SANTA FE, N.M. — Midway through Act 1 of Rossini's "Maometto II," the approach of the Turkish warrior is heralded by booming cannon and flashes of light.
The audience at the Santa Fe Opera this past week couldn't help but chuckle at the stage effects, since at that moment nature was providing thunder and lightning more awesome than anything inside the theater.
Such real sound-and-light shows go with the territory at this opera house, perched majestically atop a desert mesa and open to the night sky at the sides and at the rear of the stage.
But the storm outside scarcely detracted from the impact of Rossini's neglected masterwork – even when the exceptional soprano Leah Crocetto had to sing her long final scene through driving wind and rain.
"Maometto" is the highlight of a strong season of five productions, all new to Santa Fe. There's one warhorse (Puccini's "Tosca"); two flawed but enduring works (Bizet's "The Pearl Fishers" and Richard Strauss' "Arabella"), and one true rarity ("King Roger" by the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski).
Rossini's tragic opera, which premiered in Naples in 1820, is ahead of its time musically and dramatically. The score has its share of bravura arias, but much of it is written as a series of ensembles and choruses that melt into one another with no break for applause. And the plot, involving a clash between 15th century Muslim and Christian civilizations, could hardly be more topical.
The action takes place in the Venetian colony of Negroponte, under siege by the Turks. In the vibrant production by director David Alden and set and costume designer Jon Morrell, the city is represented by a semi-circular white stone wall with sections that slide and open as scenes change. There are imaginative visual effects: Maometto's men brutally punching a hole through the wall for his entrance; a brace of horses descending on a ramp for his ride into battle; a chorus of Muslim women, veiled in black, popping up behind Maometto's bright red tent.
But it's the singing that counts most here, and the cast is splendid. Crocetto's character, Anna, progresses from shy daughter of an overbearing Venetian lord, to conflicted woman in love with her enemy, to defiant heroine who gives her life to save her people. Crocetto captures this dramatic arc and sings with growing power and passion – capped by the 20-minute scene in which she tirelessly pours out ribbons of gleaming sound with embellishments of pinpoint accuracy and fearless high notes.
She deservedly draws the night's biggest ovations, but bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni in the title role runs a close second. His magnetic stage presence and booming, burnished tone bring to life a character who is more than just a ruthless barbarian. His love for Anna shows his tender side, and his dismay at her betrayal makes us almost pity him.
As Anna's father, tenor Bruce Sledge displays a bright, attractive sound and superb technical skills. Mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon, as Anna's intended, possesses a fiery coloratura technique and warm tone in the lower part of her voice, but her high notes often sound strident.
Chief conductor Frederic Chaslin leads a spirited performance and keeps the tricky ensembles on track. The orchestra sounds terrific, as it does all week under a variety of conductors.
A brief look at the other productions:
"Tosca": Director Stephen Barlow tries to be provocative, but Yannis Thavoris' perspective-defying sets (the church dome lies on its side and Cavaradossi paints the Mary Magdalene on the floor) do little to freshen this familiar work. South African soprano Amanda Echalaz, in her U.S. debut, has the temperament of a diva but not the vocal allure to stop the show with her aria "Vissi d'arte." Tenor Brian Jagde sings Cavaradossi with ringing tone and sustained high notes. As the villainous Scarpia, bass Raymond Aceto is a disappointment, his singing lacking visceral punch. Chaslin again conducts.
"The Pearl Fishers": This tuneful work suffers from an almost terminally silly plot. Lee Blakeley's production treats it with utmost seriousness and creates surprising dramatic tension. He makes good use of the open sky, turning the back of the stage into the sea where the Ceylonese divers risk their lives seeking treasure. As the virgin priestess Leila, soprano Nicole Cabell is simply radiant, floating exquisite high notes and trilling to perfection. As the fisherman Nadir, Eric Cutler uses beautiful soft tones to etch the high vocal line of his aria. Baritone Christopher Magiera seems out of sorts as Zurga, cracking on high notes and sounding underpowered in his famous duet with Nadir. Emmanuel Villaume conducts.
"Arabella": Tim Albery's handsome, traditional production conveys the bittersweet charm of this story about a bankrupt family trying to marry off their daughter in pre-World War I Vienna. But it can't mask the awkward plot machinations left when Hugo von Hofmannsthal died before he could rework his libretto. Soprano Erin Wall conveys the heroine's melancholy better than her high spirits, but she sings with luster in her middle voice and soars beautifully in the higher reaches. Soprano Heidi Stober is delightful as her sister Zdenka, and baritone Mark Delavan makes a powerhouse Mandryka, the wealthy farmer who wins Arabella, though his tone has become a bit woolly. Sir Andrew Davis conducts.
"King Roger": In a program note, director Stephen Wadsworth describes this strange work, which premiered in Warsaw in 1926, as "a sort of fever-dream." Based loosely on Euripides' "Bacchae," the plot depicts the struggle of a 12th century Sicilian king to reconcile his rational and sensual sides. The latter is represented by the Shepherd, who exerts an overwhelming sexual attraction on everyone he encounters – including both Roger and his wife, Roxana. Wadsworth's production is elegant but a bit static, reinforcing the feeling that the work is as much oratorio as opera. Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien conveys Roger's suffering with great power; soprano Erin Morley sings Roxana's aria with ethereal tone; and tenor William Burden is a clarion-voiced Shepherd, though it's too bad this embodiment of virile youth looks older than the king. Evan Rogister conducts.
The season, which runs through Aug. 26, arranges its schedule so visitors can see all five productions on consecutive nights as this reviewer did last week. The cycle repeats starting Monday, Aug. 6, and again Monday, Aug. 13.