Santa Fe Opera rounds out comeback season with brilliant Verdi and Wagner

August 06, 2022
By Charles T. Downey
Quinn Kelsey stars in the title role of Verdi’s Falstaff at Santa Fe Opera. Photo: Curtis Brown

The most complex works on the stage this summer at Santa Fe Opera came at the end of the first full week of all five shows running in repertory. On Thursday night, it was Verdi’s Falstaff, in a charming new staging directed by Scottish director David McVicar in his Santa Fe Opera debut, a co-production with Scottish Opera. It was the first staging of the composer’s final comic masterpiece at Santa Fe since 2008.

Quinn Kelsey brought all the necessary strengths to Falstaff, the fat knight down on his luck who tries to seduce two respectable wives at the same time. The Hawaiian-born baritone blustered with remarkable volume, easily overpowering his colleagues with vocal rodomontade. From the moment he was rolled onto the stage in a large bed, out of which tumbled his henchmen, his page, and a wench, he dominated the platform in his voluminous fat suit.

In a powerhouse company debut, soprano Alexandra LoBianco led a fine quartet of merry wives as Alice Ford, engineering Falstaff’s extravagant humiliation. Her top notes sailed over the largest ensembles, floating some extraordinary pyrotechnics, while handling the comic turns of the story with aplomb. Mezzo-soprano Megan Marino, a former apprentice singer, made a steady foil to her as Meg Page.

Among the women, however, Elena Villalón carried the night, in a sublime Santa Fe debut as Nannetta. The young soprano’s transparent high notes melted the heart in the fugitive love vignettes, moments snatched with her lover, Fenton. In the opera’s delightful final scene in Windsor Park, costumed in white as the fairy queen, she presided with radiant vocal beauty over the torment of Falstaff by the crowd of masked townspeople.

Ann McMahon Quintero’s mezzo-soprano vanished a bit in the lowest range, but she made a sharp-tongued Mistress Quickly. English baritone Roland Wood bellowed forcefully as Ford, Alice’s jealous husband, and young tenor Eric Ferring, in his company debut after an apprentice singer year in 2017, made an earnest, idealistic Fenton.

At the podium Paul Daniel led a vivid performance of this intricate score by the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra, with assured contributions from all sections, both in the many solo or chamber-sized riffs and robust tutti sections. Even in the chatter ensembles, where the men and women fight against one another in crossed metrical juxtapositions, Daniel’s precise, understated hand movements kept the vast panoply of sound in order.

Photo: Curtis Brown

McVicar created a production of startling variety with a single set piece: wooden stairs and platforms recalling an Elizabethan theater, an allusion to the opera’s source, Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor (scenic design by McVicar and Hannah Postlethwaite). All of the stage business worked, from the drunken sword fight in Act I (fight direction by Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet) to Falstaff being thrown into the Thames in a huge laundry basket.

The staging climaxed with the final scene, as it should. A large-headed effigy of Queen Elizabeth I led the fairy queen’s costumed retinue, a reference to that monarch’s affection for the character of Falstaff, which supposedly led Shakespeare to bring the character back in The Merry Wives. A huge horse, various child-sized goblins, and a tin-hatted plague doctor also made appearances.

The final fugue sounded crystal clear, thanks to careful attention to ensemble balance. The lights went down a bit to drive home the dark message that “we are all fools” (“tutti gabbati”). When the lights came on again, McVicar had the entire cast do a Broadway dance routine accompanying the orchestral finish. All the stage is a world.


Tamara Wilson and Simon O’Neill star in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde at Santa Fe Opera. Photo: Curtis Brown

Before this season, Santa Fe Opera had staged only one opera by Richard Wagner, The Flying Dutchman, last seen here in 1998. As it turns out, Robert K. Meya, who became the company’s fourth general director in 2018, is a devoted Wagnerian. In a brief conversation, he told The Classical Review that he had long dreamed of mounting Tristan und Isolde in the John Crosby Theater, a quixotic plan now realized this season and viewed on Friday evening.

In an authoritative Santa Fe Opera debut as Isolde, Tamara Wilson filled the theater with her exquisite soprano, from smoldering bottom notes up to soaring heights. She lent the role commanding dignity, befitting the Irish princess kidnapped by Tristan for marriage to his uncle, King Marke. Her interpretation also explored the softer, sensual side of the role, making the frenzied Act II love duet and the concluding “Liebestod” extraordinarily beautiful.

