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Review: ‘Die Fledermaus’ at the Santa Fe Opera, and What We’ve Learned

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This Santa Fe production of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus was the least Viennese of any I’ve ever seen. No, director Ned Canty did not set it in the American Southwest — which might have been an interesting approach. He kept the Old World setting and used New World language and action, and the coarse humor left few remnants of the elegant life in the 1870s Austrian monarchy.

Jane Archibald and the Santa Fe Opera Chorus. Photo by Ken Howard.

Jane Archibald and the Santa Fe Opera Chorus. Photo by Ken Howard.

Gemütlichkeit was missing here — that feeling of warmth, friendliness, good cheer and belonging together which exemplified the Habsburg Empire in its finest hours, and has made Fledermaus an enduring favorite. You could argue that the real Habsburg nobility were too self-satisfied but, even if unrealistic, their staged image usually provides a warm glow.

The orchestra under the baton of Nicholas Carter, principal conductor of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, was excellent, with a light, lyrical approach. But some of the singers pushed and sounded edgy, and their mugging was excessive.

Best in the cast were the Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins as an elegant Dr. Falke who seeks revenge for being embarrassed by his friend Gabriel von Eisenstein, Jane Archibald as the maid Adele with dazzling coloratura and pert humor, and Susan Graham who was imperious as the unflappable Prince Orlovsky.

Kurt Streit seemed awkward and inelegant as Eisenstein. Devon Guthrie as Eisenstein’s wife Rosalinda has a nice lyric voice but was inadequate as an imperious woman who dares to confront her philandering husband in public. She lacked the power to make her Hungarian czárdás a show-stopper.

Dimitri Pittas was overly crude as Alfred, the former lover of Rosalinda who returns to spend a night with her when her husband is sent to jail. He’s supposed to be a self-centered Italian tenor, whose mannerisms should come easily to any tenor, but Pittas seemed to have a tough battle. He pushed to the point where his voice lost its normal beauty. I must admit that I have high standards for this role; my first Alfred was the golden-voiced Richard Tucker.

Susan Graham. Photo by Ken Howard.

Susan Graham. Photo by Ken Howard.

David Govertsen as a prison warden and Kevin Burdette as the jailer Frosch were over-directed and their humor was heavy-handed. The Act II ballet was shortened by choreographer Sean Curran and was understaffed; only four dancers comprised the corps. Allen Moyer’s set was clever — doorways and their frames represented a nobleman’s home, and walls were eliminated so the audience could see a beautiful New Mexican sunset through the open rear of the stage. Zach Brown’s costumes and Duane Schuler’s lighting were fine.

The production used an English translation from the 1950s by Ruth and Thomas Martin with updates by Charles Ludlam. To give you an idea of how this production tried to meld 1870s Austria with 2017 America, a character uses a dial phone to call his supervisor, fails to hear anything, holds up the phone and says “I can’t get through. I have only one bar.” (This was the night after we saw an opera about the inventor of the iPhone.) When Eisenstein’s inept lawyer is about to confer with him, someone says “there’s a notorious Justice nearby” — clearly a reference to the fact that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was in the audience. She’s a regular attendee at the Santa Fe Opera.

This brings us to a discussion of what’s special about Santa Fe. It is America’s oldest state capital city and the smallest, with a population of only 83,000. At an altitude of 6852 feet, it’s one of America’s highest cities. The slogan is “The City Different.” I’d go farther and call it unique. First of all, the mountain views are gorgeous. Almost all structures are low and are made of tannish-pinkish adobe. The ambience is that of a small town; strangers on the sidewalks say “hello” to you. The pace is slow and relaxed. Yet it’s a hotbed of creative artistry, in paintings, sculpture, jewelry, cuisine and music.

In one way, Santa Fe reminds me of Salzburg, because restaurant waiters will ask if you have opera tickets, so they can make sure you finish your meal in time, but Salzburg is more exclusively focused on music while Santa Fe (with half the population) has more diverse attractions. It is America’s third largest market for paintings, only surpassed by New York and Los Angeles.

