Cue the sunset behind the Jemez Mountains darkening to an inky-blue silhouette against the sky. Orange, fuchsia, and cotton candy pink streaks behind them like paint-by-numbers gone wild.
Raise the curtains. It’s show time.
This month, the Santa Fe Opera marks 60 years of performances in its stunning open-air theater — 2,009 shows in all. Since the beginning, each season’s roster of traditional, rarely performed and new works has been intentional — to keep one dusty cowboy boot firmly planted in opera’s 16th-century Florentine beginnings and the other in today.
The SFO’s monthlong festival has become one of the most important cultural destinations in the world; it draws fans and critics alike from around the globe. Many North Texas music lovers make the easy pilgrimage every summer, enjoying Santa Fe dining, shopping and art gallery-hopping during the day and taking in world-class opera when the sun sets.
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To celebrate its birthday, the SFO has rounded up opera’s greatest hits, some of the most-performed and well-loved pieces in the world. The festival runs July 1-Aug. 27. “This year is a classic season and we’re excited about the lineup,” says Charles MacKay, general director.
The theme of all five? Big, messy love.
La Fanciulla Del West
The season opens, literally, with a bang, with Giacomo Puccini’s take on the American West. Set in a saloon during the 1849 Gold Rush, there’s love, lying, cheating and a powerful female lead in Minnie, the saloon owner who falls for a rogue — haven’t we all? As “spaghetti Western” as it all sounds, there’s much more to it. “It’s not kitsch. It’s a powerful piece,” says visiting conductor Emmanuel Villaume (his full-time gig is music director of the Dallas Opera), who says that this is one of Puccini’s most complex works. “Harmonies shifting and intricate rhythms moving quickly, and a sense of color and space and visual expression of music through orchestration, and lines that are absolutely mind-blowing.”
Trivia: Near the end of Act 1, the gold miners urge Minnie and Dick Johnson (who’s also the outlaw Ramerrez) to dance. The love theme begins, segueing into Johnson’s full-fledged aria, Quello che tacete, a recurring motif throughout the score. Sound like Music of the Night from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera? Puccini’s estate thought so, too. The matter was settled out of court.
Performances: July 15, Aug. 2, 8, 13, 17, 23 and 27.
You might call Don Giovanni a murderous, manipulative creep. Yet star Daniel Okulitch, whose deep, rich voice (and baby face) landed him the memorable role of Lyndon B. Johnson in the Fort Worth Opera’s premiere of JFK this spring, says Don Giovanni really isn’t the sociopath he appears to be.
“Let’s just say, misunderstood,” he says. “Back then, he was a libertine. You can look into the pathology of it all, but the legend of Don Juan was someone who flaunted societies’ rules, who was a seducer, and who sucked the marrow out of life, and today, we’re still drawn to them and compelled by them. We want to condemn them, but there’s part of us that wants to be that wild — that’s why rock stars have groupies.”
Set in one day in the 1790s, Mozart’s two-act opera is considered one of the most profound ever written. “The complexity of the music is something you never get to the bottom of,” he says.
Trivia: “If you’ve ever seen the movie Amadeus, there’s a scene from Don Giovanni in the opera in the last scene when the ghost of the commendatore comes back and sends Don Giovanni to hell.”
Performances: July 13 and 22, Aug. 1, 6, 10, 15, 20 and 26.
Roméo et Juliette
Star-crossed lovers, feuding Montagues and Capulets and a poisonous, tragic end. Every. Single. Time. But we still hope it’ll work out differently for the lovestruck teenagers, because we’ve all been there, right? Playing the role of Juliette is superstar soprano Ailyn Pérez (who recently won the prestigious Beverly Sills Award) and her ex, Stephen Costello (fresh off his April appearance in Fort Worth Opera’s “Caruso in Cowtown” event), will be her Roméo. Weird for Pérez ? Not so much. “I’m looking at the score fresh, appreciating the music and getting back to the character and putting across telling the story. It’s waking me up to concentrate on who she is, this spirit — she’s like, ‘Marriage? Oh, please.’ Juliette is not the Disney princess.”
Trivia: “When Juliette and Roméo hang out and kiss, as soon as Thibault recognizes Roméo, you hear a total shift of the score,” she says. “You hear fate and destiny. You hear the music completely shift and it’s as if an abyss opens up over and under her. It’s amazing.”
Performances: July 16, 20 and 29, Aug. 4, 9, 16 and 25.
Known as the “Strauss house” for the number of Richard Strauss works it has staged over the years (six, so far, and all American premieres), SFO wanted to include this opera in the blockbuster season because it’s his last work and, as far as operas go, it’s on the lighter side. “Strauss called it ‘a conversation piece for music,’ ” says MacKay. “It has this unusual theme which poses the question, ‘Which is the greater art, poetry or music?’ ”
Trivia: “In the last scene,” he says, “the countess sits in her drawing room, reflecting on life. She’s still undecided about the choice of her lover, and she sings about how words and music are inseparable, and it’s the culmination of Strauss’ career. He loved the soprano voice and he loved the French horn, and she looks into the mirror and asks the question, ‘Is there any ending that isn’t trivial?’ At that moment the servant walks in and says, ‘Dinner is served.’ It’s a lighthearted treatment of a serious subject, which is lovely.”
Performances: July 23 and 27, Aug. 5, 11 and 19.
Called the greatest opera of the mid-20th century, Samuel Barber’s Vanessa is a story of love lost and found, with swirls of intrigue. “There’s a little bit of everything,” says director James Robinson, who adds that the opera pays homage to Ingmar Bergman films Thirst and Crisis. “A film we looked at for inspiration was Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious — it’s like a psychological drama.” Think film noir in opera form, set to music that’s lush and symphonic, conducted by the venerable Leonard Slatkin. “It’s a real treat to experience this opera because people don’t get a chance to hear it very often,” Robinson says.
Trivia: “Having James Morris perform the role of the doctor is quite a coup,” Robinson says. “He’s a major star in the opera world.”
Performances: July 30, Aug. 3, 12, 18 and 24.
The Santa Fe Opera Festival
Through Aug. 27
Good to know: The SFO season is designed so patrons can see every performance in a week, perfect for vacationers. Evening performances start at 8 or 8:30 p.m. Single tickets (from $32) and packages (from $112) are available.
Where to dine and stay: The SFO done right includes a pre-show tailgate. The Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi (with its own opera curator, someone who can arrange backstage tours and pre-show talks) puts together elaborate picnic dinners for its guests, complete with French bistro-style folding chairs and a table, bien sûr. The Inn of the Anasazi is celebrating its birthday, too. To celebrate turning 25, the hotel has given itself a facelift — newly designed rooms, a tequila bar and a new chef, Juan Bochenski, who’s designed a new locally sourced menu. www.rosewoodhotels.com/anasazi.