Monday, July 9, 2012

At the Santa Fe Opera

The Santa fe Opera House
4 July 2012
Santa Fe, New Mexico

When I was growing up on the island of Leyte, in provincial Philippines,  there was no culture, nor financial resources for producing, much less watching operas. There are still none now, except in Manila.
    When I was a student in Manila, I managed to see occasional student productions  such as Poulenc’s “Les Dialogues des Carmelites”  by the University of the Philippines Conservatory and an evening of operatic excerpts  performed by students and faculty of my school, the University of Sto Tomas. I remember the last one with a chuckle, because, during the singing of the “Humming Song” of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly, the little boy portraying Cio Cio-san’s son wandered out into the front of the stage of the Cultural Center of the Philippines  and stared in wonderment at the amused audience. On the occasions that a foreign opera was invited to perform in Manila (such as the Metropolitan Opera Company performing “Tosca” for the opening of Imelda Marcos’s Cultural Center of the Philippines) the tickets were so horrendously expensive that only the very rich could afford them. 
      When I moved to the US, and specifically New York City, this all changed. Then, I was literally buried in  the musical riches and choices, among them operatic, that New York City was and still is famous for.
     The first opera I saw, and in fact, the first really professional opera  I’ve ever seen, was Puccini’s  “Madame Butterfly” at the City Opera. This was followed in no particular order by Gounod’s “Faust”, Lehar’s “The Merry Widow”,  the double bill of "Cavalleria Rusticana" and "I Pagliacci" and  others I don’t remember  (this was back in the late ‘80’s). Over at the Met, the riches spilled out for me to pick and choose, depending on the state of my wallet: Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades”, Verdi’s “Rigoletto”,La Traviata”, “Il Trovatore” and recently, Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” and Puccini’s “La Boheme”.
     Another city where I was fortunate enough to watch several operas was at the Sydney Opera House. I was in Sydney for a month visiting my sisters who lived there, so catching performances at the iconic Opera House was a no-brainer. I can still remember what I saw back in 1993: Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, and Beethoven’s Fidelio.
     I  also had missed opportunites which somehow still annoys me today. I very nearly watched the Italian bass Ruggero Raimondi  in Rossini’s opera “Moïse” at the  La Fenice in Venice save for the fact that a burly German who was as determined as I was to get one of the last remaining SRO tickets out-shoved and out-muscled me. Shortly after that, La Fenice burned down to the ground (they say, by arson). Poetic justice? Hardly. It is horrifying to think that some demented soul would torch an opera house, but this was  Italy, where  the real-world  underpinnings of  violent and tempestuous opera had their roots.  La Fenice, which means "The Phoenix", has since been rebuilt and restored. 
    In Naples, I stood outside the Teatro San Carlo, frustrated that I would never be able to watch an opera in this famous theater because my cruise ship sailed out at five pm every single time we visited that port.
     In St. Petersburg, Russia, I examined in dismay the posters advertising the theatrical events in that city. The notices were in Cyrillic so I could  not tell which show was showing where and whether I had enough time to watch a matinee  performance and not get left behind by my cruise ship. There  was no one I could ask information from because  no one speaks English in St. Petersburg.  Maybe a few, but most of them were tourists.
    Although I made Los Angeles my home for close to seven years, I cannot remember ever watching an opera there. The company, even when it was managed by Placido Domingo, didn’t seem all that compelling to me. My experiences  at the City Opera and the Met  had always been the touchstone of my subsequent operatic forays.
     For as long as I was aware of it, the Santa Fe Opera had always loomed large in my must-visit list. It wasn’t so much that the company had an excellent reputation for its world-class productions and oftentimes adventurous repertoire, so much  as the fact that its operas were staged in a partially enclosed structure that looks out on the surrounding mountains. This, I thought, I've got to see.
   My chance finally came this summer. From my current base of El Paso, Texas,  Santa Fe was five hours away by car: doable, certainly. When I examined the 2012 repertory of the Santa Fe Opera, one title leaped out from the computer screen: Tosca by Puccini, the same opera that I couldn’t see in Manila back in the '70's because the price of the ticket was completely out of my reach. Somehow I  kept missing it in  New York and elsewhere. My familiarity with its music was nurtured by listening to complete recordings and DVD's by the likes of  Maria Callas, Placido Domingo and  Galina Vishnevskaya.  This was my chance to round off watching Puccini’s Big Three: “Madame Butterfly”, “La Boheme” and now “Tosca”. With little hesitation, I bought my ticket online  (another of the conveniences of this digital age) and prepared myself for the pleasure of watching a live performance of one of Puccini’s, and the world’s, greatest operas in spectacular surroundings.
Posing with the poster of "Tosca"
     I had been made aware that Santa Fe opera aficionados have a peculiar custom: having tailgate parties before the performance of an opera. I prepared myself for this event by visiting the local Trader Joe’s in Santa Fe and buying a sushi plate, some prepackaged provolone, cheese and crackers. For the wine, I bought a pinot grigio from the Veneto region in Italy. A four-month stay  in Venice, the homeport of a cruise ship I was working on  at the time, had made me partial to this fruity local wine. Since “Tosca” was Italian, I thought this vintage would  be apropos.
      The Santa Fe Opera is housed in a modernistic structure high on a bluff around three miles from the town proper. You can see its steel ribs sticking out of the landscape as you drive down freeway 258. There are helpful signs pointing you the exit towards the Opera House, proof that this opera has become an integral part of the Santa Fe landscape. However, there is no prominent sign to indicate to you that you must make a sharp turn and climb up a nondescript road up the side of the mountain. I missed it the first time I came to visit it out of an abundance of precaution, and nearly ended up in Taos! There is no grand landscaped approach to the site until you approach a pair of steel gates that look like you’re going into a gated  upscale subdivision. Then you are in a parking lot being waved in by uniformed traffic attendants. It can’t be more elite than this.
Prepared to hold  my own tailgate party with wine, sushi and provolone but....
     When I had parked my car, I saw that some opera goers had already laid out tables and chairs for their parties. I brought no table nor chair so I contented myself with opening the trunk of my car and laying out my repast on a beach towel.
     But things have a way of resolving in a quite different, pleasant manner, and  I found myself invited to join a table of gracious partiers who saw that I was alone. During the course of the tailgate party which featured several bottles of excellent wine, deviled eggs, a home-made potato salad, great cheeses and meatballs, I learned  that among the persons seated at the table were   the head of the drama department of NYU, a New York theatrical producer, a lady-painter, and, for lack of a better term, a gay divorcee who confessed that she was “taken better care of by her ex-husband after their divorce than when they were married.” I presented a painting that I brought with me with the vow that I would give it to the first person who consented to have his/their picture taken with me in the spirit of the festivities. That person was David, an art dealer, who had lent me a wine-opener and then agreed to take a picture of me with the group . The monsoon wind bustled in,  napkins blew away, my plastic wine glass upended and spilled its pinot grigio, and a good time was had by all.
...I ended up joining a Santa Fe Opera tailgate party with the smart set!
     And what of the opera itself?
     The theater built for the opera in Santa Fe was structurally magnificent and delightful. It had excellent sight lines, with not a bad view anywhere in the house,  astounding acoustics that enabled the singers to sing without amplification and still be heard in the last row, and those open sides that looked out on the  Jemez and Sangre del Cristo mountains. This alone was worth the price of the ticket and the effort to get to this  mountaintop opera-house.
Interior of the Santa Fe Opera House

