Six footmen in full regalia pluck flowers from the garden during “The Marriage of Figaro” overture during the 2008 Santa Fe Opera season. The stunning vista in the background is sunset behind the Jemez mountains, west of Santa Fe.
Santa Fe Opera Photos by Ken Howard
In the final scene of Handel’s “Radamisto,” Director David Alden chose to hang a stuffed, spotted leopard upside down. Why he chose to suspend the dead animal stuck with 24 giant arrows over the action in an ancient palace is anyone’s guess.

Santa Fe Stories: High Mesa Setting Offers World-Class Opera Experience

Singers Set on a high mesa, singers and music soar

By TERRY MATHEWS, News-Telegram Arts Editor

August 24, 2008 - For its 52nd season, the Santa Fe Opera pulled out all the stops. From artwork displayed on the lamps in the parking lot to a new pre-show buffet on the grounds and this year's beautiful program book, there's something to delight every one of your senses.

When I first started going west to the opera in 1982, the venue's roof only partially covered the seats. Since the unprotected seats were the only ones in my price range, I got wet when it rained. I got wet and really, really cold.

The venue, perched on a high mesa 7 miles outside of the city, now has a roof, but is still a theater without walls, offering stunning vistas of the Jemez mountains to the west and the Sangre de Cristo range to the east.

The current theatre has a seating capacity of 2,128 and an additional 106 standing room places. Every seat and standing room position offers an Opera Titles screen--a digital computer screen on which instantaneous translations in English and Spanish are broadcast, according to the opera's website (www.santafeopera.org).

Tiridate (Luca Pisaroni) manhandles Zenobia (Christine Rice) during Act II of Handel’s “Radamisto.” The singers in this production spent most of their time rolling around on the stage floor.
Sir John Falstaff (Anthony Michaels-Moore) sets his cap on the married Alice Ford (Claire Rutter) in order to win her sizeable fortune in Verdi’s “Falstaff,” which was one of five productions of the 2008 Santa Fe Opera season.
Santa Fe Opera Photo by Ken Howard

The company was founded in 1957 by the late John Crosby, "a young conductor from New York, who had an idea of starting an opera company to give American singers an opportunity to learn and perform new roles in a setting that allowed ample time to rehearse and prepare each production."

The 2008 season, which ran from June 27 through August 23, included Verdi's "Falstaff," Mozart's "Le nozze di Figaro," Kaija Saariaho's Adriana Mater (a U.S. premiere), Britten's "Billy Budd" and Handel's "Radamisto." In addition to the operas, the company puts on two performances of the Apprentice Showcase, designed as a platform for up-and- coming singers and theater technicians from all over America, as well as countries like German, Japan, Ghana and Iceland.

If variety is your cup of tea, then I recommended scheduling your visit to the Santa Fe Opera to coincide with the season's Apprentice Showcase.

This year, singers performed scenes from eight operas, including "Turandot," Cosi Fan Tutti," and "Lucia Di Lammermoor." The scenes were done with only a piano for accompaniment, like a vocal recital. About 10 minutes into the performance, I?realized that not having a full orchestra allowed the singers to really strut their stuff. The venue's acoustics are near perfect. The voices shined. It just doesn't get better than this, especially at $15 a ticket.

This year's production of Verdi's "Falstaff" made good use of the opera's 26,000 square foot stage.

From a seedy room behind the bar where the bawdy knight lives to the midnight finale in Windsor Forest, scenic designer Allen Moyer and lighting designer Duane Schuler set the perfect mood.

Sir John Falstaff, aging, corpulent, hung over and sorely in need of some quick cash, decides to woo Meg Page and Alice Ford, two local women with access to large fortunes.

In the opening scene, he sends identical love letters to the women. Once they discover his ruse, the savvy females plot to unravel Falstaff's scheme and expose him for the rake he is.

The "Falstaff" voices were splendid. British tenor Anthony Michaels-Moore captured the desperation of the aging knave. Kelley O'Connor (Meg Page) and Claire Rutter (Alice Ford) gave a great performances, their voices bright and lively, with just the right blend of bitterness and righteous indignation.

Keith Jameson (Bardolph) and Wilbur Pauley (Pistol) were perfectly cast as Falstaff's lackeys. Their wild and crazy antics provided the performance with perfectly timed comic relief and made me laugh out loud more than once.

At the last minute, apprentice Abigail Nims, a mezzo-soprano, was tapped to play young Nannetta Ford (Alice's daughter). Nims did a splendid job. Her enthusiasm and excitement were palpable. The knowledgeable audience joined the entire company in giving her a rousing ovation. She's one to watch.

