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At 40, Santa Fe Opera wants richer lifestyle

Tracking off-beat programming as well as glorying in its pinyon-dotted hill setting north of Santa Fe, the Santa Fe Opera next year will celebrate its 40th year of summer fare. To mark the occasion, it has issued a $16.7 million challenge for fundraising to back expansion of the theater and also to add $2 million to endow its maintenance. Work starts in the fall of 1996 and will be completed in spring of 1998.

Strauss house

Founder John Crosby continues as general director and, at 69, continues to lead performances of works by Richard Strauss in the most comprehensive review of his operas ever undertaken. Richard Gaddes, who left the Santa Fe Opera to establish the Opera Theater of St. Louis, came back on board this year as associate general director. The company struggles uneasily in a city victimized by the collapse of New Mexico’s energy economy in the 1980s and local hotels filled with non-opera buffs, which keeps the audience numbers down. A 1% lodgers tax for Santa Fe hotels and motels does support the Opera considerably.

Premieres on tap

“Modern Painters” (reviewed on page 85) is the first of three commissioned works to have their premieres over three seasons. It opened July 29, selling 75% of the tickets at its three performances. The opera drew a strong response, favorable in the Wall Street Journal, which called it “an ingenious, witty, and moving production,” negative in the Chicago Tribune, which called the result, “despite a decent performance and exemplary staging, a well-intentioned failure.”

The 1996 premiere is to be “Emmeline,” based on Judith Rossner’s novel, with music by Tobias Picker and libretto by J.D. McClatchy. “Ashoka’s Dream” by Peter Lieberson, with a book by Douglas Penick, comes in 1997. These are the first commissions in the history of the Santa Fe Opera, though it has premiered some 30 20thcentury operas. “Modern Painters” is the first contemporary American work to be done since John Eaton’s “The Tempest” in 1985.

Experimentation in opera production has included John Conklin’s avant-garde sets for “The Flying Dutchman” and “Tosca,” Bruno Schengl’s adventuresome designs for “Oedipus” and “The Sorrows of Werther,” and Alison Chitty’s abstract concepts for “Modern Painters.”

Theatrical aspects are vital to opera. The work of Francesca Zambello, the up-and-coming director, combines both insightful characterization and bold movement, such as the funeral procession which winds out of the dark in an apt metaphor for the Victorian era in “Modern Painters.” John Cox is a master of Mozartean comedy, and Lou Galterio rose to imaginative heights in his “Don Giovanni” last season, to be repeated in 1996. John Copley is noted for his flair with baroque opera.

Musical mix

In the current season, operas as varied as “Modern Painters,” “La Fanciulla del West,” “Countess Maritza,” “Salome” and “The Marriage of Figaro” contend for the attention of various kinds of audience.

Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West,” or “The Girl of the Golden West,” is no longer a rarity in American opera houses. Casting is the major problem, as it is in Santa Fe. Craig Sirianni lacks charisma to a severe degree, and his Dick Johnson is a dullard. Timothy Noble’s stentorian Jack Rance is flamboyantly out of balance. Mary Jane Johnson’s Minnie has dramatic presence, but unfocused singing and dryness of voice in the first act compromised her performance, which did however improve.

Highly skilled singers Patrick Wrobelewski, Kevin Langan, Anthony Laciura and Herbert Perry stengthened minor roles. John Fiore’s conducting enhanced the score with its many remarkable harmonic advances.

Glam ‘Countess’

“Countess Maritza” is a lavish revival of the 1926 Kalman operetta. More sparked by “show business” than is common at Santa Fe, its succession of sentimental reveries, romantic duets, comic duos and spirited dance episodes requires little concentration. Your mind could be resting on the shelf. Its graceful swirls of melody were stylishly performed under John Crosby’s conducting.

“Salome” offers Danish soprano Inga Nielson as a beautiful profligate in the erotic Strauss opera. Her incandescent vocal performance drew a SRO crowd, which hailed the unwavering beauty and purity of her sound. John Crosby led the orchestra in a superb playing of the opulent score. Unfortunately, director Ken Cazan was so insistent on activity for Nielson in the opening scenes that this detracted from the climatic Dance of the Seven Veils.

Finally, there was a production of “The Marriage of Figaro” as comically human as could be imagined. Designer Robert Perdziola set the scene hilariously in decor that allowed director John Cox to have the personages of the opera become voyeurs of the comedy. The original take he provides for the opera’s action is funny and pleasing.

The superb cast includes Santa Fe Opera veteran Benita Valente in glowing voice, a wonderful, young English soprano Rebecca Evans in her American debut as Susanna, and Spanish mezzo-soprano Silvia TroSantafe, a brash, charming Cherubino, also making her American debut. American bass-baritone Dean Peterson was a dashing Figaro and Rodney Gilfrey commanded the nobility and the passion of the Count in an outstanding performance. George Manahan was the exemplary conductor.

For the 40th anniversary season in summer 1996, there will be Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress,” Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” Strauss’ “Daphne” and the Picker-McClatchy “Emmeline.”

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