Santa Fe: Best of Show 2011

Best of the summer for this observer included the closing
performance of Alban Berg’s magical expressionist tragedy,
Wozzeck. It was a complete realization of the 2001 production by
Daniel Slater and Robert Innes Hopkins, which captivated everyone at the time
and has remained in memory as an historic highlight of the company’s
quality. So it was again this season through only four performances (La
enjoyed ten). Under the music direction of St Louis
Symphony’s superlative conductor David Robertson, the musical quality
was, if anything, improved over 2001. I attended the first and final
performances, and the show grew and developed into musical-dramatic tour de
force — a deeply touching one.

Berg’s 1925 masterwork was not professionally staged in its entirety
in this country until 1959 at the New York Met, though excerpts had been heard
in concert form in 1951, presented by Dmitri Mitropoulos at Carnegie Hall and
issued on Columbia records (some will argue that the 1931 Leopold Stokowski
presentation of Wozzeck in Philadelphia was the North American premiere, though
it was a semi-professional company, derived out of patroness Mrs Bok’s
local conservatory with, remarkably, Nelson Eddy in the title role). Nowadays,
the complicated score is relatively easily listenable so one can turn to
matters of message and dramatic effect — and the elegance of its deeply
beautiful, if complex orchestral music. As in Wagner’s famous quip about
his own operas, here “the drama is in the orchestra.” Berg’s
innovative atonal writing, with its remarkable orchestration and colors, right
up to a thunderous held chord on B for the full orchestra, a kind of massive
punctuation mark, followed by a tonal interlude centered on D-minor, seduces
the audience into thinking the worst is over. The cruelties dealt to Wozzeck by
life, in the person of virtually all his associates, are too much for him; his
mind finally snaps and he, along with his mistress, die. After the healing
surprise of the D-minor interlude near the end of the opera, we suddenly find
Wozzeck’s young son riding his stick horse across the stage, murmuring
‘hip hop, hip hop.” With his parents dead, there is no one to hear
him — and now the atonal patterns return, the tragedy of life starts all
over again.

A fine cast was led by the strong baritone Richard Paul Fink, memorable in
the intense title role, with debutante German soprano, the skilled Nicola
Beller Carbone, fascinating as Marie. The pungency of Slater’s staging
— it’s tension and release, aided by Hopkins’ remarkable set
that leans and dips according to the action — never ceases until the
final shattering moments of the 90-minute opera. In secondary but important
roles, the proven talents of Robert Brubaker, Eric Owens and Stuart Skelton,
along with Patricia Risley and Jason Slayden, gave much reward. The Santa Fe
orchestra was entirely up to its task, with, I’ll say again, David
Robertson the master of the evening. I could go to this opera with much
enjoyment many more times, most especially in Santa Fe’s heightened
expressionistic production.

WOZ2_235a.gifNicola Beller Carbone (Marie), Stuart Skelton (Drum Major) & Richard Paul Fink (Wozzeck)

A common denominator between the opera and a new voice recital series,
played over three concerts in August at the Scottish Rite Temple in downtown
Santa Fe, was the memorable talent of basso-cantante Eric Owens. The singer,
known especially to opera audiences as General Leslie Groves in Adams’
Dr Atomic, proved a pleasant surprise as a proponent of German lied.
The dramatic statements of several of Schubert’s largest lied lay easily
within the eloquent basso’s grasp; yet he could spin a piano tone in
Duparc, or crisply deliver a merry old English song. Ironically, perhaps the
greatest achievement of his hour’s recital was a stunningly vocalized and
moving encore of King Philip’s monologue from Verdi’s Don
. In German, French and Italian, this splendid artist is a man for
all seasons; the voice fine-grained but purposeful, the musicality secure, the
diction square on.

Mr. Owens has it all, and may fate grant him a long and fruitful artistic
life. Appreciation is due Santa Fe conductor and concert promoter Joseph Illick
for developing the new vocal series, which we hear will return next season. It
is nice to see life breathed back into the art of the art song!

Finally, and in some ways most enjoyable of all, the Santa Fe Chamber Music
Festival presented in a noontime recital at the resonant St. Francis
Auditorium, the young Korean-American pianist Joyce Yang. I had heard this
artist play in California during the Spring and found her exceptional. All
expectations were fulfilled in a program based on Lowell Liebermann’s
Gargoyles (1989), a jaunty, layered showpiece of pianistic technique,
which was a breeze for Miss Yang. Debussy’s Estampes followed,
flowing richly from her big Steinway, a riot of impressionistic nuance, color
and fleet image-making from the young Debussy’s inspired imagination.
Miss Yang took one’s breath away with her ease and maturity of phrasing,
the mistress of resourcefulness and thrilling resolve. I know, but it really
was that good!

The climax of the event was the great and glorious Carnival of
Robert Schumann, a landmark of romantic invention, and a strong test of any
pianist. Miss Yang seemed to approach the 20-some scenes of Schumann’s
storytelling with absolute certainty of what she was about, playing with
reserves of power, tasteful musicality and poise, that were most vivifying for
this old masterwork. The audience went crazy, as they should have, and encores
were offered. The best possible encore is to have this young sorceress back as
soon and often as possible!

Any three ‘best’ choices are bound to be arbitrary; but with the
bountiful offerings of the music and opera festivals in Santa Fe’s high
season, I suggest these selections, out of dozens of other wonderful moments,
as a taste of what “America’s Salzburg” is all about.

James A. Van Sant © 2011

image_description=Richard Paul Fink (Wozzeck) [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera]
product_title=Santa Fe: Best of Show 2011
product_by=Above: Richard Paul Fink (Wozzeck)

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera