SANTA FE – The Santa Fe Opera's summer festival seasons attract opera lovers from all parts of the globe, as much for the varied repertory and top-level performances as the spectacular natural setting: a mountaintop amphitheater with open sides and a partially enclosed stage affording breathtaking views of high-desert sunsets over the Sangre de Cristo mountains of northern New Mexico.
This season's menu is typically eclectic, ranging from standard works (Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" and Verdi's "La Traviata") to French opera bouffe (Offenbach's "The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein") to a Rossini rarity ("La Donna del Lago") to a world premiere (Theodore Morrison's "Oscar," based on the trial and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde). I will have more to say about the Morrison and Mozart works in the coming days. For now, the buzz centers around the new productions of "Donna del Lago" and "Grand Duchess" – one serious, the other comic, each a showcase for the considerable gifts of two of America's finest mezzo-sopranos, Joyce DiDonato and Susan Graham.
The serious operas of Rossini have been coming into their own just about everywhere within roughly the last 40-50 years, thanks in large measure to the pioneering efforts of Marilyn Horne and the zeal with which artists of the younger generation, including DiDonato, have taken up the mantle of that great American mezzo-soprano in the bel canto repertory.
DiDonato's success in the title role of "Donna del Lago" at the Paris Opera in 2010 evidently prompted Santa Fe Opera to mount a co-production of the opera seria with the Metropolitan Opera as a vehicle for this brilliant singer, along with the comparably stylish team of colleagues that surrounded her in Paul Curran's staging here.
The long neglect suffered by Rossini's 1819 operatic adaptation of Sir Walter Scott's long narrative poem "The Lady of the Lake" surely has something to do with the implausible narrative. It finds the heroine, Elena, having to juggle the attentions of three suitors — the soldier Malcolm, her true love; Rodrigo, chief of the rebellious Highland clansmen, whom her father Douglas d'Angus wishes her to marry; and Giacomo V (a.k.a. King James of Scotland, who roams the loch country disguised as a peasant, Uberto. A conventional, love-versus-duty plot is the result, out of which only Elena emerges as a dramatically credible figure. The rest are bellicose ciphers.
Fortunately the score is ravishing from beginning to end, packed with some of Rossini's finest invention, wonderfully atmospheric set pieces and spectacular arias, duets and choruses that give everybody, including two star tenors and two star mezzos, gobs of florid, virtuosic singing. "Donna del Lago" is a "big sing" from beginning to end. Fortunately the Santa Fe cast, chorus and orchestra were fully invested in this masterpiece, which conductor Stephen Lord paced with grace, vigor and a discerning regard for atmospheric detail I found missing in parts of the production.
Elena's music proved an ideal fit for DiDonato, who brought supple phrasing to the heroine's tender, lyrical arias and soaring duets, but who also commanded enough vocal weight to do justice to the heavy-duty dramatics of Act 2. The singer had more than enough voice left by the end of a long evening to float a lavishly ornamented "Tanti affetti" at the opera's improbably happy close, where the king pardons all who plotted his downfall. Why aren't we hearing more of this treasurable artist at Lyric Opera?
Of the two tenors, Lawrence Brownlee braved the rigors of Uberto's high tessitura splendidly, his effortless, crisply articulated runs and embellishments a natural for his shining, plangent instrument, one of today's top Rossini tenor voices. Rene Barbera evidenced some discomfort in the lower reaches of Rodrigo's music, while the warrior's heroic posturing really calls out for a bigger sound.
The Sicilian mezzo Marianna Pizzolato, in the trouser role of Malcolm, looked rather frumpy in costumer Kevin Knight's battle gear, but she sang beautifully, some weakly projected low tones notwithstanding. Lyric alumnus Wayne Tigges gave a sturdy accounting of Elena's calculating father.
The Scottish director's gritty conception took its dramatic and scenic cues not from Rossini's music as much as from the bloody turf wars between rival clans in 16th century Scotland: Think Mel Gibson's "Braveheart." Knight's stage designs incorporated the spectacular scrub-pine terrain of the Sangre de Cristo foothills — the high-desert sunset clearly visible through the open rear of the stage — as a stand-in for Rossini's Loch Katrine. Would that the rest of Curran's ideas were as atmospheric. The gilded splendor of King James' court, literally rising from the bowels of the stage, came off as almost comic after the stark naturalism of all that had preceded it.
It was good to find Graham taking a break from the tragic Berlioz and Gluck heroines she's been singing lately and reminding us of her flair for light comedy. Actually lighter-than-air might be a fairer description of the Offenbach operetta. There are some digs at military pomposity and the cliches of battlefield glory, but mostly this 1867 confection is a frothy romantic comedy in which the unnamed Grand Duchess' amorous pursuit of a young army private, Fritz, leads to a clumsy plot against his life and a few more complications before the big song-and-dance finale. Some dandy Offenbach tunes carry the day even if the farcical plot doesn't.
Sight gags, slapstick and mildly risque double-entendres are heaped atop a worthy musical performance in director Lee Blakeley's production, which to no discernible purpose transplants the action from mid-19th century Europe to a midwestern U.S. military academy in the early 20th century. Although the musical portions are sung in the original French, the spoken lines are delivered in English. Too bad the thing goes on and on (two intermissions surely are one too many for any comedy); too bad, too, that it all feels more frantic than funny.
One saving grace is the idiomatic conducting of Emmanuel Villaume, who enforces crisp clarity and spirited playing from the orchestra. Another is the bright production design of Adrian Linford (sets), Jo van Schuppen (costumes) and Rick Fisher (lighting). Peggy Hickey furnishes the can-can-enriched choreography.
As the eponymous duchess, Graham radiates grand-diva glamour, sings gorgeously, kicks up her heels gamely and retains her dignity even when required to crawl across a giant battlefield map to snare her would-be conquest. The "cougar" role gives her relatively little chance to strut her vocal stuff, but she inhabits it like the classy pro she is. Once all the manic horseplay has run its course, it's left to the now-chastened grand duchess to voice the moral: "If you can't have what you love, you must love what you have."
Paul Appleby and Anya Matanovic as the sweethearts Fritz and Wanda; Kevin Burdette, Aaron Pegram and Jonathan Michie as the trio of assassins; and Jared Bybee as Baron Grog all throw themselves into the amiably brainless proceedings with glee, as do the eight dancers.
"The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein" plays Thursday, Aug. 21 and 24 at the Santa Fe Opera, 301 Opera Drive, Santa Fe, N.M. The season runs through Aug. 24; 800-280-4654, santafeopera.org.