My sister Barbara and I saw 4 operas in 4 days:


Brenda Rae in the mad Scene

The last time I saw this was decades ago, at the onset of my immersion in opera. At the time, I wrote it off as just romantic fluff, a more tragic version of Elisir d’Amore, Daughter of the Regiment and dozens others (Donizetti’s contemporaries snarkily referred to him as “Dozinetti”). This time, having matured in my approach to opera, I found it a monumental masterpiece, not only in its music, but also in its presentation of a deep human drama. Forcing women into unwanted arranged marriages created many tragedies, both on the stage and in real life. And I found the music at a much higher dramatic and artistic level than the other romantic piffles, even though they also have some beautiful writing. The choruses, ensembles and solo arias were powerful, easily comparable to the powerhouses of Verdi and Puccini. Or perhaps theirs were comparable to his, since he composed earlier.

Anyway, enough prologue. The title role was sung by Brenda Rae, whom I saw in three productions at Santa Fe a couple of years ago: the double bill of Mozart’s Impresario and Stravinski’s Le Rossignol, and as Norina in Don Pasquale (another Donizetti romantic piffle, but with some contemporary relevance of an old man marrying a gold-digging younger woman). Rae was spectacular in all these roles.

Her entry here was slightly marred by harshness in high notes at full volume, but she settled down and subsequent vocalizations were perfect – smooth bel-canto delivery of soft passages, and spot-on intonation of fortissimo upper register. The mad scene was especially spectacular, directed to perfection. She started out softly, with minimum gesticulation, so as not distract from the soft, delicate vocal line. She became more intense as the scene wore on, but was still not emoting at full throttle. After a choral interlude, she resumed the scene (that second part is omitted in some productions), this time with animated gestures and high-powered emotional outbursts. Easily the equal of Anna Netrebko’s mad scene in Bellini's I Puritani  which I saw at the Met. A standing ovation ensued. (Aside: I exchanged words with her the next day, when she was in the Opera Shop signing autographs, and got to personally compliment her on the performances I had seen).

As for the other singers:
Edgardo, her love interest, was sung by tenor Mario Chang, who was quite good but not quite up to the excellence of the other principals. Several times he wobbled on high notes, and sometimes applied excessive vibrato when holding a note in a closing phrase. Although their first duet scene was sung quite well, Barbara found a lack of chemistry between them – it didn’t seem to her that these two would die for each other. I did not get that impression, concentrating on the voices rather than the acting.

The villain Enrico, Lucia’s brother who is forcing her into an arranged marriage, was baritone Zachary Nelson, with a strong marvelous voice that fell pleasantly on the ear throughout his range. He could hold a long note with dead-on intonation and no wavering. The other principal was bass Christian Van Horn who sang the chaplain. Again, a wonderful, fully resonant voice which was especially spectacular in low notes.

As mentioned, the chorus performed with power, grandeur and virtuosity, as did the orchestra, conducted by Corrado Rovaris. The choral writing was easily on par with Verdi’s (e.g. Aida, Anvil Chorus in Trovatore, Nabucco) or Puccini's (Turandot).

The weak point of the production was the staging. The original setting is 17th c. Scotland, but here the costuming was mostly 19th c. Victorian. The male principals wore non-descript tunics, but the chorus and extras were in white tie and tails, women (incl. Lucia in some scenes) in crinoline hoop skirts. Not a kilt nor other tartan or plaid was in sight. The unit set consisted of three walls as if of a room, onto which were projected images of a Baroque-style coffered ceiling. Since the walls were vertical and the ceiling was projected in a perspective that was supposed to be horizontal, the effect was claustrophobic, as if the actors had their heads up against a low ceiling. Overall, the staging seemed colorless and drab.

The ultimate non-sequitur of staging came in the scene which takes place in Enrico’s apartment. A door opens in the back wall of the set, showing a view of the Sangre Christo Mountains under the last glimmers of a NM sunset, and extras roll in a bed with Enrico lying in it. Huh? A pivotal scene between Lucia and her bare-breasted brother occurs here. Again, huh? But the singing was exquisite.

But overall, the excellence of the musical experience outweighed any shortcomings of the staging. If this production is ever re-staged, I hope it will be with equally excellent singers, otherwise it would be a wash-out.

Golden Cockerel

Soprano Venera Gimadieva
as the Queen of Shemakha

This is a story about an inept tsar, whose chief advisers are his two incompetent sons; he marries a foreign queen and sacks (beheads) his top general. Sounds familiar? All fiction, of course, and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely intentional.

It is based on an old Russian fairy tale and was written as a satirical send-up of the corrupt tsarist regime at the end of the 19th c. The real tsar banned all performances of any of Rimski’s works, and this was not premiered until 1905, after the composer's death. The music is not in the lush post-romantic idiom usually associated with this composer (see Scheherazade), but in a more angular, spiky style – still, quite attractive. But overall, the story is somewhat inane.

