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Santa Fe Opera's Season Soars High

The company polishes its reputation for lustrous music

THERE are few places I can think of that are more naturally beautiful for an opera-house setting than the hill on which the Santa Fe Opera House stands.

The modified open-air theater is situated so that the dramatic New Mexico sunsets can serve, when appropriate, as the backdrop of the set. And on nights when thunderstorms are passing overhead, Mother Nature can be her own special - and often uncannily apt - complement to the on-stage activities.

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Such was the case at the US premiere performance of Hans-Jurgen von Bose's 1986 opera, The Sorrows of Young Werther (further performances Aug. 14 and 22). This turbulent, rather uningratiating score accumulates a sense of drama and explosive passion as the brief two acts unfold, and for the last 20 or so minutes, with the passions of thwarted love erupting on stage into murder, mayhem, and suicide, the almost gaudy lightning barrage and not-so-distant thunder might have been planned by director Francesca

Zambello to add riveting impact to what was already a brilliant production.

In Bose's sound world, we are not really any closer to Goethe's sustained mood of pining despair than we are in Massenet's well-known musical telling, though the action itself is truer. But Bose is very much a man of today, using compositional techniques that, in the first act at least, seem to intrude on the action rather than comment on or enhance it. But in the second act, that sense of impending doom and fatal outbreak of passion begins to take over in the music, and the opera ends with highly theatr ical flair.

Zambello's staging takes place in front of a stage-wide semicircular pale blue wall containing two main doors dead center, and several lesser doors stage right and stage left. Those center doors open to reveal Lotte's white family room, or a snowy lane between two rows of huge trees, an ivy-covered wall, a coach on a journey, and so on, all magnificently executed by designer Bruno Schwengl, and brilliantly lit by Craig Miller.

In the title role, baritone Kurt Ollmann cut a suitably dashing figure of frustrated resolve, though Bose does not allow Werther the love-struck moping of Goethe's original, making it more difficult to really understand or care deeply about the character's plight. Ollmann's enunciation of the English translation proved exemplary, and he sang the demanding role with seeming ease, which is more than could be said for Charlotte Hellekant's Lotte. This highly promising young mezzo has a vivid stage presence - perhaps too glamorous for the role - and despite the stressful approach to the upper part of the voice, she made a strong impression. Others in the large cast who stood out were Mark Thomsen as the Peasant, Jeffrey Reynolds as the insane Heinrich, and Clarity James in several small but telling vignettes.

In the pit, George Manahan led a poised, theatrical account of a technically difficult score that deploys its orchestral forces with often-vivid effectiveness.

Manahan is, it seems to me, an underestimated presence in opera, as he proved in this score, and more particularly in his reading of Mozart's Don Giovanni (tonight, and Aug. 15, 20, 28), which he handled superbly. The poise, the drama, the sheer tonal beauty he conjured out of the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra, the constant alertness to the needs of the singers on stage, all melded into a fleet, dramatically convincing account of an opera that is tougher to pull off than many people realize.

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On stage, a strong cast of singers came together in a visually handsome production (designed by Miguel Romero, with costumes by Ann Hould-Ward) that rose to distinguished heights at all the pivotal moments. Director Lou Galterio used the suggestion of a dark-hued commedia dell'arte approach - with a group of blue-clad, masked Pulchinellas bobbing in and out of the action - to only intermittently coherent effect, but at least he never lost the thread of the one-on-one interactions between the characters. And in the case of the relationship between the normally rather simpering Don Ottavio and the puzzling Donna Anna, he found more strength and interaction than usual.

His use of the turntable was consistently effective, and the production rose to memorable heights in the penultimate scene, in which the Stone Statue drags Giovanni down to the underworld. That sequence, as viscerally thrilling as I have ever seen, was the perfect blending of all the staging forces, including Miller's lighting design: Harpies, furies, and ghouls emerge from all over the stage in swirls of smoke to haul the Don onto a huge chariot steered by Satan, which is spun on the turntable to the ba ck of the stage where the entire infernal gathering sinks out of view.

The major voices belonged to soprano Carolyn James, an imposing, vocally opulent Donna Anna; to bass Kevin Langan, the dourly amusing and effectively sung Leporello; and to tenor Stanford Olsen, an unusually sensitive and mellifluous Ottavio. Ann Panagulias only needs more seasoning of her stage presence to transform her already promising Zerlina into something memorable. Gregory Reinhart, in his US debut, made a chillingly stentorian Commendatore, Herbert Perry an engaging Masetto, and Joanne Kolomyjec a sympathetic Donna Elvira. Richard Cowan brought tremendous personal charisma to his dangerously narcissistic Don.

An even stronger cast distinguished the revival of John Copley's 1989 production of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier (performances Aug. 13, 19, and 26). In the trouser role of Octavian, the "Rosenkavalier" of the title, mezzo soprano Susanne Mentzer not only sang magnificently, but she also managed to embody in every way a true teenage boy of tremendous pedigree in the first throes of romantic passion - now mature, now terribly childish, vulnerable, and impetuous. Cheryl Parrish was a Sophie of considerable s trength of character - one clearly able to think of standing up to her foolish father when it becomes clear that the arranged marriage with the oafish Baron Ochs will be a disaster.

As Ochs, Eric Halfvarson found just the right balance between the sympathetic and the utterly repellent, and his deep bass deftly encompassed the range of this tricky and demanding role. In the crucial role of the Marschallin, Ashley Putnam had moments of exceptional insight, but was not consistently able to suggest the range of emotions needed, nor quite able to convince us that this is one of the most influential and powerful women in 18th-century Vienna.

The production is enlivened by John Conklin's superior sets - at last a Marschallin boudoir that really suggests her role in noble society, at last a Faninal palace that is showy without being grotesquely ostentatious. In the pit, after a rambunctious reading of the fiendishly difficult introduction, the orchestra settled down to some downright handsome playing under the baton of Santa Fe Opera founder and general director John Crosby, whose lifetime devotion to the scores of Richard Strauss always resul ts in readings of affectionate conviction.

Also offered this year are a revival of the excellent 1986 production of Johann Strauss's "Die Fledermaus" and a new production of John Gay's "The Beggar's Opera." The Santa Fe Opera season ends Aug. 29.

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