June 1, 2012 at 3:38 PM

Love (and Lust) at First Sound: The Santa Fe Opera’s 2012 Season

By Craig Smith

Critical Faculties

Craig Smith answered an ad for singers for the Santa Fe Desert Chorale’s first season way back when – OK, 1983 – and has been here happily ever since. He is a writer, editor, journalist, arts critic, general wordsmith, and wannabe polymath.

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In a recent Dallas Morning News review of Fort Worth Opera’s production of Mark Adamo’s “Lysistrata,” Scott Cantrell said, “Let’s be honest: In varying proportions, under various degrees of camouflage, operas are about sex and power.”

Scott was restating a truism, but it’s one that often really does get overlooked. It’s easy to be so enchanted by opera’s visual spectacle, sonic power, and general air of oomph, that the sexual oomph driving most operas can be overlooked – or ignored. The human skin and sweat beneath is overlaid by a more diplomatic artistic skin, as it were.

Consider the operas in The Santa Fe Opera’s 2012 season: Puccini’s “Tosca,” Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers,” Rossini’s “Maometto II,” Szymanowski’s “King Roger,” and Richard Strauss’s “Arabella.” All deal with human love at its most selfless and noble, and also at its most earthy and basic. The tension in the contrast is what drives the stories.

In “Tosca,” the title character – an opera diva, sung here by Amanda Echalaz –, is the lover of painter and revolutionary Mario Cavaradossi (Andrew Richards) The Roman chief of police, Baron Scarpia (a role shared by Raymond Aceto and Thomas Hampson) is determined to have Tosca, and not in the moonlight-and-roses sense, either. There’s an overlay of politics floating above the lust, but only just. Under Chief Conductor Frédéric Chaslin, there should be plenty of pulsing potency in the sound.

Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” has become one of those operas known by one tune: the tenor-baritone duet “Au fond du temple saint.” It tells how two friends, as close as brothers, both fall for the beautiful high priestess who charms the waves so that the pearl divers of Ceylon can ply their trade. Of course when love comes in the window, brotherhood flies out the door, though both men do their best to be noble and resigned about it. Conductor Emmanuel Villuame returns after a long absence, to lead a cast including Nicole Cabell as Leila the songstress, Eric Cutler as Nadir, and Christopher Magiera as Zurga.

Rossini’s “Maometto II” will be heard in a new critical edition – the opera exists in several versions, and this ties the many historical skeins together using the original 1820s score as a basis. The love triangle here concerns the Turkish emperor Maometto II (Luca Pisaroni), who is the secret lover of Venetian noblewoman Anna (Leah Crocetto), who also loves Calbo (Patricia Bardon, in a “trouser” role). It’s all set against a backdrop of Maometto’s siege of a hapless Venetian city. Chaslin conducts, and the cast – as is sometimes the case with Rossini – includes not one but three tenor roles.

“King Roger,” an opera that’s only recently begun to receive many performances around the world, deals with love and fascination. The plot suggests Euripides’ “The Bacchae,” as interpreted through the lens of 12-century Christianity. King Roger (Mariusz Kwiecien) is thrown for both an emotional and a governmental loop when an itinerant shepherd (William Burden) appears and proceeds to charm everyone into Dionysian frenzy, over the Apollonic-cum-Christian order Roger prefers. And, you guessed it, the shepherd is eventually revealed as the Greek God Dionysus himself. Evan Rogister conducts. The Santa Fe Desert Chorale will join the SFO apprentice artists in the huge choral parts that are part of this work’s great aural richness.

“Arabella,” one of Richard Strauss’s typically vocally glorious works, is about love in many guises. There are parents trying to marry their elder daughter, Arabella, off to a rich nobleman; there is another daughter who has been raised as a boy to save money, who is in love with a young nobleman who is infatuated with daughter number one; and the rich, older nobleman is also smitten with Arabella but then begins to doubt her possible fidelity. Andrew Davis leads a cast including Erin Wall in the title role, Heidi Stober as the cross-dressed Zdenka, and Mark Delavan as Mandryka. “Tosca” opens June 29, “Pearl Fishers” June 30, “Maometto II” July 14, “King Roger “July 21,” and “Arabella “July 28. In addition, a special gala concert evening, “Susan Graham and Friends,” featuring the beloved mezzo-soprano as mistress of ceremonies, takes the stage August 4. Kenneth Montgomery conducts the SFO orchestra in music ranging from Mozart to Gershwin, and Chaslin will perform as pianist. Champagne will be served before the concert – something of a harkening back to SFO decades ago, when there was waltzing and champagne following opening night.

One change this year should please everyone, especially those who find SFO evenings running a bit late for their eyelids: June 29 through July 28, performances will begin at 8:30 p.m., up from the old 9 p.m., while shows running from July 30 through the season close on Aug. 25, will be at 8 p.m. And in a nod to newness, all five operas will be seen in newly designed and created productions: visual and theatrical freshness onstage to go with the power of the music.

Tickets are now on sale for the season, Call 505-986-5900 for information, or visit www.santafeopera.org.

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