It’s a drive of a fraction under 200 miles through the Jornada del Muerto desert from Santa Fe Opera to the Trinity Test Site where, on 16th July 1945, the first atomic bomb was detonated. That’s just about as close as you can get to a major international opera house, so it’s hard to argue against Santa Fe as *the* place to go to see John Adams’ Doctor Atomic, set in the run up to that turning point in nuclear history and an opera in which the setting of John Donne’s sonnet Batter My Heart packs as a hard a punch as you’re likely to see. This summer sees six performances of a new production by Peter Sellars, Adams’ long term collaborator and co-creator of the 2005 original: Sellars points out that Adams is obsessed with the desert, and at Santa Fe,  “there it is: this is the landscape... we don't exactly have to build a set, because we are on location – there are the mountains right there.” Robert and Kitty Oppenheimer are sung by young American singers Ryan McKinny and Julia Bullock, who impressed in Adams and Sellars’ Girls of the Golden West last year. The conductor is musical polymath Matthew Aucoin, another highly talented and insightful young American.

   

You can’t accuse this year’s festival of lack of balance. If Doctor Atomic, replete as it is with darkness and existential angst, is too pessimistic for you, head for the mindless optimism of Dr Pangloss in Laurent Pelly’s production of Bernstein’s light-hearted operetta Candide. The “magnificent” Brenda Rae, who “carried the show” in last year’s Lucia di Lammermoor takes on the responsibility for a showstopper of an entirely different kind, Cunegonde’s sparkling “Glitter and Be Gay”; we described Alek Shrader as “impeccable” and “impassioned” when he sung the title role in Vancouver back in 2015; Santa Fe regular Kevin Burdette sings Pangloss and other roles. Candide had a mixed early history, not least because its original libretto was thought to be too unsubtle and weighty for Bernstein’s music (and, indeed, Voltaire’s original wit); Santa Fe performs the later “Scottish Opera” version, approved by Bernstein, which applies a considerably lighter touch.

Don Giovanni at Santa Fe Opera in 2016 © Ken Howard
Don Giovanni at Santa Fe Opera in 2016
© Ken Howard

A different flavour of sparkle is on offer with Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri, suffused with farcical mayhem in true commedia dell’arte fashion. Being Rossini, of course, it’s also crammed with delicious bel canto melodies: look out for Lindoro’s classic entrance aria “Languir per una bella” and Isabella’s “Per te solo, o mio Lindoro”. Jack Swanson sings Lindoro, fresh from considerable success in the title role of Candide at LA Opera earlier this year, Daniela Mack, whose “virtuosic confidence” put Bachtrack’s Thomas May in mind of a young Cecilia Bartoli in last year’s Santa Fe Alcina, is Isabella.

The most mainstream of the season’s five productions is Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. The title role, perhaps one of the most tear-jerkingly tragic figures in opera, is shared between Ana Maria Martinez, who has “overcome our highest expectations” in the role in the past, and the “rich and warm as a lieder singer’s” voice of Kelly Kaduce, whose repertoire stretches from Dvořák to Weinberg and Kurt Weill. A J Glueckert brings his heldentenor-like qualities to the dastardly Pinkerton.

Amanda Majeski in <i>Capriccio</i> in 2016 © Ken Howard
Amanda Majeski in Capriccio in 2016
© Ken Howard

Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos is a different animal altogether: a comedy whose purpose is utterly serious (the composer described it as a “politico-satirical-parodistic” opera). Strauss was a composer who strove to understand the place of his art: where his last opera Capriccio (performed in Santa Fe in 2016) explored the question of the primacy of music in opera versus that of the words, the 1916 Ariadne auf Naxos addressed the conflict of high and low art. A one act version, written in 1912 and designed to be performed after Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme, suffered from a fatal flaw: opera fans were unamused by being expected to sit through more than four hours of Molière before being permitted to hear the opera. This led Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannstahl to the 1916 version, which has a unique structure: the comic “Prologue” substitutes for the Molière, followed after the interval by the longer main opera, which serves as a play-within-a-play and mixes slapstick with classical tragedy. The conflict is epitomised by the two main soprano roles: the high art Primadonna (who performs Ariadne in the play-within-a-play), and the low art Zerbinetta, head of a vaudeville troupe. Amanda Echalaz and Erin Morley are the Primadonna and Zerbinetta; the new production is by veteran director Tim Albery.

 

The 2018 Santa Fe Opera Festival runs from June 29th to August 25th. See all listings here.
This preview was sponsored by Santa Fe Opera Festival.