A second half-century
Santa Fe Opera does Mozart, Puccini, Rameau, Strauss, Tan Dun

The Santa Fe Opera opens its 2007 season on June 29. Among this summer’s five offerings is “Cosi fan tutte,” a Mozart opera last performed in Santa Fe in 2003/Photo by Ken Howard

by Judith Reynolds

How to start a second 50 years at Santa Fe Opera: Take one major American premiere, add new productions of works by Puccini, Rameau and Richard Strauss, and toss in a revival of a popular favorite.

By all counts, the season that follows a big anniversary splash has to be the start of something new. Santa Fe Opera celebrated its 50th anniversary last year with a world premiere, auxiliary events surrounding, wagon loads of international stars, and all kinds of extras. The 51st season has to have its own shine, and it does. It opens in late June runs through August, with a roster of 38 performances. The season mixes two standards, an elegant one act, some outrageous comic relief, and the latest of the latest.

Two popular favorites take the stage the first weekend: Giacomo Puccini’s “La bohème” opens Fri., June 29; Sat., June 30, it’s Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte.”

“La bohème” has been performed in Santa Fe dozens of times, the last in 1993. Now the tale of bohemian life in Paris will have an entirely new production, staged by Paul Curran and conducted by Corrado Rovaris. Sung in Italian, “La bohème” tells the story of cold winter nights in Paris and what it’s like to be young and stupid in Paris.

The key role of Mimi will be shared by Jennifer Black and Serena Farnocchia. Rodolfo’s role will also be shared by Welsh singer Gwyn Hughes Jones and a proud graduate of the Santa Fe Apprentice Program, Dimitri Pittas. Expect lavish café scenes and spare garrets. Not to be missed.

“Cosi,” as it is affectionately referred to in the opera world, will be a revival production of the wildly popular 2003 version. Even Scott Cantrell, that cantankerous critic from the Dallas Morning News said Santa Fe’s version “scores with a union of superb vocals, probing roles.” The original stage director, James Robinson, returns with a new cast: Suzanne Mentzer as Despina and Dale Travis as Don Alfonso.

These two operas have built-in audience appeal and will have more performances than those less well known or even this year’s premiere. “La bohème” will have a baker’s dozen of performances; “Cosi” has eight. If you want to attend one or both, don’t wait on tickets.

Tan Dun’s “Tea: A Mirror of Soul” will have only six performances. For some strange reason in America, premieres are a hard sell. That’s a mystery to me. Who would pass up an opportunity to be in a first-time audience – good or bad? “Tea” made its world debut in Tokyo in 2002. Since that time, the opera has had national premieres in Germany, France and New Zealand. Santa Fe will give the work its American debut.

Based on a story of a love affair between a Japanese monk and a Chinese princess, “Tea” merges Eastern and Western influences. The doomed lovers search for the Book of Tea, hence the title. The story may be universal, but it has a distinct Oriental and modern flavor in this work. Stylistically, the music suggests Italian lyricism, but it is underscored by an unusual orchestration. Combine traditional Western instruments, lush harmonies, a gamelan-like percussion section, a male “Greek chorus” and sounds from nature.

In an interview for the New York Times last December, Tan Dun said his favorite instruments “are still the ones you find in nature – water, stone, ceramics.”

As a child, Tan Dun worked on a government commune with his parents. They were part of the massive Chinese Cultural Revolution plan to re-educate intellectuals. Of that experience he said: “I spent two years cleaning the bathrooms, feeding pigs and planting rice. I have to tell you – I enjoyed them. I started to collect all the farmers’ folk songs.” Tan Dun later studied at Beijing’s Central Conservatory and as a scholarship student at Columbia University.

Santa Fe has managed to contract Haijing Fu, the singer who created the role of the monk Seikyo in the world premiere. He will be joined by Kelly Kaduce as Lan. Kaduce last appeared in the spectacular SFO production of “Madame Mao.”

You may think you don’t know the name Tan Dun, but he won a Chinese box of awards for his film score for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” His latest opera, “The First Emperor,” had its world premiere last December at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

The rarely performed opera “Platée,” by Jean-Phillipe Rameau, will open July 14. This is the company’s first production of this fanciful 18th-century work, and it provides pure comic relief. Sung in French, “Platée” is a satire that spoofs both French tragic opera and Greek gods and goddesses. Filled with colorful costumes, dozens of dances and all out foolishness, Rameau’s opera has been revived here and there of late, and now it’s coming to Santa Fe.

The coveted spot reserved for a Richard Strauss opera will be filled this year by “Daphne.” John Crosby, the late founder and general director of the company, conducted the American premiere in 1964. Crosby is legendary for almost single handedly creating an American revival of all things Richard Strauss starting with Santa Fe. “Daphne” has been performed many times at SFO, the last diaphanous production taking the stage in 1996.

The opera received its world premiere in 1938 in Dresden and had a spectacular revival last year in New York. Now it’s Santa Fe’s turn to dazzle the eye and ear. It’s a lyrical and lovely work with a final, eloquent monologue. The title role will be sung by Erin Wall, a Canadian-American singer making her Santa Fe debut. This will be an entirely new production.

One last tip and it’s the best kept secret in Santa Fe. The pre-opera lectures are of the highest quality and shouldn’t be missed. They take place on site an hour before curtain. Professional speakers deliver the talks, and they are often laced with humor not to mention occasional sing-a-longs. Yes, at the Santa Fe Opera. They are free with your ticket as admission. Why these talks are under publicized is a mystery. Locals flock to them, so get there early and get a seat. •

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