Santa Fe, N.M. — A foray to Santa Fe Opera in the summer is de rigueur for Texan opera lovers. This year’s docket included the usual five operas, and I heard three of them: Doctor Atomic, The Italian Girl in Algiers, and Madama Butterfly. The other operas on offer this season were Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos and Leonard Bernstein’s Candide.
The most talked-about work of this season, and the first on my schedule, was John Adams’ 2005 Doctor Atomic. Hearing this opera in Santa Fe, just a short commute from the 1945 test site at Los Alamos, is an emotionally powerful experience. That said, the story behind the opera is sometimes more compelling than the actual opera experience. Doctor Atomic takes place in the month or so preceding the New Mexico test of the atomic bombs that would soon be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The central characters include nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer (Ryan McKinny), his wife Kitty (Julia Bullock), and his fellow physicists Edward Teller (Andrew Harris) and Robert Wilson (Benjamin Bliss).
While this seems like a dramatically compelling subject for an opera, the pitfalls are many. First, the libretto, by Peter Sellars, who also directs, is comprised in large part from borrowed texts, such as declassified government documents and the poetry of John Donne, Charles Baudelaire, Muriel Rukeyser, and the text of the Bhagavad Gita. While this strategy might work brilliantly for, say, a song cycle, allowing the poetry to comment on the government documents, it’s problematic in an opera. Audience members really need to do some advance study to understand how these texts are used, or the risk is high that they will not follow the plot. However, when these texts work, they can be extraordinarily moving. Oppenheimer was a poetry enthusiast, and Sellars chose texts beloved to Oppenheimer. “Oppie” and Kitty used the poetry of Baudelaire as a code, as a response to the secrecy required for life at Los Alamos, so Sellars uses that code in much of their communication. To some extent, the inclusion of Oppenheimer’s domestic life reads as an afterthought; however, the couple’s extravagant lovemaking scene to the poetry of Baudelaire is, taken as a discrete scene, lush and appealing. Kitty’s first aria is one of the most beautiful musical moments of the opera; Bullock’s voice is clear and luminous as she evokes her love and desire for her husband through Baudelaire’s words.
Later, the chorus bows to the bomb, a huge silver orb that is a constant, looming, ominous presence onstage. They sing from the Bhagavad Gita, “At the sight of this, your shape stupendous,/…All the worlds are fear-struck…”. This is an extraordinary moment in the Gita, in which Prince Arjuna asks his spiritual guide Krishna to show him his true form. Krishna is an embodiment of the god Vishnu, so his true form, like that of the detonated bomb, is both spectacular and potentially deadly for humans who witness it. Krishna reluctantly agrees to Arjuna’s wheedling, and, predictably, Arjuna is dazzled and terrified, begging Krishna to turn himself back into his usual, more palatable form.
For those who are familiar with the Gita, this is sheer brilliance. The bomb, like Vishnu, is not safe to be viewed by mere mortals. Unlike Vishnu, though, the bomb is a one-way trip. Vishnu changes back into the benign Krishna; the Trinity project, Oppenheimer’s name for the Los Alamos test, would be causing cancers for decades.
Similarly, perhaps the most transcendent musical moment in the opera is McKinny, as Oppenheimer, singing an aria with text from John Donne’s Holy Sonnets: “Batter my heart, three person’d God.” This sonnet was the inspiration for the moniker “Trinity.” McKinny’s warm, rich voice expresses the secular Jewish Oppenheimer’s anxiety about the project, via the words of a 17th-century poet expressing his anxiety about his adherence to his Christian faith. For me, this was an extraordinarily beautiful layering.
While I experienced these moments as the high points of the libretto, expressing as they do the feelings and experiences of the characters through the medium of poetry, that experience was far from universal—other audience members found the presentation confusing. So, some questions are raised: should we expect that the libretto explicitly advances the plot of the opera, rather than doing so circuitously? Should we have to read up on the opera we’re seeing in advance to be able to understand it? Should we need graduate degrees in literature to be able to interpret a libretto?
