Updated Donizetti and Beethoven offer mixed results at Santa Fe Opera

August 06, 2014
By Charles T. Downey
Brenda Rae and Andrew Shore in Santa Fe Opera's production of Donizetti's "Don Pasquale."

Brenda Rae and Andrew Shore in Santa Fe Opera’s production of Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale.”

It is an odd summer at the Santa Fe Opera, considering the festival’s repertorial specialties. The season offers only a sliver of Mozart, no Strauss, and no early opera — and this in the first season of historically informed performance specialist Harry Bicket’s tenure as music director. Of the two warhorses on the season, Carmen has sold so well that an extra performance was added to the end of the run, but Donizetti’s most popular and most finely crafted comic opera, Don Pasquale, has not had the same success.

Too bad, because Santa Fe Opera has uncorked a fizzy and tart staging of the opera, conceived by director Laurent Pelly and set designer Chantal Thomas. The time is reset to the world of a Fellini film, with the far niente playboy Ernesto played in the film by Marcello Mastroianni, the knife-tongued social climber Norina (Anouk Aimée), and the lecherous old duffer Pasquale (Giuseppe Ianigro). The charm comes partly from Thomas’s set, centered on a revolving stage within a stage that reveals Norina’s glamour-girl garret, cluttered with fashion magazines, and the run-down drawing room of Pasquale’s home. The latter’s already skewed angles are literally turned upside down and splattered with color when Norina invades as the old man’s “wife.”

A decent cast of singers mostly runs away with the comic possibilities, beginning with the cane-waving, pill-popping Pasquale of British baritone Andrew Shore, peppering his antics and banter with perfectly timed coughs and wheezes. The role of Norina is better suited to the sparkling soprano of Brenda Rae than Violetta was in last year’s La Traviata. (Along with Shelley Jackson, Rae has taken over the role from Laura Tatulescu, who had to withdraw last month for health reasons.) Rae practically chewed the scenery in her Dolce Vita-style costume in Act III.

The high notes of Ohio-born tenor Alek Shrader as Ernesto, a role he also played last summer at Glyndebourne, were slightly muffled (excepting a ringing D-flat at the end of his big aria at the start of the second act), but his acting and comic timing as an espresso-sipping layabout were on the money.

Thanks to Pelly’s superb acting direction, all the characters but one were ingeniously filled out by what they did on stage, with musical interludes and introductions accompanied by movements that made dramatic sense. Nowhere was this truer than the fine servants’ chorus, meddling and gossiping their way through the scene. The only character whose motivations remained a mystery was Dr. Malatesta, given a lot of affected gestures and not-quite-pleasing tone by former Santa Fe Opera apprentice Zachary Nelson.

The production was certainly in good hands with Italian conductor Corrado Rovaris, music director of Opera Philadelphia, who led the pit and platform with confidence and near-perfect coordination, the rhythmic ebb and flow accomplished with a warm smile and precisely etched gestures. The instrumental contributions were all sound, with an especially fine trumpet solo at the opening of the second act.


One opera surprisingly never mounted by Santa Fe Opera until this year was Fidelio. With good reason, you might say, since Beethoven’s only opera, so gorgeous musically but so inert dramatically, most often sees the light of day in concert performances. Santa Fe Opera is using the slimmer 1814 version of the opera, revised by Beethoven into two acts, which celebrated the 200th anniversary of its premiere this year.

It is tempting for stage directors to update this story, concerning a man held secretly in prison and rescued by his determined wife, to make the message more relevant to a modern audience. This was in some ways Beethoven’s intention, since the libretto, by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly and translated into German by a group of poets at different times, was created in the wake of the downfall of Robespierre and the Reign of Terror in France. Beethoven had some difficulty being allowed by censors even to hint that the setting could be instead the secret prisons of the Austrian Empire, but the opera can make sense in any prison where people are detained in secret with no hope of escape.

Director Stephen Wadsworth chose to set it in a German concentration camp, probably Bergen-Belsen, liberated by British forces toward the end of the Second World War, with dingy gray sets by Charlie Corcoran. It is not an original idea, but it has dramatic potential, as the jailer, Rocco, and his daughter, Marzelline, begin to question just how their sense of duty justifies the terrible work that they are doing. The yearning of the prisoners’ chorus, sung with climactic strength, was made more poignant in the striped rags of the concentration camp (costumes by Camille Assaf).

Furthermore, the updating has resonance with the role Fidelio played in Germany and Austria after the war, when it was held up by Wilhelm Furtwängler and others as an ideal of German music not tainted by the Nazi past. Scholar Paul Robinson, in his book on Fidelio, undertook a study of productions in Europe after the war, including gala performances that reopened the Vienna State Opera and other houses.

Soprano Alex Penda (née Alexandrina Pendatchanska) was a dynamo in the title role, convincing disguised as the boy Fidelio, her voice tilted in strength toward the low range but with self-determined strength at the top. Tenor Paul Groves did not have control over the top notes of the imprisoned Florestan, but he was believable in the character’s lonely anguish, especially in the dramatic opening of the second act. Towering bass-baritone Greer Grimsley gave a roaring-lion performance as Pizzarro, a Hollywood stereotype of a malevolent Nazi officer.

In his Santa Fe debut, Manfred Hemm’s imposing Rocco had the best German pronunciation in the cast, while former apprentice singer Devon Guthrie was assured in the high-flying role of Marzelline, generally at the top of the many ensembles. Another former apprentice, tenor Joshua Dennis had a smart supporting turn as Jaquino, while bass-baritone Evan Hughes made a strong debut as the benevolent Don Fernando. Conductor Harry Bicket led a refined performance by the orchestra, giving the most important passages in the score a gorgeous, almost liturgical solemnity.

Don Pasquale continues through August 22 and Fidelio through August 21 at Santa Fe Opera. santafeopera.org.

Charles T. Downey is a freelance writer on music and roving summer festival reporter. The rest of the year he lives in Washington, D.C., where he writes reviews for the Washington Post and moderates ionarts.org, a Web site on classical music and the arts.

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