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Santa Fe Opera 2017
By Susan English

The excitement about the world premiere of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs was apparent to all who attended the Santa Fe Opera's 2017 season. Many of our Guild members attended and seemed to agree with the San Francisco Classical Voice's review: “You could feel the buzz as the excited audience congregated on a warm and lovely Santa Fe evening for the 90-minute, intermissionless event. Well before the opera brought the entire house to its feet…it became clear that the coproduction is destined to sell out at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, Seattle Opera, and, finally, the San Francisco Opera.”

Not all of the reviewers held such a high opinion of the new opera. Both Anne Midgette of The Washington Post and Zachary Woolfe of The New York Times wrote negative reviews of the opera. But Ray Mark Rinaldi of The Denver Post noted: “And yet…the Santa Fe production is thrilling audiences that appreciate its energy, its modernity, its relevance, and the fact that it is only 90 minutes long. The crowds flocking to the open-air opera house are giddy before it starts and rapturous as it ends.” Rinaldi spoke to “under 40” audience members following the premiere and found, “all were grateful to have an opera that spoke directly to their own history — and incredulous that the thing could get such bad reviews.” It should be interesting to hear how San Francisco Opera's audience responds to this new opera in the 2019-2020 season.

Bachtrack considered the second opera offering of the Santa Fe season with, “Santa Fe Opera serves as a summer destination for the opera-obsessed, drawing crowds from thousands of miles away. That's an honor but also a responsibility: it means they need to create shows worth traveling for. It doesn't require a trip to Santa Fe to see a Lucia di Lammermoor that is merely competent. In fact, neither the direction nor most of the cast in Santa Fe Opera's production surpass that description. But to hear and see Brenda Rae as Lucia is well worth the flight.” Numerous reviewers agreed with Bachtrack's assessment of Ms Rae. Charles Downey also lauded Ms Rae's performance and wrote in The Classical Review: “At Santa Fe the effect was further enhanced by having Friedrich Heinrich Kern play an extended version of the part on the glass harp, a set of actual tuned water glasses. From his elevated position on the left side of the pit, he could interact with Rae on stage, and the more rustic tone produced by the glasses was even more otherworldly than the glass harmonica. Rae sang the extended cadenza with the glasses retrofitted to the part written for a flute. It went on for several minutes, but most in the audience did not move a muscle.”

Classical Voice of North America noted of the third opera gracing the Santa Fe stage “There is no escaping the topicality and pointed political message of the company's premiere production of Nicolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov's last opera, The Golden Cockerel, which is undergoing a major revival. This is a fairy-tale about an undisciplined, inarticulate, and impulsive leader (with two buffoonish sons, no less) who wants to build a wall to keep out his enemies and ends up bringing about the downfall of his kingdom.” Two Merolini were featured in this performance. Meredith Arwady (Merola 2002 & 2003) sang Amelia. Thomas May wrote in Memteria, “Also superb was alto Meredith Arwady as Amelia as a loyal royal servant, a substitute mom to the King whose voice by itself is like a character, immense, sturdy, amber, and richly reverberant in the astonishingly low notes Rimsky-Korsakov writes for the part.” He noted of Kevin Burdette (Merola 1998 & 1999) “bass Kevin Burdette was scene-stealingly funny, a very effective character singer who gets a nasty comeuppance”

Summing up the performance, Classical Voice considered, “Perhaps this reassessment of Rimsky-Korsakov's music will inspire future productions of his 14 other operas. One can hope! He lived in a period of rapid political and social change, and his music reflects the anxiety of an age of revolt, when bitter satire became a weapon of protest. As the Santa Fe Opera production makes clear, his opera speaks to us from an era very much like our own.”

Another Merolini, Elza van den Heever (Merola 2003 & 2004) was featured in the title role of the fourth Santa Fe offering: Alcina. Charles Downey wrote of her performance in the Classical Review: “Elza van den Heever was dignified and forbidding in the title role of the sorceress whose magical island is destroyed. The statuesque South African soprano seduced with the beauty of her voice, especially in impeccably tuned and agile melismas.” Thomas May concluded his review of Alcina with, “Alcina's spell turns out to be the spell that opera, art in general, casts as long as we submit.”

Joining Ms van den Heever in the cast were three more Merolini: Paula Murphy (Merola 2007), Daniela Mac (Merola 2007), and Alek Schrader (Merola 2007). Of Ms Murphy, Downey wrote, “the Irish mezzo-soprano was a sensation as Ruggiero. As the warrior who is magically besotted with Alcina, she produced a crisply articulated but flowing sound in runs as well as a seamless, satiny legato.” Bachtrack noted of Mr. Schrader's performance, “Tenor Alek Shrader's Oronte benefited from a terrific comic presence, sometimes distorting his voice for dramatic effect, but capable of genuinely sweet lyricism when reunited with Morgana.” Opera Warhorses considered Mr Shrader with, “Alek Shrader, who has emerged as one the finest lyric tenors of the past decade, was a likable Oronte, his voice continuing to grow in size, while retaining its inherent beauty.”

The final opera in the Santa Fe Season was Die Fledermaus. Five Merolini were featured and an additional Merolini (Paula Murphy, Merola 1961) performed in two of the performances as Prince Orlovsky. Kurt Streit (Merola 1986) was reviewed in Opera Warhorses with: “In the leading role of Gabriel von Eisenstein — a prankster with a roving eye — was the estimable New Mexico tenor Kurt Streit. Streit's effective portrayal of Eisenstein captured the pomposity and insensitivity of a character that invited the elaborate revenge that the angry Doctor Falke executed.”

Also reviewed in Warhorses was Susan Graham (Merola 1987) with: “Obviously a favorite of the Santa Fe Opera audience, Graham gave a vocally secure, effective performance, which will be a lasting memory for those who have the opportunity to see this gifted artist.” Kevin Burdette (Merola 1998 & 1999) took on the non-singing part or Frosch the Jailer. Reviewed in the Spanish web site, Mundoclasico, his acting received praise with: “The spoken role of Frosch the jailer — played with zealous camp by Kevin Burdette — got considerable mileage out of a mysterious ‘hole in the floor’ behind a desk into which he repeatedly ‘fell;’ but he was also able to get a few easy laughs taking pot-shots at the difficulty of finding a decent parking space at the Santa Fe Opera.” “Jane Archibald (Merola 2003) sang Adele. Broadway World wrote of her performance, Jane Archibald sang Adele, Rosalinda's maid, with clear, strong high notes that could be heard in all their lyrical beauty over the entire chorus. Her second act aria was both amusing and technically proficient as she emitted trills and runs with ease.”

The Santa Fe Opera is an experience like no other for opera. John von Rhein wrote in the Chicago Tribute, “There is something about experiencing opera in an amphitheater perched atop a mesa in the high desert country of northern New Mexico, with red sunsets peeking through the open back wall of the stage, that can make true believers out of the most opera-resistant listeners.” Perhaps more of our Guild will be attending next season?

(SJOG Newsletter November 2017)

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