Listen up, opera fans: they’re back! Those iconic historic romantic white petunias out at the Santa Fe Opera, that is. Some pesky petunia malady had been blighting those fragrant posies for a while, but as you shall see and smell, it’s A-OK again.
Then note the really significant developments up on Opera Hill, part of the first phase of SFO’s blockbuster three-part “Setting the Stage” physical plant improvement initiative. Most of this season’s enhancements won’t be open to the public gaze except on tours: a huge costume shop, more spacious backstage areas, vastly improved dressing rooms and a true green room.
But expect an entry plaza/picnic area complete with user-friendly seating, unisex restrooms and a kiosk for picking up pre-purchased suppers (not obligatory). A new Opera Shop will banish memories of its claustrophobic predecessor. Especially needful: many more comfort stations around the house, with enhanced libation stations as well. These should ease that vexing intermission choice: whither?
General Director Charles MacKay, now entering his seventh season, waxes enthusiastic: “The project’s been percolating energy all year. There’s the egalitarian aspect. These improvements benefit everybody—production team, artists, orchestra, patrons. With Phases Two and Three complete in 2017, we’ll be ready for the next fifty years.”
MacKay credits Paul Horpedahl, the company’s genius production director, for overseeing the project while simultaneously ushering five all-new shows, including three SFO firsts, onto the 2015 stage. July 3 opening night brings Donizetti’s über-cheery The Daughter of the Regiment (see one of Allen Moyer’s costume designs at right) here for the first time in the company’s 59 seasons, a strange repertory omission, especially since, as MacKay remarks, “Opera just doesn’t get more family-friendly.”
Given that Ned Canty, director of 2011’s effervescent The Last Savage, takes charge of the staging, expect shameless sight gags and madcap maneuverings. Speranza Scappucci, no stranger to SFO, debuts in the pit, with coloratura nightingale Anna Christy as the titular filly and Alek Shrader singing her slow-witted, high-flying beau.
Verdi’s Rigoletto hunches onstage July 4, vocal fireworks courtesy of Georgia Jarman in her company debut as Gilda. Quinn Kelsey, another SFO debutant, sings the snarly jester. MacKay comments about Kelsey, “True Verdi baritones are pretty scarce, and as you’ll hear, Quinn’s the real thing.” Bruce Sledge embodies that nasty duke, with Bryan Hymel taking over in August.
In his last outing, director Lee Blakeley provided an evening of frothy Offenbach. Not this time, what with Mantua’s degenerate court, a couple of rapes and a corpse at the curtain. He’s chosen a Risorgimento setting, about the period of Rigoletto’s composition, with visuals referencing Visconti’s Sicilian stunner, The Leopard. Jader Bignamini, a Riccardo Chailly protégé and Javier Gonzales look-alike, makes his American debut in the pit.
Speaking of corpses, another adult drama opens July 18. That would be Richard Strauss’ infallibly shocking Salome, making her eleventh SFO appearance since 1962. Alex Penda, last season’s chaste, tenacious Leonore in Fidelio, is once again tenacious if rather less than chaste in yet another title role. Her leading man, debuting here as the reluctant prophet Jochanaan, will be Ryan McKinny, who’s off to Bayreuth next summer to be Amfortas.
Instead of swanking around in quasi-biblical bathrobes, director Daniel Slater’s cast will be decked out as 1905 Viennese, the year of the opera’s premiere. Will the geist of Doktor Freud be hovering? You betcha. David Robertson, an avid Salome aficionado, conducts.
You might call the 18-year-old Mozart’s delightsome La Finta Giardiniera, opening July 25, seven characters in search of an opera. Even the title’s barely translatable. The phony gardener-girl? Please. When I asked MacKay his opinion of the action, he had a single word: “Confusing.” Expect switcheroo identities, an attempted murder, ample mad scenes, ill-matched lovers and a panoply of improbabilities.
But so what? It’s melodic, maturing Mozart, after all, and a seemly prefiguration of the great Da Ponte collaborations yet to come. Despite all the funny business, moments of touching gravity occur. Finales to the first two acts hint at the complex ensembles of Figaro. Finta is Mozart’s breakout opera: musically inventive and definitely “Mozartean.” SFO fields a starry cast with Tim Albery’s staging and Chief Conductor Harry Bicket in the pit.
Expectations keep bubbling away for opera number five, with tickets already mighty scarce. So if you’re planning to hear the world premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain, opening Aug. 1 for five performances, you’d better get busy. Based on the Charles Frazier novel detailing the fraught homecoming journey of wounded Confederate deserter WP Inman, Gene Scheer’s libretto attempts to condense and focus the book’s often blowsy narrative.
Higdon cites a broad diversity of artists contributing to her sound world. Think David Lang, Benjamin Britten, Chris Thile, the Punch Brothers and the Beatles, among many others. Raised in Tennessee, she adores bluegrass—as you’ll hear from time to time in this, her first opera. Typically, SFO gives its best shot to premieres. No exception here, with a dazzling cast list including Nathan Gunn, Isabel Leonard, Emily Fons and Jay Hunter Morris. Leonard Foglia directs, Miguel Harth-Bedoya conducts.
And all those petunias? Founding papa John Crosby loved ’em. Us too.
John Stege began opera-writing for the Reporter in 1986. Whew. Thirty years now. His first SFO performance was 1957’s The Rake’s Progress. Inaugural season. Cold cold night. Love at first sight.