Opera, opera, opera

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  August 15, 2006

Why diddle with perfection? Yet the music for Ariel’s entire part is haunting and otherworldly. High E’s abound. And they were amazingly sung by Cyndia Sieden, who repeated the role she created in 2004.

I also thought the last scenes seemed a little shapeless. But there’s compelling music for Caliban, the expressive William Ferguson, and the two lovers, handsome, full-voiced tenor Toby Spence, who created the role of Ferdinand, and mezzo-soprano Patricia Risley — an oddly low vocal range for a naive young heroine. Rod Gilfrey was an imposing Prospero, crueler than Shakespeare’s. Director Jonathan Kent’s most chilling moment was the opening, when the shipwrecked men and women, satirically dressed by scene-and-costume designer Paul Brown as upper-class socialites (no lady beachcombers in Shakespeare), stagger up from the orchestra pit onto the shore of Prospero’s island, dripping wet from a tank of water just under the lip of the stage, looking like waterlogged Night-of-the-Living-Dead zombies.

Spence also sang Tamino, and that underlined the connection between Adès and Mozart. In director Tim Albery’s best bit of staging, Die Zauberflöte began with the hero already inside the serpent’s jaws. But it was a terrible decision to have the singing in German and the spoken dialogue in English — all the odder since two of the leading singers were not native English speakers. The earthy birdcatcher, Papageno (baritone Joshua Hopkins), had virtually two different characterizations. With his slangy English and backward baseball cap, he was a sit-com Papageno; singing in German, he managed to convey some inner dignity. The Queen of the Night (Heather Buck) and her Three Ladies wore Elizabethan gowns whereas the evil Monostatos was a Nazi. This pointless mélange of costumes, uneven singing (neither Buck nor the full-voiced but woofy Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli as Sarastro was up to Mozart’s fiendish technical demands), and directionless directing (characters simply wandered on and off; Tamino didn’t even play his magic flute, just held it out, or put it down, letting it play itself) all lacked the magic essential to a Zauberflöte. (I remember, in 1971, the thrilling arrival and departure of the Queen of the Night in a kind of flying saucer.) The one major virtue, despite Tobias Heheisel’s dressing her as if she were Maria in West Side Story, was the ravishing and tender Pamina of Natalie Dessay, now another SFO regular.

CENDRILLON Imaginative and witty stage images for Massenet.
Salomewas the worst. Lithe Janice Watson, looking like Beardsely’s famous illustration, had to shriek to be heard, and she had no central conception. And she couldn’t dance, which made the Dance of the Seven Veils interminable and silly. The audience giggled at her passion. Veteran tenor Ragnar Ulfung, returning as Herod for his 25th Santa Fe season over a 40-year period, was the only singer who deliberately played his part for laughs.

Still, every performance was packed, and few subscribers left unhappy. In today’s opera world, three wonderful productions out of five and one unforgettable star turn (the sublime Dessay) are enviable statistics.

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