Operatic overtures

Santa Fe festival makes music of madness

SANTA FE, N.M. — Madness of various kinds sprawled across the stage at the Santa Fe Opera this summer, making the 45th annual opera festival a veritable encyclopedia of psychosis.

A highlight of the fest was British director Daniel Slater’s brilliant staging of Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck.”

Russian conductor Vladimir Jurowski was in full command of the score’s staggering complexities, while baritone Hakan Hagegard, playing the tortured victim of a callous society, caught both the character’s childlike innocence and his feral, fear-driven state. German soprano Anne Schwanewilms, making her U.S. debut, sang Marie with rare beauty and expressive range.

Aided by set and costume designer Robert Innes Hopkins, Slater expressed Wozzeck’s encroaching madness through buckling walls and floors that caved in as well as a moon redder than anything outside of a nightmare.

Another German soprano making her American debut, Alexandra von der Weth, enthralled audiences with her “Lucia di Lammermoor,” the mad Scottish bride in Donizetti’s bel canto standard. Tenor Frank Lopardo’s ardent, gleaming tenor provided a fine partner in the duets. Conductor Richard Buckley’s sympathetic regard for bel canto singing was welcome, but director Thor Steingraber’s staging was half-baked, torn between traditional front-and-center singing and realism.

American conductor Alan Gilbert and Brit baritone Andrew Shore conspired wonderfully in Verdi’s “Falstaff.” Shore’s great portrayal of the lusty, eager swain was nuanced, and the orchestra gave a virtuoso performance. Jonathan Miller’s production, with sets by Robert Israel, located the action in Holland, a suitable locale for Falstaff to get in Dutch.

In “Mitridate, re di Ponto,” the 14-year-old Mozart shows his extraordinary sense in confrontation with dramatic nonsense from Racine. That it worked at all, with all its dramatic implausibilities, was due to the exciting singing ensemble featuring Donald Kaasch as the rogue despot of a remote Greek kingdom at war with Rome. Kaasch offered awesome runs and lunged into powerful declarations, bringing dramatic focus to an opera that needs it. Laura Aikin, countertenor Bejun Mehta and Nicole Folland offered solid support.

The baffling book for “The Egyptian Helen” was provided with a magical musical score by Richard Strauss, and John Crosby, the one-time Santa Fe topper in his 47th year at the fest, continues to thrive on Strauss’ shimmering beauty and dramatic sonorities. Christine Brewer was a Helen without fear of using her voice powerfully: Her big, seamless soprano commanded the air. She was well partnered by John Horton Murray, whose heldentenor continues to grow even as his acting doesn’t quite.

The production also was notable for the Santa Fe debut of Mark Delavan, who was most impressive in less bombastic, more seductive tones.

Next summer’s Santa Fe lineup looks particularly strong. It includes the U.S. preem of “L’amour de loin,” from Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, which won raves at last year’s Salzburg Festival. The Peter Sellars production will feature Dawn Upshaw. Other highlights include Rodney Gilfrey as “Eugene Onegin” with Patricia Racette and “The Italian Girl in Algiers” with up-and-coming mezzo Stephanie Blythe.

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