Mostly peaks, a few valleys

Santa Fe musical festivals live up to the sunny view

August 13, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

SANTA FE - At an elevation of 7,000 feet, this town can't help but be a little rarefied. But each summer, when the Santa Fe Opera and Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival are in full flower, the place can reach even higher peaks.

This year - the opera company's 46th season, ending Aug. 24; the chamber fest's 30th, ending next Monday - there is more than enough enticement for visitors (and locals). Not that anyone needs extra encouragement for a stop in Santa Fe.

Despite increasing encroachment by the same old chain stores that fill every mall and shopping district in every burg from one coast to the other, this New Mexico town retains a great deal of vintage charm.

Traces of its origins as a provincial capital of the Spanish empire in 1610 remain. And the local "miracle" - a spiral staircase built in the Loretto Chapel in 1878 by a mysterious carpenter, apparently using no nails or support beams - still delights the tourists.

Even more miraculous, though, may be the view from inside the Santa Fe Opera House, a semi-outdoor theater perched like some astrological sailing ship on a hill outside town. For most productions, the rear stage wall is left wide open, at least for the first act, allowing the audience to drink in the extraordinary natural scenery.

There is a constant play of shadows as the sun descends (curtain time is just after sunset), often punctuated by flashes of heat lightning. In the distance is the soft glimmer of lights from Los Alamos, where the first atomic bombs were built. Topping off the vision is a mountain range rising nobly to kiss the sky. Breezes drift (or sweep) in from the exposed sides of the house, adding to the organic effect.

Nature sometimes intervenes devilishly. Sudden storms can add fresh counterpoint to an opera. (Until an extension was added to the swooping roof a few years ago, part of the audience was exposed entirely to the elements.) One night last week, the first act of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin had to be improvised in battery-powered light, because a bull snake had slithered its way into an electrical transformer and managed to short out the theater.

Most of the time, though, things proceed quite smoothly as the company continues building on its enviable legacy. Since the inaugural season in 1957, Santa Fe Opera has presented nine world premieres and more than three dozen U.S. premieres, while also cutting a far-ranging swath through standard and off-beat repertoire. That mix, and generally high standards of casting, conducting and staging, have made this venue a premiere destination of opera-goers from around the world.

The lineup this year included the first American presentation of L'amour de loin, by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. Since its premiere at the Salzburg Festival in 2000, the opera has generated considerable admiration. It seems destined to generate a great deal more.

In just over two, unbroken hours, L'amour de loin (Love From Afar) casts an unusual spell, even though the action is minimal, the musical pace very deliberate. The opera takes it time unfolding (and is not without its draggy passages); long stretches of the score are centered upon a single, fundamental harmonic base, with often exceptionally delicate fluctuations and permutations above.

Saariaho employs tonality and atonality with disarming freedom, generating a sensual, even mystical sound that fits her subject matter perfectly.

The libretto, by noted French-Lebanese author Amin Maalouf, poetically tells the tale of Jaufre, a 12th-century troubadour, and his intense, idealized love for a woman he has never seen. A passing pilgrim confirms that there is such a woman in the East named Clemence. Jaufre travels to see her, only to die in her arms. Clemence rails against God at first, but then chooses to enter a convent, exchanging an earthly "distant love" for a celestial one.

Like Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande, L'amour de loin creates a new sound world where the most basic of human emotions and the very concept of beauty are freshly, deeply considered. The essential message is revealed by the dying Jaufre: "Do not curse love, my friends. It is that which gives us our joys. Does it not have the right to take them back?"

With just three characters and a Greek-style chorus, divided by gender and place off-stage, the opera is tightly focused. Every word becomes important, imparts inner meanings; it's the same with each singer's gestures, under Peter Sellars' sensitively stylized direction.

(Sellars was involved with the opera almost from its gestation; his devotion to it and the composer - devotion is truly the word - has a lot to do with how richly the piece resonates.)

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