In Review > North America

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, Alcina, The Golden Cockerel, Die Fledermaus, Lucia di Lammermoor 

SANTA FE, NM
Santa Fe Opera
8/17

The Dark Side of Steve Jobs.

The centerpiece of the Santa Fe Opera season was the world premiere of Mason Bates’s new opera about the American inventor.

IN REVIEW SANTA FE STEVE JOBS HDL 1117
Ed Parks as Steve Jobs in Santa Fe
© Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

THE CENTERPIECE of this year’s Santa Fe Opera season was the world premiere of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs (seen Aug. 4). Composer Mason Bates and librettist Mark Campbell created a popular hit that sold so well that an extra performance was added to the schedule before Steve Jobs had opened on July 22. The opera was cocommissioned with Seattle Opera and San Francisco Opera and coproduced with those companies and with the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. Steve Jobs was distinguished by Bates’s compelling, instantly accessible score, Campbell’s rich, intricate libretto and a polished production, directed by Kevin Newbury, that effectively presented the serious central themes of the work.

A college dropout who became a multimillionaire before he was thirty, Steve Jobs transformed the way the world communicates with itself. But he’s interesting as a dramatic hero because of his many flaws—his callous treatment of his pregnant girlfriend, his abusive behavior toward his colleagues, his coldness toward his family. There is no prurience in the way the opera examines Jobs’s dark side: his faults are shown as symptomatic of society as a whole. Human lives, we are persistently reminded, are “messy,” and if we assume that a machine, however perfectly designed, will solve our personal or social problems, human lives will become messier. This is the tragic issue at the heart of the opera, one memorably articulated at the end of the ninety-minute work when, on a powerful crescendo, an idealized Jobs and his wife, Laurene, urge us to “look up” from the devices in our hands and “look out” into the world. Jobs’s tragedy is our own. 

Bates’s bravura score feels specifically American, with potent echoes of Philip Glass and John Adams. Bates adds to this the lavish harmonies and sentimental melodies of the American musical and the invigorating tempos of jazz, all played by a super-sized orchestra. Bates also has his own idiom, a parlandostyle that headily mixes orchestral and electronic sounds, sometimes reaching impressive climaxes or resolving into arias of soul-searching tenderness and despair. 

Campbell’s literate libretto moves back and forth through Jobs’s life, so we can see his ambitions and failings as constants. When Jobs acknowledges the cancer that is destroying him, we detect a growing humanity in the man, which mitigates, but does not dissolve, his tragic fate. 

Newbury’s superlative staging incorporated with seamless ease the teeming projections by 59 Productions onto Victoria Tzykun’s versatile, modernistic set, which ingeniously used six broad, translucent panels, lit from inside, to create a variety of settings.

The singers were miked, which suited the aural milieu of the piece. Edward Parks endowed Jobs with a commanding voice; his forceful baritone gave the character’s flaws a threatening dimension, which made Jobs’s growing awareness that all was not right with his life oddly moving. Mezzo Sasha Cooke was Jobs’s wife, Laurene, the most sympathetic figure in the opera; her impassioned pleading with Jobs to see the doctor revealed levels of vehement emotion. Garrett Sorenson was a genial Steve Wozniak, and Jessica E. Jones was a touching Chrisann Brennan, the girlfriend that Jobs abandoned. Wei Wu was mesmerizingly serene as Ko¯bun Chino Otogawa, Jobs’s Buddhist teacher. The tricky task of conducting the massive forces of this impressive enterprise fell to Michael Christie, who made a very successful Santa Fe debut. 

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Elza van den Heever, Santa Fe Opera’s Alcina
© Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera
 

Another rare offering in this year’s Santa Fe season was David Alden’s production of Handel’s Alcina (seen August 2). This was exemplary Regietheater; Alden took an opera with a confusing, trivial plot and moved it to a baffling setting, but he shed sufficient light on the situation to allow Handel’s allegory to emerge with clarity and unexpected power. 

In Alcina, lovers misidentify their objects of desire, lust obliterates the gentler emotions, love turns into hatred and vice versa. At the end of the opera, sexual desires are sublimated, a sentimentalist balance reigns, and all the characters except Alcina, the embodiment of unfettered emotion, find reconciliation. Alden substituted an abandoned theater for Alcina’s enchanted island and, through the brilliant use of absurdist imagery, dragged the lovers through the nightmare world of popular movies—Alcina’s “dead” lovers were mainly creatures out of the Planet of the Apes—to settle them in the prim, trim, dull world of American suburbia. Gideon Davey’s bleak set resonated emptiness and decay, reflecting a world devoid of value and direction, while the orderly spectacle that he set up at the end of the opera, with models of suburban houses in perfect perspective, had an unsettling beauty. Davey also designed the costumes, which not only referenced monster movies but wittily incorporated an array of popular images, from film noir to a Disneyesque Toytown.