I don’t think it’s too much to ask that audiences be generally familiar with the events portrayed in an opera before they take their seats in the hall. Having high expectations of audiences is nothing new: for a hundred years and more, poets such as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound have challenged their readers to keep up with them, even as they sprinkled their poems full of allusions and passages in languages from Italian to Sanskrit. At least Sellars provided us with English translations of the French Baudelaire and the Sanskrit Gita. But he’s still making us work, and some audience members didn’t seem to appreciate that. (At least one audience member was huffy about the sets, too: my companion spoke to a man who was leaving at intermission because he felt that the spotlights shining on the silver orb representing the bomb, which cast the rest of the stage in relative gloom, were “disrespectful to the audience.” Everyone’s a critic, but with good orchestra-level seats going for $200 a pop, surely not many people would be likely to walk out over such a quibble.)
The rundown: this opera has a couple of lovely arias, including one sung by Kitty Oppenheimer (Bullock) set to a poem by Baudelaire and one by Robert Oppenheimer (McKinny) set to a poem by Donne, as well as one moving chorus to text from the Gita. An additional tender moment occurs in the second act—the Oppenheimers’ Native Tewa housekeeper, Pasqualita (Meredith Arwady) appears and sings a traditional Tewa song as a lullaby to the Oppenheimers’ baby, set to Adams’ music: “In the north the cloud-flower blossoms/ And now the lightning flashes/ And now the thunder clashes/ And now the rain comes down!” Heavy on the irony, to be sure.
Sound production for this (amplified) show, by Mark Grey and Daniel Gower, was first rate, with ominous rumblings emanating from all around the hall. The four modern dancers who weave in and out of the action danced skillfully, with expressive lines, to the choreography of Emily Johnson. Details unique to Santa Fe’s production helped give it a sense of place. Pueblo corn dancers, who also offered a traditional version of their dance before the performance, and members of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, a group of those whose health was affected by the test, joined the chorus onstage during the second act. The orchestra, conducted by Matthew Aucoin, handled the diabolically difficult score mostly quite well.
There are some perplexing moments, as well. General Leslie Groves (the slim Daniel Okulitch) makes much of his weight problem and his efforts to remedy it, with no clarity about how this fits into the bigger picture. Pasqualita and the Oppenheimers’ baby appear abruptly after intermission, with no additional explanation or context. Many of the other characters, despite effective voices, simply don’t have enough good music to work with. Okulitch, Andrew Harris as Edward Teller, and Benjamin Bliss as Robert Wilson, as well as Tim Mix as meteorologist Frank Hubbard and Mackenzie Gotcher as Captain James Nolan don’t get much in the way of melody or line to show off what appear to be excellent voices. This is, in sum, a production with much to recommend it, but with far too many weaknesses to recommend it unreservedly.
At the other end of the spectrum is the Santa Fe Opera production of Rossini’s The Italian Girl in Algiers. This opera, which premiered in 1813 (the same year as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 and Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, as the program reminds us), is a happy-go-lucky farce. In Santa Fe, Edward Hastings’ gorgeous 2002 production both emphasizes the old and celebrates the new. Splitting the difference between the time period of composition and the modern day, Hastings’ production is set in the early 20th century. Isabella, rather than being the victim of a shipwreck, is an aviatrix who takes initiative to rescue her beloved Lindoro from Algiers, where he is being held prisoner by Mustafa, the Bey of Algiers.
The sets for Hastings’ production are visually dazzling; indeed, they were my favorite thing about any of the three operas I was privileged to hear. The main set is a page from a pop-up book; the book opens and closes to reveal a secondary set, such as Isabella’s airplane, behind, and the cover of the book then becomes the stage. The effect is utterly delightful and charming, and giving Isabella more autonomy as a pilot rather than a shipwreck victim (which requires a few minor changes to the libretto) helps this opera sit better with modern audiences. Isabella is a strategist, here, working to free her imprisoned boyfriend. She’s deliberately using her own sexuality to get what she wants from Mustafa.
There was lots of silliness in this production; too much to suit some audience members, judging from grumblings overheard at intermission. Director Shawna Lucey encouraged lots of butt-waggling and camp from the singers. But it was silliness with an edge: in the first act, signs reading “Mustafa” were plastered on everything, from buildings to the trees themselves; in the second, the narcissistic Mustafa is frantically typing self-serving telegrams, which other singers open to reveal Twitter’s blue bird logo. You know, we often talk about comedy other than slapstick not standing the test of time. But here we have an 1813 opera, originally set “in the past,” reset in the early 20th century, that still manages some 21st-century political commentary.
