For 46 seasons the Santa Fe Opera has prided itself on making the old new and the new challenging. This policy, charted for 43 years by the late John Crosby, now is carried out by Richard Gaddes, who continues to offer creative productions that might not be seen elsewhere. Only rarely have audiences seen a production revived. The current season featured one revival and four new productions. The highlight was the world premiere of “Madame Mao,” commissioned from composer Bright Sheng and Colin Graham, who both directed and provided the libretto.
The work is described as being “loosely” based on the life of Jiang Ching, third wife of Mao Zedong. Despite a disclaimer that denotes the opera as “by and large fictitious,” it holds to basic truths about a scheming, unscrupulous woman. The melodrama of her life has a pre-sold theatricality. This is foretold at the start of the opera, when Jiang Chiang’s body is seen hanging from the rafters.
Sheng’s music incorporates sudden shifts to high vocal ranges and loud orchestral onsloughts. The militant boom of kettle drums becomes something of a musical crutch whenever high drama is anticipated. Sheng’s writing is generally thick, lacking the chamber sound of Chinese music: It is a hybrid of Chinese and Western music. It is easy — perhaps too easy — to listen to, except when Sheng overindulges his dramatic writing. The second act was musically repetitive, not building up to its climax.
The scheme of the opera calls for two women to portray Jiang Ching. Robynne Redmon, in fine furious voice, plays the elder woman, while Anna Christy, with her crystal-clear soprano, plays the young Jiang. The central theme is expressed in a final scene between the two: “When did you become me? Or I become you.” The effort to dramatize the life of this woman, with her self-described noble impulses belied by repulsive actions, has the unplanned effect of softening her character. It’s not quite a sanctification, but a blurring of the dramatic line.
Alan Opie bears a certain resemblance to Mao, and brings a solid bass-baritone to a role that is weakly compposed. Mao’s music fails to indicate his mixture of brutality and charm. Kelly Kaduce is outstanding in several roles.
Colin Graham directs his own material stylishly. A strong contribution to the opera is made by Neil Patel’s scenic designs, based on an open cube or box, suggesting the way romantic illusions are boxed in. The sets are effectively lit by Rick Fisher with bold primary colors. John Fiore conducted a vigorous performance of a complicated score.
The festival’s other new productions all had much to recommend them. Jonathan Kent’s staging of Janacek’s “Katya Kabanova” was a triumph of good taste and intelligence. Kent’s directing helped provide insight into the many characters, but Patricia Racette’s riveting performance was central to the success of the production.
She breathed life into a pathetic character in a perf of impressive emotional power and admirable sensitivity. Judith Forst, as Kabanicha, brought austere presence to a woman who seems a monster, although she is merely a traditionalist who happens to be a businesswoman. The men in this matriarichal world are either wimps or rakes. As Katya’s husband, the spinelesss and unromantic son of Kabanicha, Patrick Marquez had problems making his vocal presence known. Robert Tweten was the attentive, understanding conductor.
Santa Fe’s production of Offenbach’s opera-bouffe “La Belle Helene” came from the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, where its rambunctious satire apparently seemed at home. Here, the satirical jabs in this updating fell flat most of the time. There was too much obvious comedy in which the singers seemed ill at ease.
Nonetheless, the bright, tuneful Offenbach score was a joy to hear, and was well played and sung. As Helen, later to become Helen of Troy, Susan Graham shed all traces of diva dignity in a delicious performance that made the most of both her beauty and her beautifully stylish singing. Amid the melee of Laurent Pelly’s direction, she gave a natural lift to the production with the vitality of her presence. William Burden, with his imposing pectorals and fine, lyric tenor, has some sense of comedy, and made Paris a winning personage.
An excess of slapstick also marred James Robinson’s effort to update Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte.” The director obscured the opera’s humanity with his cartoonish, perpetual-motion production, notable for his peculiar fetish for chairs. Sadly, good singers were trapped in the production. As Fiordiligi, Ana Maria Martinez rose above the antics to sing beautifully, and was allowed a moment of quiet for “Per pieta.” Patricia Risley, as Dorabella was an exacting, exciting new talent. Charles Castronova sang with a sweet tenor to relish as Ferrando, and newcomer Christopher Feigum brought a well-placed, robust baritone to Guglielmo. The best singing of all came from Lillian Watson as Despina.
Yves Abel conducted inconsistently, giving beauty to woodwind solo work, but allowing the full orchestra to play too loudly and to drown out singers. Allen Moyer’s glaring, glassy set was hard to watch, but he provided a magical moment in act two when the back wall opened up to reveal a garden.