Tenor Simon O’Neill‘s Tristan was less assured vocally in his company debut, with a leathery tone, wide vibrato, and sometimes nasal production. The orchestra eclipsed him at times with its more oceanic swells, but he found new reservoirs of fortitude in time for the bleak landscape of Act III. When the operatic texture was less overpowering, O’Neill caressed his lines with crooning sweetness, as in the Act II love duet, when Tristan pledged that the lovers will die together, strains that are recalled later in Isolde’s “Liebestod.”

As Isolde’s maid, Brangäne, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton scolded and worried with impressive strength, projecting easily from the wings as she kept watch over the lovers’ tryst in Act II. The vocal discovery of the evening was bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee, an apprentice singer from 2014 and 2015, who sang with rafter-shaking resonance as Kurwenal, Tristan’s trusted servant. Although he shaped his lines with musical sensitivity, it was the overwhelming volume that carried the character’s indignant outrage and lamenting sadness.

Bass Eric Owens gave solemn authority to the role of King Marke, a more introspective tone holding attention in his scenes, which tend to bring the opera’s action to a temporary halt. Apprentice singers filled out the supporting cast with polish, including the Sailor of tenor Jonah Hoskins, projecting his Act I love ballad from a corner of the theater balcony, a nice touch that brought the audience within the wind-tossed ship. The robust men’s chorus, prepared carefully by Susanne Sheston, were a virile presence as the ship’s crew, both on- and offstage.

James Gaffigan conducted Wagner’s brilliant score with an eye towards volatility more than expansiveness. The opening of Act III, where the score evokes the devastating bleakness of Tristan’s castle, felt rushed, apart from the plangent English horn solo of Juila DeRosa for the shepherd’s pipe scenes.

Even so, Gaffigan’s fluid gestures ensured admirable ensemble cohesion from all musicians, with fine details emerging from the texture as he balanced the powerful orchestra, a main character in any Wagner opera, with his singers. The horns called back and forth evocatively in the hunting scene, and pealing brass fanfares concluded Act I. Even in relatively small numbers, the strings amassed some intense, yearning surges.

Zack Winokur and Lisenka Heijboer Castañón co-directed a spare, dream-like production that suggested settings rather than showed them. White walls bordered the stage, creating a large box that filled the center space (scenic design by Charlap Hyman & Herrero). This box opened on itself to create the ship quarters of Isolde and Brangäne in Act I. A stormy New Mexico evening, with pink-tinged sunset on one side of the stage and lightning on the other, added its own dramatic elements, as wind billowed Isolde’s gown.

Shadows also played an essential role (lighting design by John Torres), from the entrance of Tristan, which was preceded by the appearance of his imposing shadow on a side wall. In the torrid love potion scene, Tristan and Isolde’s shadows cross one another, foretelling the intermingling of the lovers’ identities in their Act II duet (“Tristan is Isolde, Isolde is Tristan”).

The staging had its strongest moments in Act III, where Tristan’s anguished visions of Isolde’s arrival, long before it actually happens, found expression. In two ghostly appearances, Wilson strode slowly onstage and back off, seen only by Tristan. After that, her silhouetted shadow, projected onto the wall, further haunted Tristan’s mind, a salient psychological detail in an abstract staging that got to the core of the drama.

Falstaff runs through August 25. Tristan und Isolde runs through August 23.

The 2023 season will include Tosca, The Flying Dutchman, Pelléas et Mélisande, Rusalka, and Monteverdi’s Orfeo.

One Response to “Santa Fe Opera rounds out comeback season with brilliant Verdi and Wagner”

  1. Posted Aug 23, 2022 at 1:29 pm by Joe

    I was in attendance last week for Carmen, M. Butterfly and Isolde and this was by far the best work. The use of light and shadow, the four walls, and the gorgeously conducted orchestra supported a brilliant Tamara Wilson and , as stated above, Nicholas Brownlee stole the show. As I was leaving, that’s all anyone was talking about.
    The last act brought giant tears to my eyes. GLORIOUS!