The 2013 opera season at Santa Fe ended last night (well, two nights ago as this is posted) with a performance of Offenbach's comic operetta The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein. I went to all five operas, and thought this one of the strongest seasons I've been to at Santa Fe. As the first installment of a report on the season, I'll cover the August 20th performance of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro.
This was the first time I've seen this opera, though I have a video of it I used to enjoy. Figaro is well known to be one of the greatest and most enjoyable operas so I won't cover the basics; if you think you might be interested in opera, it is one of the first ones you should get to know, particularly if you are looking for something combining melodic beauty, at times soaring, at times restrained, with elegance and lightness of spirit. (If you're looking for more consistently over-the-top emotion and big tunes, like perhaps if you're into metal or arena rock and looking to explore opera, the "big three" operas of Verdi's middle period (La Traviata, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore), or even more over-the-top, the big Puccinis (especially Tosca or Madama Butterfly, also Turandot) are probably the ticket for an introduction to opera.) All elements of this production were top-notch. In Phillips, Fons, Oropesa, and Nelson, and probably several others, it featured some of the best singers I've heard at Santa Fe. Susanna Phillips as the Countess and Emily Fons as Susanna were in beautiful form, both with strong, sweet voices, Phillips a soprano, Fons a very lyric mezzo. The opera moves from the first act's exposition, silly business and plotting into more serious emotional territory with the Countess' first appearance, in the opening scene of Act II, in the beautiful lament Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro (Give me, love, some solace). Phillips portrayed the Countess' emotion superbly, with great dynamic control and plenty of power and projection when necessary without forcing the voice or losing sweetness of tone. Another in our party disliked the somewhat broad vibrato she unleashed at times, but I thought it was just right, part of a classic powerful operatic soprano presentation that still remained controlled and appropriate for Mozart. She was also superb in ensembles, and in her other major aria, the third act's Dove sono i bei momenti (Where are those beautiful moments?), especially the allegro section (Ah! se almen la mia costanza... (Oh! If only my constancy...)) that ends it. (I'm not sure if the notion of a fast cabaletta to cap off a broad aria had developed by this time, or if Mozart was helping to invent it here.) If I have any minor complaint about Phillips' singing, it might be that although her pianissimo singing can be incredibly sweet, it occasionally was so soft, the dynamic contrast so great, that it seemed a bit mannered, especially when used to end a phrase on a high note (more difficult, to be sure, than a loud high note, and achieved here with perfect control). But this is a very minor cavil and could be completely baseless, not even apparent from a different seat with different acoustics. (The member of our party who objected to Phillips' vibrato singled out her piano singing for special praise.) Overall, I thought this was opera singing of the highest caliber, in which the musicality of Phillips' phrasing and the beauty of her voice were inseparable from the communication of emotion and through it, her part in the the development of the drama.
The Santa Fe New Mexican, in a glowing review of the June 29th performance, wrote that
Phillips took a while to settle in, as Countesses often do, but she arrived at a firm, full-throated performance. Her voice has been evolving impressively in recent years, and one senses that she may be on the verge of the vocal luxuriance that has marked the most memorable Countesses over the years.
Her relationship with the role must have continued evolving in the month and a half since that early performance, because vocal luxuriance was abundantly, though not overbearingly, present, she needed no time to settle in, but had me by the heartstrings from the first notes of "Porgi, amor", and her performance will certainly live in my memory.
In the "trouser role" of Cherubino, soprano Emily Fons was equally superb. She did a good job with the comic elements of the character (a young boy discovering the delights of love with various local girls, and infatuated with the Countess as well---"Narciseto, Adoncino de amor", as Figaro characterizes him in the famous aria "Non piu andrai, farfallone amoroso, notte e giorno d'intorno girando, delle belle turbando il riposo" (No longer will you go, amorous butterfly, running around night and day disturbing the peace of pretty girls" ) with which he bids him goodbye as the Count attempts (unsuccessfully, it turns out) to send him away to join the army). The comedy was perhaps a bit muggy and telegraphed, the makeup a bit heavy viewed with binoculars, but that's probably part of such a role, and Fons kept it light and flitty, like an amorous butterfly indeed. Her voice is as good as Phillips', just slightly smoother and lighter in tone, and with a bit less prominent vibrato, but still quite full and sweet, definitely a sweetly lyric rather than a throaty mezzo, hence perfect, in my judgement, for this role. Her Voi che sapete, che cosa e l'amore ("You who know what love is"), yet another of the many classic arias you probably know even if you've never attended the opera or listened to it on your stereo (or phone, pad, pod, or computer), was as good as I can imagine. I will count either of these artists, Fons or Phillips, as among the best women singing today and reason enough to attend any opera they're in; keep a lookout for them if you follow opera. As Susanna, Lisette Oropesa's performance was of similar caliber; I don't remember specific moments as moving as the abovementioned arias of the Contessa and of Cherubino, but find myself wishing I could attend another performance to focus more on Susanna; her acting and singing were, as far as I can recall, flawless and her voice, like the other women's, clear, unstrained and musical, and carried well in what may be a slightly difficult (because open at the sides) theater.
