly uneven soprano, and the sterling Edgardo of Frank Lopardo, a veteran

tenor whose good looks, ringing tone and solid-if somewhat aggressive-command

of the bel canto style has, mysteriously, not translated into major stardom. Falstaff was distinguished chiefly by

the excellence in the title role of Andrew

Shore, an English baritone of

tremendous stage presence, who turned the old rogue into the wiliest sweetheart

imaginable, and the conducting of Alan Gilbert. Verdi’s final masterpiece has a

score to challenge even the most experienced opera conductor-it must project a

personality of its own and yet be all of a piece with the vocal ensemble-but

Mr. Gilbert, who has had relatively little experience in the trade, kept

everything beautifully and incisively in play. The son of parents who are both

violinists in the New York Philharmonic, he is a young American maestro to

watch.

Of the half-dozen or so Wozzecks

that I have seen over the years, none has surpassed the Santa

Fe production, which was directed by an Englishman,

Daniel Slater, who was making his American debut, and conducted by Vladimir

Jurowski, a young Russian from St. Petersburg

who has been named music director of the Glyndebourne Festival. Despite its

reputation for “difficult” atonal music, Berg’s adaptation of the brutally

stark play by Georg Büchner, about a hapless soldier who murders his faithless

common-law wife Marie, has proven to be a sure-fire stage vehicle since its

tumultuous premiere in 1925. Wozzeck is

opera in its most undiluted form: utterly direct in its emotional rawness,

unambiguous in its depiction of good and evil, and as immediately imprinting on

the ear and mind as a Goya cartoon.

This was a Wozzeck in

which everything worked. The production’s visual inspiration seemed to be the

cruelly scarred, deep-perspective canvases of Anselm Kiefer: a light-shafted

barracks that transfigured itself into the settings of Wozzeck’s downward

spiral-the doctor’s experimental laboratory, Marie’s dismal flat, the forest

pond where the fatal stabbing takes place. The faultless cast was led by the

Swedish baritone Hakan Hagegard, whose Wozzeck was a

deeply disoriented Everyman with an untouchable core of nobility, and Anne

Schwanewilms, a German soprano with the sexuality and searing vocal colors

ofayoungHildegard Behrens, who made a sensational American debut as Marie. Mr.

Jurowski’s taut, surely paced conducting gave the kaleidoscopic density of

Berg’s score a lunar transparency: If this music hurt, as it must, there was

always the sense that it was happening in a dancing light. Most memorable of

all were the details of Mr. Slater’s inventive stage directions: When Marie

read the Bible to her illegitimate little son (Austin Allen),

the boy hid himself under the bed. It was as vivid a depiction of an innocent’s

awareness of how good entwines with evil as I have ever seen.