"Le nozze di Figaro" is one of my favorite operas. I think I like it so much because when I was first learning about the world of opera, its music was familiar to my untrained ears.

Conductor Kenneth Montgomery kept the orchestra on its toes during this year's production. Even though the opera is lengthy, Jonathan Kent's lively direction moved the action right along.

Each of the opera's main characters in this story about the friction between servant and master, and man and wife, was in fine voice the night we were there.

The standout in this cast was British soprano Elizabeth Watts, who plays Susanna, Figaro's fiesty fiance. Watts proves that good things can come in small packages. She might be tiny, but she commands the stage, compelling everyone to watch her. She has complet control of her voice, too, able to project a wide range of emotions.

Along with its first-tier singers, one of the most striking aspects of Santa Fe Opera is that the stage's backdrop can be removed, revealing a breathtaking view of the Jemez mountains. To add to the charming vista are the twinkling lights of Los Alamos, which can be seen tucked into the mountainside after sunset.

This year, "Figaro's" scenic director Paul Brown made full use of Mother Nature's handiwork. When guests arrived, they were treated to a colorful flower garden framed by a spectacular Santa Fe sunset (See photo). Brown understands why 85,000 people from all over the world come to Santa Fe each year. He gets it. Bravo.

Maybe Brown can have a heart-to-heart with David Alden, the director of "Radamisto." Alden's heavy-handed approach to Handel's tale of love and lust stole the singers' thunder and all but ruined the evening.

The plot is simple. Tiridate (Luca Pisaroni) is married to the faithful Polissena (Laura Claycomb), but lusts after Zenobia (Deborah Domanski), who is married to Radamisto (Kevin Murphy), who happens to be Polissena's brother. Tiridate throws a hissy fit when Zenobia rebuffs him, and all hell breaks loose. Tiridate's henchman is Tigrane, whose unrequited love for faithful Polissena makes him just miserable.

Alden wastes the singers' power and range by having them sing into the walls and roll around on the floor in most scenes.

The stage floor must be really important to Alden, because that's where most of the opera's action takes place. A fire comes out of it. People pop up from it. They get kicked and thrown down on it. They spend a lot of time lying on it. They get frisky on it. Extras spend time washing it.

What the story has to do with black ravens perched all around the stage and near some seats, I'll never know. And then, there was the black leopard sitting atop a dead baby elephant that appeared at the end of Act One. What the heck?

Peacock statues showed up in Act Two. The scene took place in the royal gardens of ancient Armenia. Peacocks hang out in royal gardens. This, I understood.

At the end of Act Two, stagehands dressed in burkhas drug a stuffed spotted leopard onto the stage. It had 24 huge arrows sticking in it. As if that wasn't strange enough, they hung the animal upside down and left him there for the rest of the show. (See photo.) I can't make this stuff up.

Animal behavior must be important to Alden, too. He made Tiridate bob and weave like one of the raptors in Jurassic Park, especially when he was around Zenobia. Tiridate also slithered all over his wife and Zenobia - on the floor. His fingers took on a life of their own, twitching and flying around at the most unlikely times. People around me laughed each time he pranced on or off the stage, head first, body last. The striking thing about this performance is that it comes from the same guy who played Figaro. I was stunned by the differences. One is adorable. One is ridiculous. What a difference a director makes.

The strange placement of dead animals and having the action held on the floor distracted from what could have been a showcase for some pretty spectacular singers.

The voices were clear and, generally, on point. Domanski was a last-minute replacement, and she had some trouble keeping tempo in a difficult Act One aria, but for the most part, she held her own. Claycomb is a native Texan, educated at SMU. Her voice was strong and controlled, and she kept a straight face while singing into the walls and being manhandled by her husband, not an easy task, I'm sure. If Alden had turned her toward the audience and not to the wall, her talent could have been more fully appreciated.

The Santa Fe Opera is vested in education. They provide daily backstage tours and they offer pre-show talks (except the Apprentice Showcase). The 30-minute mini-lectures enhance your opera experience, so get there early to ensure a seat.

Tailgating is also encouraged at the opera. Check the website for dining options.

It's important to remember it can get really cold when attending the opera in an open-air, high altitude venue like Santa Fe. Layer up and take a wrap and a blanket. A stiff breeze can chill you in a hurry.

The Santa Fe Opera's 2009 season, opening July 3, is highlighted by the world premiere of "The Letter," as well as new productions of Gluck's "Alceste," Verdi's "La Traviata" and Donizetti's "The Elixir of Love." "Don Giovanni" is also on the roster. Tickets range from $56 to $180.

Visit the opera's website at www.santafeopera.org for complete information on tailgating, tickets, tours and the 2009 season.

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