Santa Fe ready for a Wilde opera season

Courtesy of Santa Fe Opera

Susan Graham will star this summer in the title role in the Santa Fe Opera’s production of “The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein.”

By Judith Reynolds
Special to the Herald

Wild about Oscar. That’s the buzz in Santa Fe this summer. With its flair for mixing popular standards with revivals and rarely performed works, the Santa Fe Opera once again will mount a world premiere.

“Oscar,” composed by Theodore Morrison with librettist John Cox, centers on the dramatic last chapter of Oscar Wilde’s short life. All early reports suggest the new work will not follow a strict biographical thread nor weave the tart colors of “The Importance of Being Ernest.” Instead, the first opera to be written about the lion of late 19th-century literature will focus on his trial for gross indecency and life in prison. With flashbacks to his stunning career and troubled personal history, the opera will reveal a man who ultimately stood on principle and refused to compromise.

The lead will be sung by countertenor David Daniels, for whom the work has been written. Daniels worked with Morrison and Cox to develop the opera, researching biographies and primary sources. Together, the collaborators gained permission from Wilde’s only grandson to draw upon letters only recently published.

Opera fans who have seen Daniels in Metropolitan Opera roles such as Julius Caesar and Prospero, know his voice. Its otherworldly quality parallels the range of a female mezzo soprano. For a magician like Prospero or the bisexual Wilde, Daniels’ voice seems the right match.

The countertenor voice is perfect,” Morrison said in an interview for OPERA NEWS, “because it’s the unusual voice, the voice that represents a person who is different.”

Act I centers on Wilde’s 1895 trial with flashbacks to his earlier life. Act II takes place in Reading Jail. Throughout, scenes of success, fame and celebrity are enacted. The libretto mixes Wilde’s blunt candor with his indomitable wit, personal reflections, and unexpectedly – fear.

By any measure, Wilde was an operatic character, to paraphrase SFO General Director Charles MacKay in the June issue of Opera News, “... with all of the pathos and this incredible story of someone who went from just being at the very top to hitting rock bottom, ... a man of great contradictions.” MacKay wondered why no opera had been written about the man. The Morrison-Cox-Daniels collaboration has answered that question.

In addition to “Oscar,” MacKay and company have surrounded the world premiere with a stellar group of beloved operas, a rarely performed Rossini and a frothy operetta.

Two revivals bring back popular standards: Santa Fe’s beautiful 2008 period interpretation of Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” and the stunning 2009 modern take on Verdi’s “La Traviata.” Reconceived by the French director Laurent Pelly, Santa Fe’s “Traviata” views the demise of Violetta, a doomed courtesan, through contemporary eyes. Pelly has re-envisioned her story in stark black and white shot through with fuscia – all set in modern dress on angular platforms. The opera will be performed in honor of the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

The revival of SFO’s “Figaro” will delight everyone who yearns for Rococo sets and costumes. In addition to Mozart’s elegant music, you’ll see more lace collars than French doors have windows. Soprano Susanna Phillips will reprise her role as the loyal Countess Almaviva. Figaro will be sung by the upcoming baritone Zachary Nelson.

Fans of the Metropolitan mezzo Joyce DiDonato will be overjoyed to learn she will sing the lead in Rossini’s “La Donna del Lago.” DiDonato has performed Elena all over the world, but this is a first for Santa Fe. Rossini’s 1819 opera was based on Sir Walter Scott’s epic poem about Scottish clan intrigue with a love triangle in the crosshairs.

The fifth production is also new to Santa Fe, Offenbach’s “The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein,” a spun-sugar tale of a beautiful and wealthy aristocrat who has a passion for men in uniform. Director Lee Blakeley has moved the 1867 work from a fictitious pocket-handkerchief European state to a North American military academy. Preening officers play war games and vie for soprano Susan Graham’s favors. Did I say light opera?

Santa Fe has one of the best opera-translation schemes with individual LED screens on seat backs. You can choose to read the translations or not.

The opera house is seven miles north of Santa Fe with ample parking, and the 30-minute Prelude Talks, pre-opera lectures, are worth every minute. Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic.

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