The acequia running nearby shows a few yellow leaves; too cool for breakfast outside today; the overgrown garden needs a firm hand. Summer is slowing and the summer music scene is finito. An imaginary curtain rang down at the Santa Fe Opera last Saturday night, and the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival closed up for the year. So now—a little accountability?
Charles MacKay, the SFO’s general director, tells everyone that the company isn’t risk-averse. From its first season, the SFO has never feared the new and unfamiliar—think 56 premieres since 1957. And 2012? On the face of it, this looked like one of the scariest repertories ever.
Yes, Tosca opened the season, though it turned out to be the least successful of the five-opera season. Opening night in June was vocally stronger than when I revisited the show during the final week. Thomas Hampson had joined the cast as Scarpia and, while an imposing stage figure, his voice lacks the heft and diabolism that the role demands. Happily, though, the nearly legitimate-rape of Tosca in the second act had been toned down.
Bizet’s Pearl Fishers isn’t exactly risky, although not smack in the middle of the standard repertory either. And the SFO provided an imaginative, easy-on-the-eye and vocally excellent show, well worth reviving.
The riskier business? Strauss’ Arabella contains some of his most alluring music, though often mired in a plot that requires forbearance. But with Andrew Davis in the pit and Erin Wall in the title role, backed up by a top-notch cast and sympathetic staging, this became one of the finest Strauss showings in the company’s history.
Scarier still, Szymanovsky’s King Roger was virtually unknown by most opera buffs. Until now, that is. Mariusz Kwiecien’s towering performance in the title role, Evan Rogister’s command of the forbiddingly complex score and Stephen Wadsworth’s effective direction made this a not-to-be-missed occasion.
But as a risky revelation, Rossini’s tragic masterpiece Maometto II trumped the entire season. Who would have known? Revised repeatedly since its 1820 premiere, we heard it just about as Rossini intended, complete with spectacular bel canto singing, strong staging from David Alden and a complete sense of musical drama from SFO’s chief conductor, Frédéric Chaslin. Luca Pisaroni triumphed in the title role, and Leah Crocetto made a debut that will long be remembered.
For its 40th season, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival both surprised and delighted with rare programming as well. Four world premieres were probably a record for the festival, with new works by Helen Grime, Magnus Lindberg, David Del Tredici and Aaron Jay Kernis. Mostly admirable piano recitals occupied three of the popular Music at Noon concerts, with young pianist Inon Barnatan making an especially powerful impression.
The standard repertory was well and truly served throughout the SFCMF’s 40 concerts, too. If I had to choose—impossible task—just two works to represent the festival’s standard of excellence, I’d pick the Brahms Clarinet Trio on the July 29 and 30 programs, featuring pianist Lindberg, cellist Anssi Karttunen and clarinetist Chen Halevy. Then, for the final work of the season, Schubert’s String Quintet, D. 956, in an ineffable reading by the Tokyo Quartet with cellist Lynn Harrell.
But for the summer’s centerpiece the SFCMF programmed four large-scale, rarely-performed chamber works by Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg and Richard Strauss. Berg’s 1925 Chamber Concerto received a bravura performance with Chaslin conducting his 15 instrumentalists. Then Alan Gilbert, the SFCMF’s artist-in-residence, led both of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphonies plus the Strauss Sonatina No. 1 in three stunning concerts.
Difficult music. Terrific performances. See you next year.