     I was ushered to my seat by a personable young man named Finn, whose father, he informed me, was a well-known archaeologist who dug around the old pueblo of Santa Fe. Finn was well-travelled, having gone through most of Southeast Asia and parts of Europe and was planning to study anthropology at the University of Mexico in Albuquerque.
Finn, the usher
    The stage set-up for "Tosca" was unusual. Where the New York Metropolitan Opera, under Franco Zefferelli, would have given you the original view of the church where Mario Cavaradossi painted his Madonna, or the faithful reconstruction of the room at the Palazzo Farnese where Scarpia nearly rapes Tosca and where he meets his demise, or the exact battlements of the  Castel Sant’Angelo, the special qualities of space at the Santa Fe Opera House had given rise to an ingenious solution:  a floor which served as a gigantic canvas of  the painting-in-progress of the Madonna by Cavaradossi. During Act Two, the canvas/floor  lifted up  to reveal a  painting on its underside that depicts a mural at the Palazzo Farnese. The simple expedient of pushing two turreted walls on either side of the floor conspired to change the setting into Castel Sant’Angelo, the scene of Cavaradossi’s execution and Tosca’s suicide. As a backdrop, a circular vault lay on its side so that the inner beehive chamber  looked out at the audience, giving a hint  of the majestic interior dome of a church without the opera-goers having to look up and crane their necks. Suggestive and spectacularly clever indeed. Stephen Barlow directed this production.
     As for the performers: the South African soprano Amanda Echalaz as Tosca sang with  full-throated  energy and dramatic flair. Raymond Aceto as the villainous Scarpia was truly menacing. He inhabited his role so thoroughly that boos were heard - for his character, I would say, rather than for his singing! - when he took his bow.  Andrew Richards was supposed to sing the role of Mario Cavaradossi, but his replacement, the American tenor Brian Jagde was excellent and handsome, to boot.
     I must confess that during the first act, I intermittently dozed off, not because of the music, but because of the effects of the nearly half-bottle of wine I’d drunk before the show. Come to think of it, Tosca is one long operatic performance by a duo and a trio, relieved by transcendent arias. The only spectacular choral part of the opera occurs  at the end of Act One, when the priests, bishops and laity come out in full force to sing the Te Deum . After that, it’s a string of arias ( “Vissi d’arte” , “E Lucevan le stelle”) interspersed with trios and duets.To the uninitiated, this can get boring. For me, after I’d shaken off the effects of the wine, it was sheer bliss. 
     It also became inexplicably warm. Only at intermission did I realize that it had rained  lightly outside. Although the sides of the hall were open, I didn't notice that. I did notice the lights of cars on the distant  freeway and remember thinking:  "How extraordinary!" I heard that at some performances, lightning could be seen striking down on the mountains in the background. I didn't doubt it. I had experienced a  thunderstorm with terrifying lightning strikes just two days ago.
      In the end, I was impressed by everything about this production. The protagonists and supporting cast handled the scenes to perfection. Their performances  were top-notch, at par with those I’d seen  in New York and Sydney. In fact, these were the same artists you would see in New York or Sydney!
     Finally, I can now check off the last remaining opera in Puccini’s Big Three that I hadn’t seen live until now.   Of course, there’s still “Turandot”…
     My fun  hosts at the parking lot party had intimated that they were going to assemble again the following week for another tailgate party prior to watching a production of George Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers”.
       I just might join them again.
The Santa Fe Opera crowd, many of whom came from Texas,Yee-Haw!

1 comment:

  1. Really enjoyed your detailed description of the Santa Fe Opera. I saw a wonderful production of "Aida" in the baths in Rome in 1972 and another one in 2008 in Malmo, Sweden which was amazing. La Traviata is my favorite!