The singing was, for the most part, excellent. The weakest link was baritone Tim Mix as Tsar Dodon, but his is a bumbling character whose role does not involve vocal fireworks. Others were great, especially soprano Venera Gimadieva as Queen of Shemakha, the tsar’s consort. The Cockerel was depicted by projection and wonderfully voiced off-stage by soprano Kasia Borowiec (from Summit NJ). She appeared on-stage for the final curtain calls, dressed in a glamorous glittering golden gown that immediately identified her hitherto-unseen role. (I found her web site and sent her a congratulatory message.)

The staging was very strange and illogical, consisting of bent metal tubing (see photo). Costumes were very colorful, quite a contrast from the drabness of Lucia. There is a torrid seduction scene (woman the aggressor) that is vocally very challenging, and requires the casting of a soprano with um -- attributes transcending mere vocal excellence Not one on my see-again list.

The (R)Evolution of Steve Jobs

Baritone Edward Parks as Steve Jobs

This work, receiving its world premiere at Santa Fe, got tepid to negative reviews, but was wildly popular with every audience that saw it. Barbara found the premise of a man redeemed by the love of a woman trite, but I pointed out that this has been a staple of opera for centuries (see Flying Dutchman, Tannhauser and many others). It may or may not have happened that way in real life, but then opera is not documentary (Nixon in China, Einstein on the Beach, Democracy).

The story is told not chronologically, but in a series of episodes that jump back and forth in time. The time and place of each episode are well-documented in on-stage projections and in the titles in front of each seat. The first scene of an adult Jobs shows him introducing the iPhone (see photo), then proceeds thru several seminal events in his life. Notably missing is the introduction of the first Mac, which was the other pivotal event in his career. There are several episodes devoted to the development of the computer named Lisa, which was a total commercial flop, but none to the development of the Mac, which was a success. And Lisa was the name of one of his former girlfriends, not his illegitimate daughter as presented here (see last sentence in former paragraph). It should be noted that the Apple company did not approve this production, and barred the use of the Apple name. Perhaps that’s why Mac was not mentioned.

Jobs’ well-known obnoxiousness is depicted in several episodes:

This last strikes a particular chord with techies like myself – life-work balance is a constant struggle in this industry.

Singing was generally good, with outstanding performances by mezzo Sasha Cooke as his wife Laurene and bass Wei Wu as his Buddhist guru. The title role was sung with no obvious flubs, but also not spectacularly. The music was a mix of electronic and instrumental, and I found it quite pleasing. Barbara was less enthused. Granted, there were no tunes you could hum upon leaving.

Staging was nicely done. The back of the vast SFO stage was sometimes closed off with depictions of the garage in which Jobs-Wozniak developed Apple I and II, or scenes from various technical conferences and symposia. Other times it was opened to reveal the Sangre Christo Mountains which are a reasonable facsimile of the landscape of Jobs’ native California area.

Yes, it’s not perfect, the story line is somewhat episodic and missing key elements in his life, but I feel this is a valuable addition to the canon. Perhaps that is my bias being part of that industry, even though I am not a fan of Apple products.


Soprano Elza van den Heever
as Alcina

Baroque opera is not in the same mold as classical and romantic works by Mozart, Donizetti, Verdi or Puccini. The stories are equally convoluted, but the usual stagings are often very static, more along the lines of oratorio. This is a story of sorcery, sexual bondage, jealousy, mistaken identity, a woman falling for another woman disguised as a man – the usual operatic story line.

The staging veered to the other extreme from static. The first act was full of slapstick comedy, involving pratfalls and even (groan) a gorilla suit. The beautiful first-act aria was ruined by the comedic shtick which diverted attention from the music and singing. Thankfully, the next two acts settled down and the acting was less hectic, allowing the music to shine.

Singing was very good by all, but the casting included three mezzos in pant roles – the hero Ruggiero (Paula Murphy), enslaved by the sorceress Alcina, and his betrothed (Daniela Mack), who disguises herself as a man to rescue him, and a minor role of a young man (Jacquelyn Stucker) looking for his father whom Alcina turned into a beast. The hero could just as easily have been written for tenor, as the only other tenor role is a minor one. With several voices in the same range, it was sometimes difficult to tell who was singing (this is not peculiar to Handel – Mozart’s Clemenza di Tito also has several mezzo parts). And there are two sopranos – Alcina and her sister Morgana (Anna Christy). Both were excellent. The latter role was here played for comic relief, which I understand is not what the librettist intended, but worked effectively once the comedic highjinks toned down. The music was lovely – delicate, airy and melodious, belying the dark story underlying it.

Overall, a very satisfying experience, and I hope to see it again in a more traditional, less hectic staging.

The whole Santa Fe trip was, as always, a most enjoyable excursion, including some sightseeing besides the 4 operas. I’m looking forward to returning next year.