Believe it: where l’amour is concerned, speak French. Take that sentimental saying, “On revient toujours à son premier amour,” which translates clumsily as, “Your first love—it’s always there.” Now disclosing his own amorous musical memories, Charles MacKay, general director of the Santa Fe Opera, confesses that “Tosca—it’s the first opera I fell in love with.”
So, no surprises here: Puccini’s Tosca opens the SFO’s 57th season on June 29 at 8:30 pm. Well, one surprise—that the old girl’s been out of sight since 1994, her last outing with the company. Especially since MacKay calls it “just about a perfect opera.” What the man means is that Puccini’s opus scores way high in terms of dramatic conciseness and characterization: “There’s not an ounce of fat on the piece.”
Despite critic Joseph Kerman’s denunciation of Tosca as a “shabby little shocker,” audiences love its hyper-lyrical mingling of relentless passion with sadism and sacrilege. SFO’s music director, Frédéric Chaslin, a Tosca fan since his student days, conducts, with Amanda Echalaz making her American debut in the title role; Raymond Aceto is Scarpia until mid-August when Thomas Hampson takes over.
One of two deficiencies in the company’s repertory over the years, according to MacKay, has been its faint-hearted approach to French opera. Last season’s Faust signaled a new Gallic emphasis, continued this season with Bizet’s melodic The Pearl Fishers, opening June 30. Forget the libretto and just surrender to its exotic if slightly faded beauty, loaded with charming arias and choruses plus That Duet. Eric Cutler as Nadir and Christopher Magiera as Zurga compete for the love of Nicole Cabell, the chaste priestess Leila. Emmanuel Villaume conducts.
The other SFO repertory deficiency? Its neglect of bel canto opera, that evanescent, challenging vocal style heard chiefly in works by Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti. As early as 1858, Rossini lamented, “Alas for us, we have lost our bel canto.” But not before he had composed his neglected 1820 masterpiece, Maometto II, about to premiere in a new critical edition on July 14.
Among Rossini’s late tragic operas, Maometto makes spectacular demands upon singers while offering unexpected delights for audiences. Listen in the first act for the heroine, Anna’s, heart-breaking “Preghiera,” part of a convention-busting, half-hour-long Trio, and for Maometto’s wickedly difficult entrance aria. Luca Pisaroni returns to Santa Fe in the title role, Leah Crocetto makes her SFO debut as Anna, and Chaslin conducts.
Karol Szymanowski’s elusive, affecting King Roger (1924), another rarity, opens on July 21 with the charismatic baritone Mariusz Kwiecien as the 12th century ruler of Sicily. This multi-level drama pits the king against a mysterious shepherd within broader conflicts between Christianity and paganism, reason and sensuality. Roger, challenged by the Dionysian shepherd’s sensuous appeal, undergoes a psychosexual crisis threatening his identity and his kingdom. Szymanowski’s shimmering, impressionistic orchestration supports fluid vocal lines and an enormous chorus, by far the SFO’s largest. Erin Morley sings Roxana, Roger’s queen, and William Burden is the shepherd. Evan Rogister conducts.
The SFO has gone Strauss-less since 2007, the longest Strauss drought in the company’s history. That all changes when Arabella arrives on July 28 with Erin Wall as the high-minded heroine who, with a glass of water, finally gets her man. Part fairy tale, part operetta, this poignant, comedic farewell to a vanished Alt Wien has all the trappings of farce: cross-dressing, a bed trick, tipsy misunderstandings, even some yodeling.
But Strauss transforms the rattletrap plot into pure 24K gold when Arabella and her unlikely suitor, Mandryka, declare their love in one of the most moving finales ever composed. Bring your handkerchief. Sir Andrew Davis conducts the voluptuous score in this last offering of what promises to be one of the SFO’s boldest, richest seasons.