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Falling in love: Don Pasquale's Shrader and Rae
Ken Howard

SFO ‘14: Not Over Till…

August 23

August 5, 2014, 12:00 am

Sammy Cahn wrote the lyrics, and Ol’ Blue Eyes sang it first: “I’m oh, so glad we met the second time around.” Ergo, herewith another look at this season’s Santa Fe Opera summer offerings. Music writers hereabouts are more or less obliged to hit the deck at every Crosby Theater opening night, even though a given production can sometimes mellow or get tweaked as it settles in during the season—set to conclude Aug. 23.

That’s clearly been the case for a couple of this summer’s shows, beginning with the 2014 opener, Bizet’s Carmen. On a recent revisit, five weeks post-opening, I was mostly able to ignore many of the evening’s directorial bizarreries (some of them blessedly toned down), given the fire and verve the piece has acquired in the meantime. Visual projections, especially of the corrida and bleak norteño landscapes, remain as effective as before, but now Roberto De Biasio’s Don José moves with greater urgency, interacts more effectively with the cast and sings out with more finesse.

Ana María Martínez, now in the title role, displays her sultry burnt-caramel lower register, remains suavely sexy throughout and makes a seriously dangerous seductress. That final scene, staged as if in a plaza de toros, surges with furious passion.

Donizetti’s Don Pasquale had been a hit from the git-go in Laurent Pelly’s sparkling, hard-boiled production, despite—alas—casting issues. Brenda Rae, the third soprano to take the role, is currently Norina, pushing the pizzazz factor of the show even higher than ever. Her vixenish characterization, boldly sung and extravagantly enacted, makes an ideal fit with her dashing colleagues. Shelley Jackson will sing the final two performances.

Alek Shrader continues as Norina’s physically and vocally over-the-top boyfriend, Ernesto. He’ll be back next year as Tonio in the company’s first-ever The Daughter of the Regiment. Zachary Nelson’s Malatesta is even more the loosey-goosey prime mover, and Andrew Shore’s inspired Pasquale maintains his mastery of the double take. Pelly’s version of the finale, no conventionally charming reconciliation scene here, still hits hard.

As the SFO’s first double-bill in quite some time, Mozart’s mini-marshmallow, The Impresario, shares the bill with Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol, a pairing with seemingly splendid potential given the company’s rich history with both composers. And both boast uniformly excellent casts in seriously demanding roles. Kenneth Montgomery’s orchestra, especially in the Stravinsky, simply shimmers.

In the event, Mozart’s wee opera-ette has been embellished with additions from his canon and with a new libretto, but in this over-long, over-weighted production, the butterfly gets broken upon the wheel. Its companion, a heavy-handed Rossignol, despite Erin Morley’s enchanting Nightingale, quite fails to dispel the memory of that earlier ’69/’70/’73 production—magical, eye-splitting, unforgettable.

The SFO’s at-long-last first-ever Fidelio turns out to be worth the wait. Despite a clichéd, Nazified production by Stephen Wadsworth that’s offended many, Beethoven’s sublime score gets the royal treatment. The company’s new chief conductor, Harry Bicket, leads an orchestra that sounds ready at any moment to launch a full-blown Eroica. Be aware: This Fidelio has plenty of heroic moments, both in the pit and onstage.

Singing Leonore/Fidelio, Alex Penda brings a satisfying, lighter-than-usual presence to the role. Dramatically and vocally, she’s absolutely convincing. (Next season Penda returns as Salome.) Matching her in lightness and strength, Paul Groves makes a powerful Florestan, and Greer Grimsley’s scary Pizarro nearly steals the show. SFO’s massive chorus simply astonishes.

This season’s American premiere, the Chinese-American composer Huang Ruo’s Dr. Sun Yat-sen, largely a depiction of that revolutionary leader’s love affair with Soong Ching-ling, proves to be the company’s most successful contemporary production in many years. Huang’s orchestra, a melding of Eastern and Western elements, remains entirely original and effective under Carolyn Kuan’s direction; Candace Mui-ngam Chong’s libretto treads a thin line between the epic and the personal; singers and staging combine to present a convincing, persuasively sung drama, a timely utterance in these threatening political days.

So there might be something to Bogie’s musical directive: “See it again, Sam.” Did I get that right?


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