Volume 76, Number 14 | August 23 - 29, 2006

Clive On

What the Santa Fe Opera means to New Yorkers

By Michael Clive

“Yeah, summer festivals. We get the point.” My brother Dave and sister-in-law Gloria have heard me extol the virtues of off-season musical events about a thousand times. With the end of the summer festival season in sight, it was high time I took my own advice and joined them in Santa Fe.

Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, there are all kinds of music to be heard in scenic areas like Santa Fe — home of America’s most important and most fabled opera festival, the Santa Fe Opera. Events like these offer the most interesting artists and repertoire, often providing a preview of winter seasons to come in places like New York. Equally important, they give artists a chance to try something new in an atmosphere of creative experimentation. This year, for example, Santa Fe presented two of New York’s favorite singers — Anne Sofie von Otter and Natalie Dessay — in leading roles they have never sung here.

Observing its 50th anniversary, the SFO did itself proud: five operas in five new, superbly realized productions, including the American premiere of Thomas Ades’ “The Tempest.” Like more traditional fare, it was a sellout.

In a revelatory production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” French soprano Natalie Dessay showed why her acclaim is growing even faster than her repertoire. The accuracy of Dessay’s intonation and the stylishness of her phrasing are never an issue. But here in New York we’ve heard her mainly in such coloratura roles as Zerbinetta, Olympia and Amina. Meanwhile, her voice has acquired weight and warmth, especially in its middle register.

With her unique combination of intensity and naturalness, as well as her lissom grace and figure — she was once a ballerina, and still looks like one — Dessay was born for the stage, and her Pamina lit up the one in Santa Fe. This was a lucid, back-to-basics “Flute” totally devoid of gimmicks and almost without sets and props. But giant stage walls of silver and gold leaf magnified the effects of artful lighting, which took advantage of the open house’s starlit, mountainside setting. All these factors focused audience attention on the sincerity of this fairy tale for adults.

Encomiums of the superb Anne Sofie von Otter almost always include the word “intelligent,” and at Santa Fe she demonstrated why with a brilliantly penetrating portrait of Bizet’s Carmen — a sensual creature, yes, but sex appeal was the least of her fascinations. Tailored to Bizet’s fatefully falling melodies, von Otter’s daring use of diminuendo opened a window on a dark soul. She made the card scene the emotional centerpiece of her interpretation, taking it at an astonishingly and agonizingly slow tempo, like a dirge.

We are not likely to see either of these noteworthy interpreatations reprised on New York’s oversized stages any time soon, but we all will enjoy the results of the artistic growth that von Otter, Dessay and countless others gain from festivals like Santa Fe. The summer season is the time when young singers gain experience while experienced singers stretch. For that, opera lovers everywhere should be grateful.

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