Murder, mystery and mayhem at Santa Fe Opera

Will she jump? Amanda Echalaz exemplifies the diva as the title character in the Santa Fe Opera’s production of “Tosca.” Enlarge photo

Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera

Will she jump? Amanda Echalaz exemplifies the diva as the title character in the Santa Fe Opera’s production of “Tosca.”

A diva, a goddess and a poor-little-rich-girl. This summer, the heroines of “Tosca,” “The Pearl Fishers,” and “Arabella” at Santa Fe Opera have plenty of obstacles to overcome.

The diva: Everyone calls Tosca “la divina,” even her enemies. As portrayed by soprano Amanda Echalaz, Puccini’s heroine is difficult, tempestuous and prone to flashes of jealousy. When Tosca questions her lover about loyalty, Cavaradossi (tenor Brian Jagde) shakes his head in frustration then passionately redeclares his commitment. Poor guy.

It’s Puccini’s music that elevates the story of a self-centered diva into the realm of transformative art. And then there is the villain, Baron Scarpia, cunningly portrayed by Raymond Aceto. His interpretation adds considerable venom to this potent love triangle.

Director Stephen Barlow and Designer Yannis Thavoris add imagination. Acts I and III offer the illusion of a Roman church, inside and out. To begin, the artist Cavaradossi paints and walks on a colossal mural set on a highly raked stage.

After an elaborate Te Deum ceremony where church officials enact part of the Mass, the set rolls up and Scarpia holds forth in a magnificent apartment. Hypocrite that he is, Scarpia stands beneath a giant painting of Zeus Triumphant. His seduction of Tosca gets physically brutal, and when Tosca seeks revenge, the tension ascends right up to the final rooftop scene.

Santa Fe’s “Tosca” enhances the company’s reputation for high concept design and direction, not to mention superb performances throughout.

The goddess: Leila, Bizet’s heroine in “The Pearl Fishers,” doesn’t have Scarpia to poison her love triangle. Semi-divine, Leila (soprano Nicole Cabell) complicates her duties as overseer of ancient religious rites with womanly feelings. Two best friends from childhood seek her love and complete the triangle: Zurga (baritone Christopher Magiera) and Nadir (tenor Eric Cutler). Both are good men; the villain is Fate. Bizet’s early opera, composed at age 24, is largely about friendship, partly about romantic love and lastly about pearl fishing.

Director Lee Blakeley underscores the Romantic fascination with all things Oriental. Composed in 1863, the opera reflected a heightened interest in the exotic, hence a set with colossal ruins signifying pagan religion and costumes befitting an idea of hot and steamy Ceylon.

When disaster strikes, it’s the hand of Fate. In one flashback, Leila appears seated on a gigantic hand rising from the sea. It’s one of many effects that gives this production the quality of a dream.

Bizet’s sinuous melodic lines weave through the score like threads in an Oriental carpet. Carried by English horns, oboes, flutes and the occasional harp, the lines create a musical texture foreshadowing the composer’s most famous work, “Carmen.” Fortunately for Leila, “Pearl Fishers” has a happier ending.

The poor-little-rich-girl: Arabella (soprano Erin Wall) is the only hope of the aristocratic Waldner family to pull them out of debt. Elegant and self-possessed, she’s the calm center of a comedic storm as her gambling father (Dale Travis) and flustered mother (Victoria Livengood) search for a wealthy son-in-law.

Sounds a bit like a Jane Austen plot, doesn’t it? Well, the comparison fits, beginning with a mother’s distress and father’s detachment. But Strauss and his librettist Hofmannsthal deliver a family conundrum set in a European capital in the 1850s with a long list of suitable suitors. Strauss provides a big orchestral score, luscious arias and a Viennese ball.

British Director Tim Albery gives the production a spare-but-elegant, pale gray atmosphere. Into this world, Mandryka (baritone Mark Delavan) arrives. A rough Croatian landowner, he’s an outsider in more ways than his burly overcoat and brown tweed suit imply. His negotiation with Count Waldner is the comic highlight.

Richard Strauss’ drawing-room comedy turned out to be the non-exotic outlier in the Santa Fe season. Arabella turned out to be the sane voice of reason in a sea of divas. Who would have thought?

Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer and critic. Reach her at jreynolds@durangoherald.com.