Santa Fe is well known as an opera town, but it has not succeeded in building a concomitant theater scene despite decades of efforts. Nonetheless, theater has gotten a boost in the past year and a half, thanks to the emergence of Adobe Rose Theatre and New Mexico Actors Lab, both of which bring professional-level aspirations to the table. An Actors Lab production of Simon Stephens’ Heisenberg continues through July 30, and Adobe Rose, having completed its run of Robert Schenkkan’s unnerving new play Building the Wall, is currently hosting a visiting troupe, Oasis Theatre (also through July 30). A small company in the process of relocating to Santa Fe from its home in the Catskills, Oasis is staging a program of three one-act classics in the theater’s adaptable space: Shaw’s How He Lied to Her Husband, Chekhov’s A Marriage Proposal, and Molière’s The Forced Marriage.
The Santa Fe Playhouse, our community theater (which bills itself “the oldest continuously running theatre west of the Mississippi”), is having its go at interwar Berlin via the popular Kander and Ebb musical Cabaret (through Aug. 6), and then on Aug. 24 it begins a two-and-a-half-week run of this year’s Fiesta Melodrama, a local tradition since 1919. This summer, a new incentive called Shakespeare in the Garden arrives on the scene; its inaugural offering is to be The Tempest (Aug. 23 through Aug. 31), given al fresco in a recently constructed circular performance space at the Santa Fe Botanical Garden. Nagle Jackson (former artistic director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater and of the McCarter Theatre in Princeton) will direct the production.
At this point, it seems hardly useful to draw an unbreachable line of demarcation between theater performed live in the same venue as the audience and theater performed live somewhere else and simulcast (or nearly simulcast) into a local auditorium. Both are becoming complementary facets of a theater-lover’s experience hereabouts, following the route already embraced by opera aficionados who spend summers taking in live performances and winters enjoying simulcasts at the Lensic Performing Arts Center thanks to The Met Live in HD. The experiences are far from identical, of course, but at least both involve audiences that have gathered specifically for the event and share communally in the experience. We have reached a point where marketers are investigating what real difference exists between them. This summer, the Royal Shakespeare Company, which transmits some of its productions to cinemas, has embarked on an experiment to help quantify the disparity, if there is any, between these types of audiences. Groups of attendees are being wired with heart monitors to record their physiological responses to the Bard’s gorefest Titus Andronicus — one set watching the show live in the theater in Stratford-upon-Avon, the other seeing it transmitted to a movie screen. “Pretty much every night there’s somebody who faints or is sick,” said the head of the company’s Audience Insight department. “We want to see how the audience reacts physically to the production.”
The summer simulcast season gets into swing with back-to-back evenings (Wednesday, July 26, and Thursday, July 27) devoted to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America from the Lyttleton Theatre in London, produced by National Theatre Live in HD and screened at the Lensic. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes — to use its full name — is one of the essential plays of the 20th century, a two-part epic comprising Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. In 1993, Millennium Approaches earned Kushner a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and both parts received Tony and Drama Desk awards as the best plays for the years of their respective Broadway premieres, 1993 and 1994. A fantasia it is, interweaving and juxtaposing strands of plot with pellucid clarity and sweeping the viewer along with the linguistic elegance and grandeur of an immense poem-in-prose. It is, most famously, a play about the AIDS crisis and how it affects the central male couple, their families, and their friends. But its domain is still more vast, with its characters ranging from McCarthyist pit bull Roy Cohn to presumed Communist spy Ethel Rosenberg, from a closeted Mormon to an Orthodox rabbi, from “The World’s Oldest Living Bolshevik” to a heart-of-gold drag queen to an angelic messenger from Heaven. These are long plays: In the National Theatre’s production, Part One runs three and a half hours and Part Two four hours, including two intermissions for each. The play is directed by Marianne Elliott, known to NT Live audiences for her direction of War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and it stars a mixed Anglo-Scottish-Irish-American cast that includes the indefatigable Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn.
