Santa Fe Opera’s elegant production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly took on a slightly changed demeanor this past Monday, when new singers — soprano Ana María Martínez and tenor Joshua Guerrero — assumed the roles of the not-so-happy couple of Cio-Cio-San and Lieutenant Pinkerton. They make for a handsome pair, although a viewer must make an effort to imagine Martínez as Japanese or to suppose that Guerrero harbors some recessive gene that might give rise to the ultra-blond, blue-eyed child they produce. Guerrero arrived onstage fully charged and sang his Act One “Dovunque al mondo/Amore o grillo” with a full tone both rich and bright. The cockiness he displayed at the opening melted away with his first glimpse of Cio-Cio-San, which rendered him awestruck. From that point on, his bearing conveyed that he really was taking his marriage seriously, and the heart-throbbing catches in the throat he occasionally inserted betokened the depth of his emotion — unmistakably so in his second-act arietta “Addio fiorito asil.” Having moved into the spotlight in the past two years, he is now hitting his stride in the opera world. Auspicious bookings in the wings should offer him an opportunity to try out delicacies of vocal shading and expression that could boost him in his ascent.
Martínez is a more experienced veteran; she made her debut here in 2003, as Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte, and was more recently featured as Mimì (La bohème, 2011) and in the title role of Carmen (2014). She proved a precise singer as Cio-Cio-San, exhibiting meticulous vocal discipline and subtly modulated dynamics, drawing particular impact from diminuendos. She seemed somewhat deliberate as an actor but may settle more naturally into the production as it continues. In any case, her portrayal grew increasingly poignant in Act Two, where her situation grows perilous and ultimately fatal. Her “Un bel dì” was plotted with clear musical intelligence, and it would take a hard heart to resist her farewell to her child, “Tu? tu? piccolo Iddio!” Martínez and Guerrero remain in place for the six remaining performances of this opera, on Saturday, Aug. 4; Wednesday, Aug. 8; and Aug. 13, 18, 22, and 24, at 8 p.m. on each night.
This past February, when pianist Gilles Vonsattel passed through town assisting cellist Joshua Roman in a recital, he was by far the more reticent half of the duo. One looked forward to his July 24 solo recital, on the noon series of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, as an occasion when he could reveal his aesthetic make-up all on his own. This he did, and his musical character proved consistent with what we heard in February.
He plays from the head rather than the heart, and the first two pieces of his hourlong concert were selected to capitalize on that. George Benjamin’s Shadowlines, Six Canonic Preludes for Piano, composed in 2001, are relatively brief studies in contrapuntal procedure, the whole set adding up to perhaps 15 minutes. Vonsattel communicated them with textural clarity, but the composition itself was abstruse enough that few listeners can have grasped much of the canonic procedure that we are told inhabit them. Certainly I did not. The movements came across as highly distilled and ultra-serious. At points they sounded a bit creepy, which is as close as they came to identifiable emotional content. The spirit did not change much in Webern’s Variations for Piano (Op. 27), a late piece composed in 1935-1936. There’s always room for Webern, of course; the three movements of this piece run all of six minutes. Again, Vonsattel’s approach seemed technical, as if an analysis of the work’s 12-tone permutations was running through his mind the whole time. I am not sure what possibilities may or may not reside in the Benjamin set, but I absolutely know that Webern’s Variations can be a work of haunting beauty; if you doubt that, you should check out recordings by Mitsuko Uchida or even Maurizio Pollini, he who is often criticized for a severe approach. There was a tentative quality to Vonsattel’s interpretation, and I found it difficult to connect with it on an emotional level. Was he saving his feelings to unleash in Schumann’s Fantasie (Op. 17)? No, it turned out. Here, a piece famous as an emotional volcano mostly puttered along with dry restraint. The second movement achieved no real grandeur; he seemed not to have noticed Schumann’s marking of Durchaus energisch (Energetic throughout). Only in the third (and final) movement did a hint of Lisztian yearning suggest that Vonsattel spied potential for passion at the root of this difficult piece.
