As luck would have it, theres still time to see every production of the 2011 Santa Fe Opera season.
If you see all five, youll survey opera from 1735 to the mid-20th century. Four are tragedies. The one comic opera, The Last Savage, is so witty and so imaginatively presented it balances the lot.
Savage and the great classic La Bohème have already been reviewed in these pages (Herald, July 29). Between now and Aug. 26, Bohème has five more performances; Savage has four.
And then there are the dark triplets: Gounods Faust, Bergs Wozzeck and Vivaldis Griselda.
Faust has the most sumptuous production of the season. Based on Goethes famous literary figure, the man who sold his soul to the devil, Gounods opera goes over the top in spectacular ways.
Director Stephen Lawless sets the story at the end of the 19th century complete with cavernous interiors and spacious street scenes right up to a freak-show carnival with a lighted Ferris wheel. Of course, everything eventually goes south for Faust before his demise and a miraculous French-flavored redemption for poor Marguerite.
Bergs Wozzeck has been called a 20th century masterpiece, and this summer, Santa Fe has revived its splendid 2001 production. Performed without intermission, the 90-minute work evokes musically and dramatically what its like to go mad. The story centers on a lowly soldier and his highly unsettled mind. As his story unfolds, Bergs music is alternately taut and lyrical, occasionally calm but mostly frenzied.
Santa Fe is known for its innovative staging, and Scenic Designer Robert Innes Hopkins has created a compelling counterpart to human disintegration. At a critical point, the stage itself cracks apart. Its a jolt that wont be forgotten. Everything in this remarkable production contributes dramatically to a complete portrait.
In contrast, the set for Vivaldis Griselda is one large painted backdrop that makes for a rare, static production in Santa Fe. Created by Gronk, a West Coast graffiti artist, the painted flats merely wrap around the stage to create one huge, empty playing space. Lighting Designer James Ingalls does what he can to enliven the opera by employing intense colors and simple follow spots for the singers. The result is a highly stiff production, not a happy solution for Vivaldis already highly-stiff 1735 work.
Director Peter Sellers spoke at a pre-opera lecture and waxed enthusiastic about Gronks turgid graffiti-style art. Sellers and Gronk worked together on the 2005 production of Ainadamar, which looked remarkably like the Griselda stage flat panels covered with loopy brushwork, blobby shapes and intense colors.
In a vague way, Gronks entangled storms, tsunamis and horrific faces support the operas theme of disaster and unrelenting spousal abuse. But even as Sellers praised Gronk to be the Chicano Picasso, the set remains just a painted backdrop. The singers stand, sit on one of two chairs or roll around on the floor to animate the otherwise empty stage.
That said, Conductor Grant Gershon gave Vivaldis music a gorgeous interpretation, and the six singers were spellbinding.
Why the company has embraced an old-fashioned, flat-set design again is puzzling.
Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic. Reach her at email@example.com.