Opera-lovers have had their eye on Angels in America recently because of an operatic version of the work composed by Peter Eötvös, whose music we have visited occasionally in these columns. The piece was premiered in 2004 in Paris and was then mounted in eight further cities before finally reaching New York last month, when it was given by New York City Opera (basically a new company with an old name). The operatic version uses a greatly streamlined libretto by Mari Mezei, the composer’s wife, who focuses on just the dramatic narrative and employs only about 10 percent of Kushner’s text. Some of the operatically inclined visitors who flood our town at this season will have seen the opera in one (or more) of its productions, and they may find it especially interesting to revisit the play itself through these NT Live broadcasts.
In fact, all of the theatrical simulcasts scheduled for Santa Fe this summer have operatic connections. Next up (on July 30) is Shakespeare’s Macbeth, from the Stratford Festival in Ontario. Stratford leapt into the HD broadcast market two years ago, distributing their staged Shakespeare productions in versions slightly redirected and filmed in order to maximize their cinematic impact. The Screen, which remains fully active on the campus of the soon-to-expire Santa Fe University of Art and Design, is the local outpost for these stage-screen hybrids, which have hewed to a very high standard in their initial seasons. This Macbeth is directed for the stage by Antoni Cimolino, the Stratford Festival’s artistic director, and then redirected for film by Shelagh O’Brien. Word is that the production sizzles with sexual allure between the Thane-on-the-rise (Ian Lake) and his ambitious Lady (Krystin Pellerin). The operatic connection is to Verdi, of course, who unveiled the most famous of Macbeth operas in 1847; the Italian libretto was crafted with considerable creativity by Francesco Maria Piave. There is another operatic treatment worth seeking out, though: Macbeth by Ernest Bloch, with a French libretto by Edmond Fleg. (Bloch later released an English-language version, with a libretto by Alex Cohen.) Bloch’s is a more Symbolist take on the tale, with a very different feel from Verdi’s relatively realist approach. It has been produced now and again, but it remains an obscure curiosity, though one that can be approached through recordings.
A week after the Angels in America double-header, the Lensic will have another NT Live screening (Aug. 3): Salomé, from the National’s Olivier Theatre. Opera-lovers know it through the 1905 work by Richard Strauss, last seen in Santa Fe two seasons ago. For his libretto, Strauss used a German translation of the play Salomé by Oscar Wilde, which is the most famous dramatic telling of the biblical story and which served as the foundation for many ensuing productions of Salomé in the worlds of theater, film, and dance. The NT Live production, directed by Yaël Farber, takes a different, post-Wildean tack that replaces the story’s inherent misogyny with a more feminist sensibility. “This charged retelling turns the infamous biblical tale on its head,” reads the publicity, “placing the girl we call Salomé at the centre of a revolution. An occupied desert nation. A radical from the wilderness on hunger strike. A girl whose mysterious dance will change the course of the world.” Like Strauss’ opera, this is a short evening: an intense hour and three-quarters with no intermission.
The summer’s final NT Live screening, again at the Lensic, will be Yerma, by Federico García Lorca — or rather, “by Simon Stone after Federico García Lorca,” since, as with Salomé, this is a case in which the director has revised the original profoundly. Yerma was embraced as a masterwork from the time of its initial production, in 1934; in fact, such literary luminaries as Ramón del Valle-Inclán and Miguel de Unamuno began praising it to the press even before opening night, having seen the dress rehearsal. It has the flavor of a classical tragedy, one that focuses on a single character — an unhappily married woman whose unfulfilled desire to have a baby leads to desperation and catastrophe, whose very essence becomes yerma (“barren”), much like the arid Spanish soil that surrounds her. Here, the action is transposed to 21st-century London and that central role, played by the actress-singer-dancer Billie Piper, is reimagined as a lifestyle blogger — indeed not a career that would nourish the soul, one supposes. She was awarded an Olivier Award for her portrayal, which arrives from the stage of the Young Vic in London.