George Benjamin owed the formation of his style in part to his teacher Olivier Messiaen and then to the Spectralist crowd he hung around with in Paris, but in between those two experiences he spent four years at Cambridge, where he studied with Alexander Goehr. On July 26, the festival presented the U.S. premiere of Goehr’s 2016-2017 composition after “The Waking,” which it co-commissioned with the Nash Ensemble, the chamber collective that played its world premiere last September. The mandate of the commission was to write a piece whose instrumentation would fall within that of Beethoven’s famous Septet, so that those pieces could fit together conveniently on a program — which is exactly how it was presented here. It consists of five movements, inspired at arm’s length by a poem of Theodore Roethke, and it employs five instruments: violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, and horn. It bows occasionally in the direction of Hindemith, Stravinsky, and Janácek, but those obeisances do not prevent the piece from having a flavor all its own. Goehr has a penchant for open textures, often building up his sonorities through the addition of one instrument at a time. Themes are compact, and once enunciated, they are developed only briefly. This yields a gestural character to the work, which seems to be always stopping and starting, or sometimes drifting off in fragmentation. It draws on a free harmonic palette. The third movement in particular wears contrapuntal tendencies on its sleeve. For a piece written so recently, it had a strangely old-fashioned feeling. That may derive from the fact that Goehr, who turns eighty-six this August 10, grew up in an environment where traditional musical fundamentals did not get short shrift in the search for originality and modernity. The Beethoven Septet, which followed (with viola and cello eking out the ensemble), was its old familiar self. Hornist Jennifer Montone added particular incisiveness to its interpretation.
The Santa Fe Desert Chorale opened its season with an all-American program at the Church of the Holy Faith led by guest conductor Craig Jessop, former director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and now dean of the arts college at Utah State University. We caught the second performance, on July 25. Sixteen of the group’s 24 singers performed in this concert, which served in part as a birthday tribute to composers Leonard Bernstein and William Bolcom. Bernstein is omnipresent this season, since he was born a hundred years ago this August. His multifarious talents left an indelible impression on American musical life, but one of his ongoing frustrations was earning critical respect and audience appreciation for some of the scores he considered his most serious. One of his less-visited pieces was spotlighted here: his Missa brevis, which he created in 1988 out of incidental music he had written in 1955 for Lillian Hellman’s adaptation of Jean Anouilh’s Joan of Arc play, The Lark. (It was the project that occasioned a detour while they were collaborating on Candide.) Bernstein conceived the score as neo-Medieval or neo-Renaissance music; for the play’s 229-performance Broadway run, it was conducted by Noah Greenberg, founder of what later became known as the New York Pro Musica, the leading American early-music group of its time. The Desert Chorale gave it a rousing performance, offering precise rhythmic definition in the Gloria and the chanson-inspired Dona nobis pacem. Kyle Nielsen added clangorous input from chimes, and alto Diana Grabowski sang Bernstein’s sometimes florid solo lines, originally intended for a countertenor. The choir was of high quality, firmly disposed throughout except for the sopranos sounding less warm than one might appreciate. This was emphasized when Jessop led the group to a volume louder than the sanctuary could accommodate. I thought I might write it off as a strictly personal reaction until I saw someone nearby actually covering her ears. That didn’t serve the score, and it might profitably be dialed back in remaining performances.
The same problem plagued parts of Samuel Barber’s Reincarnations; in “Anthony O’Daly,” the second of its three movements, the decibels rendered diction unintelligible. And yet, in William Bolcom’s May Day, which followed directly, balances were right on target and well-judged for the space. Jessop described the piece as a “duet for piano and choir,” and pianist Nathan Salazar held up his side of the bargain with aplomb, interpreting his part with power or sparkle as appropriate. Bolcom, who turned eighty in May, set this Ralph Waldo Emerson ode to springtime with harmonic imagination and compelling energy.
The evening included familiar Bernstein selections drawn from various of his stage works. Patrick Michael Muehleise lent his plangent tenor to “A Simple Song,” from Mass, and alto Kate Maroney infused sincerity into “Take Care of This House” from the failed show 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Many of the choir’s members took on solo and ensemble roles in five lightly choreographed chestnuts from West Side Story, all performed persuasively and with unmistakable enthusiasm; alto Sarah Nickerson deserved particular credit as an ingratiating but no-nonsense Anita in her Broadway-style rendition of “America.” Fortunately, Jessop kept the volume in check for the “Somewhere” conclusion of the West Side Story set, as well as in “Make Our Garden Grow” from Candide, which was the concert’s failsafe finale. Two performances of this program remain, at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 4, and at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 8. ◀