So Long, Sixtieth

SFR's Best Of . . . goes to the opera

Yogi Berra, sublime phrasemaker that he was, advised anybody who’d listen that “it ain’t over till it’s over.” So readers, be aware: Santa Fe Opera’s 60th season ain’t over, and won’t be until La Fanciulla del West shuts the place down on Aug. 27—with Puccini, of course. This summer’s five-opera repertory follows a tried-and-true pattern that the company’s pretty much followed ever since SFO was just a gleam in founder John Crosby’s eye all those many years ago: Mozart. Puccini. Richard Strauss. A premiere. Plus, um, something else.

That's the formula. But excepting the Don Giovanni now on view, SFO's current season plays some genial off-the-beaten-repertory tricks. With regard to the conventional Puccini product, forget about the big three—Butterfly/Bohème/Tosca. It's his lesser-known, connoisseur-friendly Fanciulla instead. Likewise with Strauss. Don't expect a choice from among the conventional ho-hum trilogy of Salome/Elektra/Rosenkavalier. This summer it's his über-chatty chamber opera Capriccio, the composer's final work for the stage and, for many cognoscenti, his very best.

The, "um, something else" for 2016 dipped into the SFO-neglected cache of serious French 19th-century operas, in this case Gounod's Roméo et Juliette. While it won't make anyone's top-10 (or top-30) list, it's a handsome, tuneful crowd-pleaser, especially given SFO's grand luxe production.

As for the semi-customary premiere, whether of the world or the American variety, it just didn't happen this year. Instead and at long last, SFO got around to a significant company premiere, its first-ever outing of Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti's dark-and-broody gothic melodrama from 1958, Vanessa. Taking a look back at 2016's repertory—slightly unconventional though it be—I'd rank it among the most successful of several summers past.

So let there be praise, coupled with a bit of caution. On the matter of doling out laurels, Shakespeare's malaprop-prone Dogberry warns, "Comparisons are odorous." Agreed. Odious they are at best. But, senza rancor, please follow along with a few seasonal gold medals.

For 2016's prima donna assoluta: a very tough call. Hard to choose from the likes of Erin Wall's authoritative Vanessa, Amanda Majeska's fragile Countess Madeleine, Ailyn Pérez as a glamorous Juliette, Leah Crocetto's powerhouse Donna Anna. Still, the SFR cigar has to go to that golden-hearted Puccinian pistolera, Patricia Racette.

For the starriest SFO feminine debut, the choice seems equally fraught. Don Giovanni's Donna Elvira, Keri Alkema, and Zerlina, Rhian Lois, are serious contenders. But for affecting characterization and confident vocal purity, mezzo Virginie Verrez as Barber's Erika wins by a nose.

When it comes down to the season's leading gentlemen, it's a tight battle among the tenors: Gwyn Hughes Jones' solid Dick Johnson vs. the elegant Don Ottavio of Edgaras Montvidas vs. Zach Borichevsky's slippery Anatol in Vanessa. But I'm handing the laurels to Stephen Costello, a totally convincing Roméo with Gallic aplomb galore and the high notes to match.

No question about the top finisher among those gents making their SFO debut. Plaudits go to Don Giovanni's Leporello, Kyle Ketelsen, a paragon of comic energy who gets everything right. Plus, same show, Jarret Ott makes a winning Masetto while billed as an apprentice artist.

For conducting honors, Leonard Slatkin ranks high. He's especially noted for his definitive 2004 recording of Vanessa and now for its penetrating reprise here. Leo Hussain clearly adores Capriccio, its singers and capricious plot included. The peerless SFO orchestra loves him right back. But top honors must go to Harry Bicket, a chameleon on the podium.

Bicket, SFO's chief conductor since 2013, has been long and famously adept in the Baroque and classical repertory. Now he's taking on a new challenge with his warm and nuanced, balanced and idiomatic reading of Roméo et Juliette. Kudos to Bicket, his orchestra, and to chorus master Susanne Sheston for their très sensible French accent.

An often-controversial theatrical personage, Richard Jones won the super-prestigious International Opera Award as Best Director in 2015. His specific achievement? The English National Opera's production of La Fanciulla del West, which just happens to have been a co-production with SFO.

So here it—and he—is this summer, fresh from London town, and I have to reinforce that British accolade. Jones' Gal-of-the-Golden wins Best in Show for direction, hands down. Likewise, when it's a matter of the season's on-stage visuals, there's no contest, either. Designers Allen Moyer (scenery), James Schuette (costumes) and Christopher Akerlind (lights) make the perfect trifecta for Vanessa's cold, cold world.

You can still catch the season up at the Crosby Theatre if you hurry. Should you wish to challenge a few of the 2016 pronunciamenti cited above, let me refer you again to my old pal, Yogi: "I never said most of the things I said." And I'll refer you as well to next season's line-up: No Mozart. No Puccini. No Richard Strauss. Get over it already.

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