Most of the singing worked well; Stacey Geyer, as Elvira, has an absolutely stunning soprano, handling the difficulties of Rossini’s score with ease and flexibility. Daniela Mack, as Isabella, is luminous both in her stage presence and her contralto, which is youthful and light. Scott Connor, as Mustafa, had more trouble with Rossini’s melismatic writing; his bass was not quite nimble enough to execute the lines cleanly. However, the timbre of his voice in more lyrical writing was warm and rich. Taddeo, Isabella’s companion, was sung by Patrick Carfizzi, who nearly stole the show with his over-the-top acting paired with his fluid, delicious bass. The Santa Fe Opera Orchestra, under the direction of Corrado Rovaris, handled Rossini’s challenging score well—they were mostly clean and precise, which is quite a trick, especially at the quick tempos Rovaris chose for the overture.
Do we really need another performance of Madame Butterfly? Perhaps not, judging from the many empty spots in both the parking lot and the concert hall on my Saturday night visit. (Doctor Atomic and Italian Girl in Algiers were sold out or nearly so, in contrast.) However frequently performed, though, this opera depicting Cio-Cio-san’s naïve adoration for the colonialist American Pinkerton never fails to move audiences to tears. (And to boos, for Pinkerton, during curtain calls.) If Italian Girl in Algiers can be rewritten for the 21st century so that Isabella is a daring aviatrix, where is my version of Butterfly in which Kate Pinkerton and Cio-Cio-san run off together, little Sorrow in tow, to live happily ever after sans Pinkerton?
In any event, Director Michael Ozawa’s production featured lovely rotating sets, by scenic designer Jean-Marc Puissant, depicting Butterfly’s home. In the first act, her home is framed by a blooming cherry tree; in the second and third, as her fortunes decline upon Pinkerton’s abandonment, the elegant cherry tree is replaced by gritty telephone poles—change has arrived, but that change is often ugly, especially for the poor and for women.
The politics of the plot aside, Butterfly of course features some of the most beautiful music anywhere in opera. While Ana María Martinez as Cio-Cio-san took a while to settle, going sharp in lower dynamics in the first part of the first act, once she hit her stride, she was a commendable if not an outstanding Butterfly. Her famous second act aria, “Un bel di vedremo,” was beautiful if not as overwhelming as it might be in other hands. Joshua Guerrero’s Pinkerton was consistently good, moving from insouciant entitlement to (arguably) self-aware anguish, and altering his versatile tenor to match. The well-known offstage “Humming Chorus” was not always in sync with the orchestra, although both the chorus and the orchestra, under director John Fiore, were generally solid otherwise.
Other performances of note include the usually scene-stealing role of Butterfly’s uncle the Bonze, here sung by Soloman Howard. His bass was indeed commanding, although his brief role was not as powerful as it sometimes is. Nicholas Pallesen’s Sharpless and Megan Marino’s Suzuki were both outstanding in their roles. Marino as Suzuki matched her voice ably to Martinez’s in their duet, but on its own Marino’s instrument has a warm, appealing glow.
In this staging, after Butterfly’s suicide, little Sorrow removes his blindfold and approaches his mother’s body. This serves to remove the emotional focus from Butterfly’s own death and shift it to her son’s predicament, for good or for ill. (Being raised in America by the Pinkertons doesn’t seem like a great outcome for him, after all.) Personally, I would have preferred to keep Butterfly’s death central, for greatest impact.
Perhaps any insufficiencies in emotional effect are as much due to the unusual reactions of the audience, though, as to anything happening on stage. The audience laughed in odd spots—by the second act of this most frustratingly tragic of operas, there is very little comic relief, but some audience members seemed determined to find comedy anyway.
As always, a summer expedition to the Santa Fe Opera is a welcome treat. The outdoor amphitheater is extraordinary and the productions are consistently interesting, even (or maybe especially) when they’re not perfect. There is no better relief from Texas summers for opera fans.