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Thundering Opera From Desert Country

Despite a rocky premiere of `Blond Eckbert,' Santa Fe Opera burnishes a reputation as a tenacious and respected company

THE desert hills that surround the Santa Fe Opera form the backdrop to Judith Weir's new opera, ``Blond Eckbert,'' which received its American premiere here on Saturday. The opera's stage has been left open at the back, letting audiences look past the unsettling events of Weir's new drama to the mountains near Los Alamos and the majestic lightning storms that sweep across the desert during the midsummer months.

For 37 years the desert has served as the frame for the operas of this tenacious and respected company, though not every production has taken advantage of the view. For ``Blond Eckbert,'' director Francesca Zambello and designer Alison Chitty have wisely chosen to let the desert in, a decision that emphasizes the powerful sense of the sublime - of man buffeted by great natural forces - that plays through Weir's opera.

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That was one of the few wise choices they made. So much else about this expensive and elaborate production seemed designed to thwart Weir's subtle balance of dark psychology and delicate irony.

The opera, which was first produced in London last April, is based upon Ludwig Tieck's haunting and uncanny short story of the same name. It is an odd fable that explores incest, betrayal, and murder while suggesting that human psychology is like the natural world - a violent, chaotic place, but a world that endures and puts itself right with time.

Weir skillfully distilled and refashioned the story as a tale-within-a-tale, told by a childlike bird. By emphasizing the character of the bird, which sings some of the opera's most captivating and lyrical lines, Weir has created an ambiguous and beguiling hybrid, an opera that is dark and surreal yet suffused with a sense of naivete, candor, and innocence.

Weir's music perfectly captures this precarious blend of incongruous elements. Her orchestration, rich in texture but always clear, does much of the work. The vocal writing is lyrical and generous. The music is never without melodic and harmonic interest, but these traditional elements are so deftly controlled that they confound any effort to predict the music's course.

From this fragile music, Zambello and Chitty have fashioned an oddly inhuman theater piece, dominated by an austere metal cage that is surrounded by an ugly frame of fluorescent lights.

The opera's first scene - of Eckbert and his wife at home - is strangely urban and campy, like a cross between a child's shoe-box diorama and the steel girders of some futurist architectural nightmare. It seems like an untrammeled (and inappropriate) student exercise in Post-Modern design.

Zambello further alienates the work from its humanity. Eckbert and his wife never become truly human characters; and their posing and posturing leaves one cold to their eventual destruction.

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In this production, as in several of Zambello's recent productions, the director seems to have recently completed a course in Sexual Symbols 101. She takes liberties with the stage directions to turn Eckbert's crossbow into a spear (more phallic) and has him gaze at himself in a hand mirror (feminine vanity given a masculine twist). Such liberties are any director's prerogative, but in Zambello's productions they invariably come across as primitive and coarse.

Fortunately the music survived the director's dead hand. As the bird, Elizabeth Futral sang with a lovely tone and clear diction; as Eckbert's wife, Emily Golden came closest to creating a truly human character; in the title role, James Michael McGuire was limited by the stiffness of his character but managed to convey his lines with musical feeling; in the triple role of Walther, Hugo, and the Old Woman, Brad Cresswell sang with a thin tone but strong characterization. Conductor George Manahan is a fearless virtuoso of new music; he led a strong and vigorous performance from the orchestra.

Other Santa Fe productions this season included a stark ``Tosca,'' which suffered from poor singers in the lead roles; a thrilling reprise of the company's 1984 production of Strauss's ``Intermezzo'' (with impeccable performances by Sheri Greenawald and Dale Duesing); and a brisk, beautifully staged ``Abduction From the Seraglio.''

* `Blond Eckbert' has one more performance Aug. 12. Santa Fe Opera's season closes Aug. 27.

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