There is also an operatic connection involving this play. The Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos started quite a few operas, but he brought only four to completion. (Well, one was more of a musical — Magdalena, which gained critical acclaim when it ran on Broadway in 1948.) The last of his operas was Yerma, which he finished in 1956, three years before his death. By coincidence, while Villa-Lobos was working on it (living in New York City at the time), he was approached about writing an opera on the Macbeth plot, transposed to a Brazilian setting; but he was unable to accept the proposal, being entirely engrossed with Yerma. The original plan was that the opera’s libretto should be an English translation of García Lorca’s play, but Villa-Lobos was eager to plunge ahead before the translation could be prepared. (In any case, he spoke no English; his biographer Lisa M. Peppercorn reported that his functional vocabulary was limited to “vanilla ice cream” and “strong, strong coffee.”) Plans for an immediate production got put on ice and then fell through completely. In the event, the opera was never performed until 1971, 12 years after the composer’s death, when it received its world premiere in … Santa Fe.
In terms of sheer chutzpah, the 1971 season must qualify as the most ambitious in Santa Fe Opera’s history. It comprised six operas: Mozart’s The Magic Flute and The Marriage of Figaro, Offenbach’s The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, Verdi’s monumental Don Carlos (the only year the company has ever performed it), Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman (in the first of three seasons in which it figured), and Yerma. (No Strauss, although it is often said, mistakenly, that Strauss operas figured in every year of founder John Crosby’s tenure.) A few fresh faces got welcome exposure. The Santa Fe New Mexican noted of the then-upcoming season: “Soprano Kiri Te Kanawa sings the role of the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro, a role she will repeat in her Covent Garden debut this fall. Young Metropolitan Opera mezzo soprano Frederica von Stade will be the Cherubino.”
Amidst it all, the premiere of Yerma was buoyed on a wave of concentrated excitement. “Opera Lures Celebrities,” shouted a New Mexican headline on Aug. 11, the day before the premiere. They included Carol Fox, director of the Chicago Lyric Opera; Kurt Adler, director of the San Francisco Opera; Arminda Villa-Lobos, widow of the composer; “internationally known soprano Beverly Sills and her husband, Peter Greenough” (they attended the dress rehearsal, but had to return to New York before the premiere); Vera Zorina and her husband, Goddard Lieberson; critics Speight Jenkins of Opera News (later general director of Seattle Opera), Winthrop Sargent of The New Yorker, and Martin Bernheimer of the Los Angeles Times. The conductor was Christopher Keene (future general director of “the old” New York City Opera). The title role was sung by the Catalan soprano Mirna Lacambra, with a supporting cast that included tenor John Wakefield, baritone Theodor Uppman, and mezzo-sopranos Elaine Bonazzi and young Ms. Von Stade.
The audience reception was enthusiastic, but critical response was mixed. Quaintance Eaton, a respected presence among opera commentators at that time, found (in her Music Journal review) that “it was a formidable undertaking well realized.” The New Mexican’s William Dunning reported on the reviews as they appeared, including Bernheimer’s rueful assessment that “Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Yerma, unveiled on Aug. 12, has led Santa Fe down the unadventurous trail to boredom.” Dunning countered Jenkins’ review with a fair point: “He makes intelligent musical comparisons … and recommends pruning. ‘What Yerma desperately needs is performance in the vernacular,’ he said — though as a native Texan, he should realize that is precisely what happened when SFO presented an opera sung in Spanish for the first time in its history.”
In the event, Santa Fe Opera never offered Villa-Lobos’ opera after its two performances that summer, on Aug. 12 and Aug. 18. The piece has enjoyed few revivals since. It remains unrepresented in the commercial recording catalog, but curious listeners can glimpse it via a CD available through the web retailer House of Opera (www.operapassion.com). It is probably of the variety that used to be called “pirate recordings,” and although such tapes were not strictly legal, opera-lovers may nonetheless be grateful that they captured moments that would be otherwise lost — in this case, of a memorable opening night in Santa Fe 46 years ago. ◀