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Solid casts, handsome sets bloom in Santa Fe Opera

For 26 years, John Crosby's Santa Fe Opera has been adding culture to the startling beauty of the New Mexico desert landscape.

When the company is at its best (as it has been this year), one can always count on handsome productions and solid casting, and so it has been for the three non-novelty works in the repertory this season - Johann Strauss' ''Die Fledermaus,'' Thomas's ''Mignon,'' and Mozart's ''The Marriage of Figaro.''

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All three evenings boasted beguiling, attractive sets and costumes. Two of the three evenings offered stage direction that did full justice to the work at hand.

Thus, on Zack Brown's expertly conceived sets, Lou Galterio delivered a boldly showy, American ''Fledermaus.'' At last, an American company doing the work in English with nary a stab at being Viennese (a flavor and style Americans never seem to capture anyway), on a massive yet airy set that fully evoked the sense of specific locale and milieu.

Then there was ''Mignon,'' which was given equally special attention. Thomas's opera, once an inescapable commodity at most major opera houses, has almost become a novelty, so rarely is it performed these days. In this work, Thomas amply demonstrates his dutifulness as a craftsman, and he peppered his rather talky opera with some sparkling and memorable tunes.

To present ''Mignon'' correctly, it must all look like a wistful fantasy world come true. Allen Charles Klein has devised a green-washed set complete with a huge oval picture-frame of a proscenium (on Santa Fe's normally non-proscenium stage), giving it all the look of some rich 19th-century painting. Steven B. Feldman's costumes and Peter Kaczorowski's lighting all meld into a stunning series of tableaux which Bliss Hebert has populated with vivacious, larger-than-life characters and action.

On the other hand, John Conklin's three rooms and a garden for ''Marriage of Figaro'' may not have spoken instantly of Spain, but they proved simple and attractive, and his costumes gave it all a lived-in look.

Unfortunately, Rhoda Levine seemed as if she was trying to direct Rossini, the evening was so full of double takes, high jinks, and broad humor, none of which have to do with what many consider the perfect opera of all time.

Casting this year has often been quite fine. ''Fledermaus'' had the best-matched roster of singers. Mary Jane Johnson, a newcomer to the scene, had her share of problems with Rosalinda, a part really too demanding for her at this point in her career. Still, at her best, the voice has a clean edge, an appealing luster and roundness that bodes well for her future.

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Alan Titus, who has probably played Eisenstein in every major production of this opera in America in the past five years, was predictably excellent. Victoria Vergara offered a charming if understated Orlofsky, and actor Edgar Daniels an engaging, amusing Frosch (making the usually tedious first part of the third act fly by). Richard Stillwell's Falke found him in the best vocal estate of the past few seasons.

Gianna Rolandi doubled in ''Fledermaus'' and ''Mignon'' - in the former as the chambermaid Adele, in the latter as the flamboyant actress Philine. Both directors seemed able to tone down her innate coarseness of stage deportment and turn what was left into assets. Unfortunately, in both operas there was the clear evidence of a voice losing its gleam and brightness in the upper reaches - the so-called money notes for a lyric coloratura.

Barry McCauley, another ''doubler,'' made a stiff Alfred in ''Fledermaus'' and an equally rigid Wilhelm Meister in ''Mignon.'' He was in better vocal state than usual - the top is still a bit dry, and he is tending more and more to a colorless stentorian delivery that, especially in the Thomas, has nothing to do with the subtle, supple vocal style needed for the music. Another ''doubler,'' Claude Corbeil, proved adept at comedy as Frank in ''Fledermaus'' and physically imposing, though vocally woolly, as Lothario in ''Mignon.''

Mignon herself was Frederica von Stade, a mezzo who has never quite made up her mind what she wants to be. At her best, as Mozart's Cherubino, she is an enchanting artist. In music that needs amplitude and a strong top, she has always been less at ease. Nowadays, the top is in serious trouble. In her climactic scenes, she could not sustain notes ''up there.'' Histrionically, her Mignon was gracious and understated, while vocally it was tenuous, elegiac (such a slow pace set for her famous Connais-tu le pays), and erratic.

In all, the cast looked better on stage than it sounded, and since this sort of opera is about singing - about vocal style, control, finesse - it proved disappointing.

Not that the ''Figaro,'' sung (as was the ''Fledermaus'') in the shallow Ruth and Thomas Martin translation, was any more consistent vocally. Michael Devlin in fact took top honors in the voice department as the Count. Ellen Shade never quite found the vocal core of the Countess's music and rarely gave a sense of the voice comfortably embracing the role. It helped matters not a bit that she was evidently directed to smile all the way through a role of lamentation and remembrances of past joys.

Judith Forst was the colorless Cherubino, Malcolm King the abrasively low-class, burly-voiced Figaro, and Sheri Greenawald the too often overwrought though vocally pleasing Susanna.

And as for the conductors, all three contributed fine work to make the evenings coherent. Artistic director John Crosby was in charge of the ''Fledermaus.'' He kept things frothing along with vigor and alertness - commendable qualities in a piece that more often than not drags interminably. Kenneth Montgomery revealed a thrilling affinity for the French style in ''Mignon'' (if only his singers had been alert to his subtleties!). He is virtually unknown in this country, but will be heard from again, so expert was his handling of this charm-and-style-at-all-costs opera.

Edo de Waart's conducting of ''Figaro'' was on a high level - suave, superbly shaped, understated, attentive to his singers. At times it was not full enough an approach for the open-air acoustics of the opera house - but nonetheless, this was major Mozart from a most important conductor.

But an article on the season (which ends Aug. 28) is not complete without nods to often-neglected yet crucial contributors to Santa Fe excellence - the chorus of Santa Fe Opera apprentices, the orchestra, and the stage crew.

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