Timely and timeless
Santa Fe Opera opens its 2008 season

Dusk settles over the desert as the Santa Fe Opera’s houselights go up for another evening performance last year./Courtesy photo

by Judith Reynolds

"Adriana Mater” is a new opera about an ordinary woman in a time of war. Composed by Kaija Saariaho, one of Finland’s rising stars, the work will receive its American premiere in Santa Fe this summer. Its theme is both .

That could be said about all five operas on the 2008 schedule. Based on Herman Melville’s famous novella about good and evil, “Billy Budd” is another tragic opera with weight and heft. One could hardly say Handel’s rarely performed “Radamisto” is heavy, but it is about a ruler with an obsession so strong he embarks on a preemptive war. Hmmm. If it weren’t for its neat, Hollywood ending, one might say “Radamisto” is all too timely.

Sliding toward the light side of the theatrical scale, marital bliss is at stake in “The Marriage of Figaro.” But, of course, there’s a significant obstacle, a lecherous master. Ultimately, Mozart’s “Figaro” is as delightful as a triple-decker ice-cream cone. And teetering on the edge of pure fluff, there sits Verdi’s only comic opera, “Falstaff.” This tale of a randy and rambunctious old man foiled by two smart women is simply a banana split.

So there you have it – two genuine tragedies, one a mix, and two comic operas. As in summers past, Santa Fe has scheduled more performances of favorites and the familiar. “Falstaff” opens June 27, runs 10 performances and closes the season Aug. 23. “The Marriage of Figaro” opens June 28 and will run 11 performances, the last being Aug. 22. The remaining three operas have fewer performances: “Billy Budd” – seven; “Radamisto” – six; and “Adriana Mater” – four. It doesn’t take a market scientist to understand why. For all the hoopla about newness and change in America, we like what we know. Better yet, we like what’s been deemed “a popular favorite.”

In the arts, Americans tend to be skittish about new work. We’re also not high on tragedy. What a shame. Some of the most profound operas are tragedies, and I count “Billy Budd” among them. With the American premiere of “Adriana Mater,” we’ll see how it stacks up against the likes of “Tosca.”

More than any art form except perhaps the epic novel, grand opera can take the simplest human drama and make it speak in a timeless, universal manner. “Billy Budd” and “Adriana Mater” each have a story line that boils down to the forces of good against evil.

“Adriana Mater” addresses the issues of motherhood in war time. The central character (sung by Monica Group) is raped by a soldier from her own town. She refuses to get an abortion and raises her son, Yonas (Joseph Kaiser) to believe his father was killed in the war. At maturity, Yonas learns the truth and sets out to kill the man who raped his mother.

As a composer, Saariaho, 53, is known for scores filled with masses of shimmering sound, long, sustained tones, and flickering instrumental effects. Those who saw the 2002 premiere in Santa Fe of another of her operas, “L’amour de loin,” may recall the gorgeous ocean of sound that pored over the audience in wave after wave.

The Santa Fe production of “Adriana Mater” is based on the world premiere held at the Paris Opera in 2006.

Benjamin Britten’s “Billy Budd” has never been performed in Santa Fe, so this new production carries some excitement. The work received its world premiere in 1952 with Britten conducting; it has been a staple of companies around the world ever since. None other than British writer E.M. Forster wrote the libretto, interpreting Melville’s classic story for the stage. There’s a frame for the piece. The aged Captain Vere (William Burden) continues to suffer guilt over Billy’s demise at the hands of the evil Master-at Arms Claggart (Peter Rose) and tells the story.

One of the big draws will be the New Zealand bass-baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes in the title role. He’s got an interesting background that includes big talent, a pragmatic period when he worked as an accountant, and a spectacular reentry into a musical career when he joined Opera Australia in 1998. Since then, Tahu Rhodes has been much in demand, and Santa Fe is lucky to land him for such a sea-worthy role.

Handel’s “Radamisto” is another first for Santa Fe. This is a musical-military spectacle driven by one ruler’s obsession with another royal’s wife. The action takes place in Asia Minor back in 51 A.D. King Tiridate (Luca Pisaroni) concocts a war of choice against Thrace, captures the king and puts the city under siege. The title role, Radamisto, is a prince of Thrace. Scored for counter tenor, David Daniels will sing this challenging role. We can forgive Handel for his out-of-the-box happy ending and wish somebody could do the same for our own war-of-choice in Iraq.

Mozart fans will be thrilled to see “Marriage of Figaro” again. Last performed here in 2000, “Figaro” is always welcome. And you get to hear baritone Pisaroni, the villain Tiridate in “Radamisto,” now as hero when he sings the role of Figaro to Elizabeth Watts’ Susanna.

“Falstaff,” what’s not to love? This work is so popular that the Santa Fe Opera gods have designed an entirely new production. Last performed in 2001, Falstaff’s shenanigans then took place in a spectacularly modern, angular set. So it will be a pleasure to see what director Kevin Newbury and his creative team invent this time for the bustling confusion and charming charade that drives this story of love and foolishness. •




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