The drama was given weight and urgency by a powerful cast of singers. Soprano Elza van den Heever led the pack as Alcina; her capacious voice is perfect for opera seria, capable of reaching sublime high notes sotto voce and plummeting to the gloomiest depths of swirling emotions. She acted concisely, with tremendous conviction, and fully inhabited the bitter realms of tragic defeat. Mezzo Daniela Mack, as Bradamante/Ricciardo, did not have the physical stature of van den Heever but was a worthy vocal match: Mack’s revenge arias were delivered with intense passion and at ungodly speed; Bradamante’s descent into domesticity at the end of the opera was touched by relief that the emotional conflict was at an end, as well as disappointment at the mundane result.

Some of the most beautiful music in the opera is reserved for Ruggiero, who is torn between Alcina and Bradamante. Paula Murrihy made the most of the role, projecting the disquieting experience of divided love and loyalty; the high point of the Irish mezzo’s performance was “Verdi prati,” an aria of outstanding beauty that she delivered with mesmerizing stillness and concentration. Anna Christy’s Morgana provided much of the comedy, sailing blatantly between sexual transgression and a curiously vulgar domestic possessiveness. Jacquelyn Stucker, in the thankless role of Oberto, captured the gawkiness and self-consciousness of youth. The two principal male roles are short, but Alek Shrader sang meltingly as Oronte, and Christian Van Horn was a stentorian Melisso.

Harry Bicket, one of the world’s finest conductors of Baroque music, highlighted Alcina’s sustained strong contrasts in mood in order to ensure that the score, composed primarily of da capoarias, never tired the ear. The final melding of Handel’s optimistic Enlightenment vision with the more nihilistic views of our own time made for an intriguing ending to the story.

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Tsar power: Venera Gimadieva and Tim Mix in The Golden
Cockerel

© Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera
 

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov made his Santa Fe Opera debut in the company’s sixty-first season, with the presentation of his most popular opera, the enchanting Golden Cockerel (seen Aug. 3). Rimsky rarely produced melodies as plangent and as compelling as did his Italian contemporaries, but he was an orchestrator of genius, whose pointillist lightness and transparency transports us into the realms of fantasy he explored in his operas. Under the baton of Emmanuel Villaume, the orchestra played with an eloquence and fluidity that summoned up the illusory worlds of Rimsky’s imagination. But there is another aspect to his work that those who are not accustomed to Russian art may find difficult to appreciate—the use of fantasy for political satire. The Golden Cockerel was written in response to the Tsarist government’s suppression of the 1905 revolution and uses fairy-tale caprice to poke fun at the Tsar’s whimsicality and laziness, at the openness of his government to sexual corruption, and at the gross inefficiency of the armed forces.

Paul Curran’s spectacular production worked hard to overcome any potential cognitive dissonance created by this clash of styles and artistic purposes. He combined the riotously colorful costumes of Russian folk theater, designed with theatrical flair by Gary McCann, with a futuristic set, also by McCann. This was a world in which anything could happen, thanks to Driscoll Otto’s inventive projections—which often swamped the stage and worked the chorus up into bouts of mass hysteria—and to the presence of a gorgeous golden cockerel, which assumed outlandish proportions. The opera contrasts the folkloric view of royalty as arbitrary and venal—as embodied in the grotesquely infantile Tsar Dodon—and the deceptively beautiful fairy world, as symbolized by the Queen of Shemakha, who marries Dodon and then destroys him.

Tim Mix used the grotesque dimensions of Tsar Dodon, a bumbling fool, to represent the nightmarish absurdity of royalist rule. But the star of the show was Venera Gimadieva, as the Queen of Shemakha. The soprano sang with radiant glamour and an astounding vocal technique, bringing transformative, ethereal beauty to the Punch-and-Judy style of the production. Her costume changes were highly entertaining, encompassing everything from exotic princess and seductive dancer to Russian tsarina and a latter-day Jackie Kennedy. Gimadieva looked and behaved like a star already in the ascendant. In supporting roles, Meredith Arwady was a boundlessly energetic and joyful Amalfa, Kevin Burdette an eccentric and inept General Polkan. In his all-too-brief appearances as the Astrologer, the charismatic Barry Banks held the audience with the clarity of his lyric tenor. The chorus sang with immense foreboding of the darkening world it was facing.

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Stephen Carroll (Doctor Blind), Devon Guthrie and Kurt Streit in
Die Fledermaus

© Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera
 

Viennese operetta is tricky to produce well: the music is exquisite, but the humor can be inaccessible and not very funny, especially for those not from Vienna—and often for those who are. Ned Canty’s Santa Fe production of Die Fledermaus (seen Aug. 1) coped well with the comedy, but there were passages in which the sustained festive atmosphere dragged, and Johann Strauss’s operetta seemed Wagnerian in length.

