The most complex works on stage this summer at the Santa Fe Opera House came at the end of the first full week of the five-show repertoire. Thursday night was Verdi Falstaff, in a delightful new staging by Scottish director David McVicar for his Santa Fe Opera debut, a co-production with Scottish Opera. It was the first staging of the composer’s latest comic masterpiece in Santa Fe since 2008.
Quinn Kelsey brought all the strength necessary to Falstaff, the fat knight in bad luck who tries to seduce two respectable wives at the same time. The Hawaiian-born baritone exploded with remarkable volume, easily overpowering his colleagues with vocal ranting. From the moment he was rolled onto the stage in a large bed from which tumbled his henchmen, his page and a girl, he dominated the stage in his bulky suit.
In the beginnings of a powerful company, the soprano Alexandra LoBianco led a handsome quartet of merry wives as Alice Ford, staging Falstaff’s extravagant humiliation. Its top notes sailed over the greatest ensembles, floating extraordinary pyrotechnic effects, while handling the comic turns of the story with aplomb. Mezzo-soprano Megan Marino, a former apprentice singer, gave her a regular foil as Meg Page.
Among women, however, Elena Villalon carried away the night, in a sublime debut in Santa Fe as Nannetta. The young soprano’s transparent highs melt the heart in vignettes of fleeting love, snatched moments with her lover, Fenton. In the opera’s delightful final scene in Windsor Park, costumed in white as the Fairy Queen, she presided with radiant vocal beauty over Falstaff’s ordeal by the crowd of masked townspeople.
Ann McMahon’s mezzo-soprano Quintero faded a bit in the lower register, but she did a sharp-tongued Mistress Quickly. English baritone Roland Wood bellowed loudly as Ford, Alice’s jealous husband, and young tenor Eric Ferring, on his debut with the company after a year as an apprentice singer in 2017, made a serious and idealistic Fenton .
On the podium, Paul Daniel led a lively rendition of this complex score by the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra, with assured contributions from all sections, both in the numerous solo and chamber riffs and in the robust tutti sections. Even in talkative ensembles, where men and women clash in intersecting metrical juxtapositions, Daniel’s precise, understated hand movements keep the vast panoply of sound in order.
McVicar created a production of astonishing variety with a single setting: wooden stairways and platforms reminiscent of an Elizabethan theatre, an allusion to the opera’s source, Shakespeare The Merry Women of Windsor (stage design by McVicar and Hannah Postlethwaite). All the stage business worked, from the drunken sword fight in Act I (fight direction by Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet) to Falstaff being thrown into the Thames in a huge laundry basket.
The staging culminated with the final scene, as it should. A large-headed effigy of Queen Elizabeth I led the costumed retinue of the Fairy Queen, a reference to that monarch’s affection for the character of Falstaff, which is said to have led Shakespeare to bring the character back into The happy wives. A huge horse, various child-sized goblins, and a tin-hatted plague doctor also made appearances.
The final fugue sounded crystal clear, thanks to careful attention to the balance of the whole. The lights went down a bit to convey the dark message that “we are all fools” (“tutti gabbati”). When the lights came back on, McVicar asked the entire cast to do a Broadway dance routine accompanying the end of the orchestra. The whole scene is a world.
Prior to this season, Santa Fe Opera had staged only one opera by Richard Wagner, The Flying Dutchman, last seen here in 1998. Robert K. Meya, who became the company’s fourth chief executive in 2018, turns out to be a dedicated Wagnerian. In a brief conversation he said The classic magazine that he had long dreamed of climbing Tristan and Isolda at the John Crosby Theatre, a chimerical plan now realized this season and viewed on Friday evenings.
In an authoritative debut at the Santa Fe Opera as Isolde, Tamara Wilson filled the theater with his exquisite soprano, from the smoldering base notes to the peaks. She lent the role commanding dignity, befitting the Irish princess kidnapped by Tristan for marriage to her uncle, King Marke. Her portrayal also explored the softer, more sensual side of the role, rendering Act II’s frenetic love duet and concluding “Liebestod” extraordinarily beautiful.
Tenor Simon O’NeillTristan was less vocally assured in his company debut, with a leathery tone, wide vibrato and sometimes nasal production. The orchestra sometimes overshadowed it with its more oceanic swells, but it found fresh reservoirs of courage in time for the dreary landscape of Act III. When the lyrical texture was less overwhelming, O’Neill stroked its lines with crooning sweetness, as in the love duet of Act II, when Tristan promised the lovers would die together, strains that are recalled later in “Liebestod” by Isolde.
As Isolde’s maid, Brangäne, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton growled and fretted with impressive strength, easily throwing her wings as she surveyed the tryst in Act II. The vocal discovery of the evening was bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee, an apprentice singer of 2014 and 2015, who sang with breathtaking resonance as Kurwenal, Tristan’s trusted servant. Although he crafted his lines with musical sensibility, it was the overwhelming volume that carried the character’s indignant outrage and woeful sadness.
Bass Eric Owens lent solemn authority to the role of King Marke, a more introspective tone commanding attention in his scenes, which tend to momentarily interrupt the action of the opera. Aspiring singers filled the supporting cast with polish, including tenor sailor Jonah Hoskins, projecting his ballad Act I love from a corner of the theatre’s balcony, a nice touch that brought audiences into the hectic ship. wind. The sturdy male chorus, carefully prepared by Susanne Sheston, was a manly presence as the ship’s crew, both on and off stage.
James Gaffigan led Wagner’s brilliant score with an eye for volatility more than expansion. The Act III opener, where the score evokes the devastating sadness of Tristan Castle, felt rushed, except for Juila DeRosa’s resounding English horn solo for the shepherd’s flute scenes.
Even so, Gaffigan’s fluid gestures ensured an admirable overall cohesion of all the musicians, with fine detail emerging from the texture as he balanced the mighty orchestra, the main character of any Wagner opera, with its singers. The horns made evocative back and forth in the hunting scene, and resounding brass fanfares concluded Act I. Even in relatively small numbers, the strings accumulated intense and fiery bursts.
Zack Winokur and Lisenka Heijboer Castañón co-directed a sober, dreamlike production that suggested sets rather than showed them. White walls lined the stage, creating a large box that filled the central space (stage design by Charlap Hyman & Herrero). This box opened on itself to create Isolde and Brangäne’s ship quarters in Act I. A stormy evening in New Mexico, with a rose-tinged sunset on one side of the scene and lightning on the other, added its own dramatic elements, as the wind blew. Isolde’s dress.
Shadows also played a key role (lighting design by John Torres), right from Tristan’s entrance, which was preceded by the appearance of his towering shadow on a side wall. In the torrid love potion scene, the shadows of Tristan and Isolde intersect, foreshadowing the intermingling of the lovers’ identities in their Act II duet (“Tristan is Isolde, Isolde is Tristan”).
The staging had its strongest moments in Act III, where Tristan’s anguished visions of Isolde’s arrival, long before she happened, found expression. During two ghostly appearances, Wilson slowly ascended the stage and backed away, seen only by Tristan. After that, his silhouetted shadow, projected on the wall, still haunted Tristan’s mind, a salient psychological detail in an abstract staging that touched the heart of the drama.
The 2023 season will include Tosca, The Flying Dutchman, Pelléas and Mélisande, Rusalkaand Monteverdi Orpheus.