Zachary Nelson did a superb job as Figaro. He is clearly---and with reason---rising very fast in the world of opera, as he was in the apprentice singer program last summer (2012) at Santa Fe. His performance was completely assured, his acting and musicality top-notch, with nothing to indicate anything but a seasoned and confident singer. Strangely, before looking in the program and finding out how recently he'd been an apprentice, I got the impression, just from his very pleasing tone, of a relatively young voice, perhaps in transition to a fuller, darker voice. That's arguably quite appropriate for Figaro, who is already quite competent and arguably making a similar transition from youthful adulthood to maturity, with marriage in view. He had plenty of power, never oversung or forced and achieved good projection, with perhaps occasional slight loss of power on the very lowest notes, or just slightly falling in the shadow of one of the sopranos (always a bit difficult for a baritone to balance with a powerful soprano, I suspect). But again, I could be off-base with such minor cavils, and overall this was a consistently excellent performance, probably the best by a baritone that I heard this season at Santa Fe, with excellent musicality and control in both solo and ensemble situations, a very interesting voice with some color and texture to it (making me think of walnut with a natural oil finish, maybe very fine tweed) but also a kind of clarion, though not cutting or harsh, quality that helps it stand out and project. Wonderful, balanced characterization of Figaro, carried through ensemble, recitative and conversational duets and also solo arias, lighthearted and witty, yet competent and with seriousness of purpose. Se vuol ballare, signor contino ("If you want to dance, little Mr. Count") was a perfect example, with an overall affect of restrained glee at the prospect of teaching the Count a lesson, but not completely without menace and genuine outrage, either. Non piu andrai was similarly deftly done. Nelson is definitely another singer to go out of your way to hear.
Daniel Okulitch's Count was also extremely well sung and acted. Though it still has some depth, his voice is perhaps is a little harder-edged and more brilliant than Nelson's, which seemed to suit his more authoritarian and rigid character. The part doesn't offer as many star turns as does Figaro, but Okulitch played it perfectly.
I would have had to attend multiple times (I know a guy who goes to multiple performances of each opera, getting standing room to make it affordable) in order to evaluate the supporting singers with any accuracy; such evaluation is not really what I want to focus when I'm going once to enjoy an opera. What I can say is that overall the supporting singers were very solid, with no weaknesses that I noticed. Keith Jameson, as the music master Basilio, stood out not only because he was a tenor (the heroic or lead-lover tenor was perhaps less established in Mozart's day, especially, I guess, in comic opera), but for the excellence and clarity of his voice and pacing, and Rachel Hall as Barbarina had a noticeably pleasing voice and sang well also. A really excellent ensemble cast and chorus.
The production was excellent too, true to the original setting of the play and beautifully detailed, doing a wonderful job of creating a believable setting in an eighteenth-century aristocratic estate without needing to go over the top, fitting seamlessly with the particular requirements of Santa Fe's stage. The (presumably artificial) bunches of flowers planted all over the stage, and removed by topcoated and bewigged aristocrats from the front portion of the stage during the latter part of the overture, leaving the ones in back to serve as the garden exterior to the house when appropriate, were a spectacular and creative touch. Costumes were period-appropriate, with luxurious detail where appropriate but still lively and fresh rather than stodgy.
I didn't focus too hard on the orchestra's performance, conducted by John Nelson, but can say that it was light, lively, elegant, and integrated well with the vocal work. Obviously, no flaws drew unwanted attention to it. An instance of particularly memorable and perfectly-executed orchestral playing was the eighteen bars before the Count's famous plea for forgiveness "Contessa, perdono" , accompanying the Count's realization of the last of many deceptions that have been played on him ("O cielo, che veggio...", Oh heavens, what do I see...", sung by the Count, Dr. Bartolo the music teacher, Basilio, and Antonio the gardener. (This passage begins with the second system on page 343 in the BMG/Ricordi piano/vocal score, or on page 48 of the pdf (390 of the original) of the full score from Peters, other sections downloadable here.) The orchestra takes off in with running eight notes, scalar passages with frequent direction changes and turn-like flourishes, rapidly modulating through major and minor keys, including some fairly remote ones like Eb major (the ambient key signature is G major although the section starts in G minor), with a cascade down the cycle of fifths from G to Bb in the middle of the section, for a somewhat unearthly, magical, flying feeling creating an atmosphere like that in parts of the Magic Flute. There is some baroque influence evident especially when the line does something ornamental, but it is not pastiche, definitely something new and probably uniquely Mozartean. The passage is also reminiscent of a recurrent motif in Mozart's next opera on a Da Ponte libretto, Don Giovanni, which however features somewhat more regular ascending and then descending scales in minor, the whole ascending descending figure repeating in higher and higher keys, for a similar effect of suddenly becoming unmoored from ordinary reality and gliding through an eerily magical realm, but in a more tension-building, and definitely ominous, way. These eighteen bars are one of the many pinnacles of Mozartean magic reached in this opera. I recently read (it would have been in a collection "Other Entertainment" of Ned Rorem's essays, or in Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's memoirs or Gerald Moore's book The Schubert Song Cycles) an approvingly quoted aphorism along the lines of "The only thing that matters in music is that which cannot be explained", and it is tempting to think of this passage as an example of such inexplicable magic, except that I think that while it's absolutely magical, it's mostly quite explicable---some of the discussion above is a start, and the passage would clearly repay more careful analysis, which I may do and post separately. Such analysis is probably more important to one who wants to understand how to achieve similar effects, rather than one who just wants to enjoy the magic... Mozart and a good opera orchestra like Santa Fe's are enough to ensure the latter. With a superb vocal cast and excellence in all aspects of production, this added up to a production that --- although I've not seen another live Figaro --- would be hard to top, an evening filled with all manner of Mozartean magic.