This Fledermaus unfolded within the escapist world of operetta supreme. Allan Moyers’s sets were ultra-realistic; Zack Brown and Christianne Myers’s lavish costumes suggested a social set lacking any presentiment of economic hardship to come. Acts I and III, which demand style and precision from the performers, were quite entertaining because Canty elicited sophisticated comic acting from his cast, who generally avoided the grotesque mannerism and vocal delivery that passes for “comedy” in operetta. Veteran tenor Kurt Streit sang Eisenstein with exuberant ease and demonstrated well the conflicting pulls of fidelity and potential romance. Soprano Devon Guthrie’s Rosalinde was a model of haute bourgeois propriety tempted (but not too much) by the possibility of sexual freedom; in Act II, she became quite an alluring vamp when she donned the disguise of a Hungarian countess. Jane Archibald’s Adele easily cast off the demure appearance of a chambermaid, using her sparkling vocal technique to suggest that she could become the leading actress of Vienna. Dimitri Pittas’s Alfred regaled us with a wide range of extracts from Italian opera, many of which were written after Die Fledermaus; Joshua Hopkins delivered a finely nuanced Falke, flecked appropriately with dark tinges of melodrama. In the prison scene, Kevin Burdette made the most of Frosch’s knockabout comedy. 

All this was the cause of much amusement in Acts I and III, but between them is Prince Orlofsky’s ball, which comprises the whole of Act II. Here is the pervading weakness of Viennese operetta—its insistence that Vienna is nothing but a city of fun-loving hedonists. As a myth this is fine, if not especially interesting; but to dwell on the fact for an entire hour strains one’s patience, even though Paula Murrihy, as Prince Orlofsky, engaged in some bizarre caricature that was sporadically entertaining. Canty strove bravely to bring variety to the nonstop merriment, but it palled, the singers reverted to annoyingly trivial operetta mannerisms, and it soon grew clear that those onstage were having far more fun than those watching them.

The production included the American opera debut of conductor Nicholas Carter, who hails from Melbourne. Mindful, perhaps, of the length of the opera, he maintained fast tempos, though he did not shortchange Johann Strauss II, one of opera’s great melodists, when it came to those poetic moments of introspection, regret and romantic longing.

In Review Lucia lg 1117 
Brenda Rae as Lucia in Santa Fe
© Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera
 

Popular opinion has it that the success of a bel canto opera depends on the quality of the lead soprano. That may be true in part, but the most transformative bel cantoperformances require a powerful supporting cast, so that we not only hear lovely music but are riveted by dramas of domestic dysfunction and psychic turmoil. Ron Daniels, who directed Santa Fe’s Lucia di Lammermoor (seen July 31),clearly understands this. Daniels set the production in the nineteenth century, with costumes by Emily Rebholz that were reminiscent of La Traviata. The claustrophobic atmosphere of Riccardo Hernandez’s boxlike set was intensified by Peter Nigrini’s projections of wood paneling that seemed at times like a low ceiling and at others like prison bars. References to poetic aspects of Romanticism—forests, mountains, scudding clouds—sometimes overlaid the panels but never obliterated them. 

This was a world that destroyed its own; themes of oppression, family abuse, spite and nasty self-pity were brought to the fore. The opening scene, in which the hunters stared out into the audience with quiet menace, was unnerving. Brenda Rae, the Lucia, was an excellent choice to carry the burden of this interpretation. Her voice is without a blemish and maintains tonal purity throughout her range; though it is not, perhaps, the ideal instrument to represent the descent into madness, she mastered the technical aspects of the music. In the cabaletta to “Regnava nel’ silenzio,” Rae articulated Donizetti’s stratospheric heights with notable serenity. She is also a resourceful actress. In the fountain scene with Edgardo, Rae’s strained, pallid, Brontësque beauty suggested a young girl on the verge of self-discovery. Detail by sharply delineated detail, we watched her sink into madness and isolation, so that the murder of Arturo was no gratuitous piece of violence but an inevitable outcome. Rae delivered the mad scene with statuesque gestures and psychological nuance that gave immediacy to her acting and saved it from bathos.

The supporting cast was mixed. The thunderous bass-baritone of Christian Van Horn gave his Raimondo unusual prominence and injected a much-needed element of empathy into the cold family politics of the Ashtons. Zachary Nelson’s Enrico added to that family coldness a deeply unpleasant strain of sadistic mania; his unrelentingly aggressive mien gave him a viper-like quality. Unfortunately, the potential impact of a soundly cast production was weakened by tenor Mario Chang. Chang’s voice is bright and dynamic, with impressive brass-like tones in the upper register, but his acting was confined to a few awkward moves and gestures. As a result, the chemistry flowing from Rae’s Lucia found no one to nurture it; Chang’s Edgardo was more a parson from a Trollope novel than a Byronic hero.

Conductor Corrado Rovaris favored brisk tempos, some of the fastest I have heard in Lucia. This brought out the jollity that is, notoriously, endemic to much of the score. At times, audience members could be heard chuckling at the bubbly sounds from the pit. But when it came to the opera’s tragic ending, Rovaris slowed down to explore Lucia’s darker realms. —Simon Williams 

 



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