SANTA FE, NM – The Spanish city of Seville is the setting for several operas, including Rossini’s Barber of Seville and Bizet Carmen. Both are presented this summer by the Santa Fe Opera, in productions mixing traditional and modern visuals, sometimes provocative, sometimes questionable.
The Hairdresser, directed by Stephen Barlow, dazzles with the gags, which sometimes distracted from the important moments of the August 1 performance. In Figaro’s most famous aria, on his talents as a jack-of-all-trades and quick-witted operator, he passes the repetitions of his name through several rambunctious barbers.
Sets and costumes by Andrew D. Edwards, with Rebecca Gunstone as associate, added to the shtick. Towards the end of the overture, a giant neoclassical bust was brought forward to line up with a large pair of mustache-shaped hedges, prompting laughter that drowned out the fleet playing orchestra, led by the young conductor. Iván López-Reynoso Orchestra.
Count Almaviva’s servant, Fiorello, voiced by finely-focused baritone Kyle Miller, then took the stage, dressed in 18th-century attire, but carrying a Gap shopping bag. The Earl (tenor Jack Swanson) appeared as the poor student “Lindoro”, dressed in jeans, white trainers, a sweatshirt and a Seville overcoat. With the help of street musicians, he serenaded his love, Rosina, ensconced in the giant bust, which served as the home of his caretaker, Doctor Bartolo, spinning on a turntable to reveal some coins.
Mixing past and present has created some funny contrasts – like when Bartolo puts on a headband and armbands over his ruffled period costume, lays out a yoga mat and strikes poses to relax. But it also raised unresolved questions. When is it actually defined? Do singers today act like historical figures? And why are they sometimes aware of modernity, other times not?
Other decisions went well, regardless of the time period. Rosina’s bedroom in Bartolo’s house was like a big birdcage, in which she rocked back and forth on a padded swing singing about how docile she may look, but will fight for what she wanna.
Joshua Hopkins in Figaro wielded a powerful and generously expressive baritone. Bringing the character to life, he strutted around, drank stealthy sips from a flask, and seemed obsessed with money. You could see a twinkle in his eyes as he imagined the riches that awaited him for helping to unite Rosina and the Count.
After an excellent performance at the world premiere of Huang Ruo Mr. Butterfly, bass Kevin Burdette once again played superbly, giving Bartolo unusual depth and range. Conspiring mischievously, music teacher Don Basilio was sonically embodied by bass-baritone Nicholas Newton.
Swanson’s Almaviva had a light voice that was not always firm in pitch strokes. But it set off resounding high notes. As Rosina, mezzo Emily Fons seemed vocally starved and overwhelmed with ensemble passages.
As governess to the Earl, Berta, soprano Murrella Parton looked weary of the antics, swearing at love, before revealing a romantic desire in a stunning aria involving a quick change from a drab maid outfit in a sparkling evening dress.
López-Reynoso, the conductor, established relaxed yet dynamic tempos that gave way to rhythmic freedoms. He pulled off both lyrical and lively sounds, but sometimes let the orchestra overpower the singers. Problems with intonation and coordination, especially in the strings, began to appear as the night went on.
Prepared by Susanne Sheston, the chorus offered a moving but too burlesque song. Christopher Akerlind’s lights followed the changes in atmosphere. The most majestic lighting of the evening came from the sunset over the distant Sangre de Cristo Mountains, casting soft purples and reds.
Modern “Carmen” from the Santa Fe Opera
This concept Carmendirected by Mariame Clément, is performed as Bizet composed it, with spoken rather than sung dialogues subsequently composed by Ernest Guiraud.
It opens with a girl in a pink shirt and frilly white skirt — Isla Burdette, daughter of bass Kevin Burdette — in a run-down amusement park. When the orchestra struck the first accent of the prelude during the August 2 performance, she crouched down and plugged her ears, then hopped around a merry-go-round with a decapitated horse. She returned throughout the opera, occasionally interacting with the other characters.
Who was she? Carmen’s younger self? A ghostly presence? In any case, it provided some emotion. She deliberately walked onstage in the final scene and stared at Don José, condemning him for killing Carmen.
Isabel Leonard was a confident and strong-willed Carmen. Dressed in modest modern attire, she captivated men with a full-bodied, low-smoldering, blazing-high mezzo. In her tunes, she stretched the tempo like putty, daring the orchestra to stay with her. This was generally successful, with the exception of the “Habanera” hotspots.
Her ardent lover, Don José, was hosted by tenor Michael Fabiano. His formidable instrument colored exquisite piano dynamics, but usually oscillated between forte and triple forte, passionately conveying both his devotion and his hysteria.
As Micaëla, Don José’s innocent fiancée, soprano Sylvia D’Eramo didn’t project as much as the other leads, but she carved out lovely phrases, deftly shifting dynamics and tones. Bullfighter Escamillo was played by Michael Sumuel with a beefy bass-baritone mix that he lightened up as needed. Zuniga, a lieutenant, was ably dispatched by bass David Crawford. The supporting roles were skilfully served by Magdalena Kuźma (Frasquita), Kathleen Felty (Mercédès), Luke Sutliff (Dancaïre) and Anthony León (Remendado).
Harry Bicket, Music Director of the Santa Fe Opera, led the orchestra in a spirited and alert collaboration, with sumptuous lyricism. Duane Schuler’s lights evoked various shades of darkness, bringing out the tragic mood. Choruses depicting smugglers, factory workers, and soldiers dressed in hideous mint-green uniforms were equally adept in driving and thoughtful passages. The children’s choir has been omitted.
The Santa Fe Opera Festival runs through August 27. For more information and tickets, call 1-800-280-4654 or visit www.santafeopera.org.