The air is dry, with the scent of roasted green chile and piñon. Santa Fe demonstrates strong interest in health and on spa treatments. The best I’ve found is Spa Sage, fronting an oasis of greenery at the La Posada de Santa Fe, a Tribute Portfolio resort. La Posada (which means “resting place”) has elegant dining in Julia, named for the 19th century socialite Julia Staab.

Staab and her husband were Jewish immigrants from Germany, which spotlights the fact that Santa Fe has had close relationships among its varied cultures. Native Americans mixed with Spanish families, Europeans with Latin Americans, and intermarriages have been common for many generations. All religions and multiple colors mix, with hardly any friction. The diversity in cultures has led to creativity in cuisine and in the arts.

Performing arts groups abound, aside from the world-famous opera company:

  • The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival has become one of the world’s preeminent music festivals, inviting scores of distinguished musicians to Santa Fe each summer during its 6-week season with over 80 concerts, recitals, master classes and youth concerts.
  • The Santa Fe Symphony, now in its 34th season, is a successful collaboration between musicians and all who appreciate live performance.
  • The nonprofit, member-supported Lensic Performing Arts Center hosts more than 200 events throughout the year. Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke at a concert of justice-related operatic scenes last week, performed by Santa Fe Opera apprentices.
  • The Santa Fe Desert Chorale presents both summer and winter festivals of concerts.
  • Santa Fe Pro Musica offers a variety of classical music programs in historic Santa Fe venues, sometimes with baroque instruments.
  • The Santa Fe Shakespeare Society aims to make Shakespeare easily accessible, using a moveable stage that is taken to schools, cancer wards, and retirement homes to perform for the residents.
  • “A Year of Lear” is the current project of The International Shakespeare Center in Santa Fe, which will culminate in a performance of King Lear in September 2018.
  • Theatre Santa Fe assembles information on one website about varied companies including Adobe Rose Theatre, For Giving Productions, Ironweed Productions, Pandemonium Productions, Red Thread Santa Fe, New Mexico Actors Lab, Santa Fe Playhouse, Teatro Paraguas, Theater Grottesco, Theaterwork, and Wise Fool New Mexico.

Finally, we must acknowledge the close connection between Philadelphia and the Santa Fe Opera. For many years, people at the Academy of Vocal Arts and the Curtis Institute of Music have referred to Santa Fe as “Philly West.” AVA alumnus Zachary Nelson was the lead baritone in this summer’s Lucia di Lammermoor and the performer of the title role, Brenda Rae, made her big splash last year when she co-starred with Stephanie Blythe in Rossini’s Tancredi for Opera Philadelphia. That company’s music director, Corrado Rovaris, conducted this Santa Fe Lucia.

AVA resident artists and past artists who sang at Santa Fe this summer include Meryl Dominiguez, Nathan Milholian, Christopher Kenney, Jorge Espino and Jared Bybee. Curtis graduate Meredith Arwady co-starred in Santa Fe’s The Golden Cockerel, and current Curtis students Dogukan Kuran and Tyler Zimmerman were in the Santa Fe Apprentice program.

Previous Santa Fe productions were shared by Opera Philadelphia: Cold Mountain, L’Elisir d’Amore and Tea, while Curtis borrowed the Santa Fe productions of Ainadamar, Cunning Little Vixen, Owen Wingrave and Capriccio.

The sister-cities cooperation will continue, even though Opera Philadelphia missed a great opportunity to participate in the production of this year’s Santa Fe sensation The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs.

Running Time of Die Fledermaus: Three hours and 10 minutes, with two intermissions.

Die Fledermaus had its final performance on August 26, 2017 at Santa Fe Opera, performing at the Opera House – 301 Opera Drive, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Tickets to next year’s festival can be purchased online.

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