Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Swamp Thing

August 13, 2007

Cast of Platée
Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2007

This has been an interesting year for Santa Fe Opera. Perhaps not the best program ever offered, but the company's emphasis on Mozart, Strauss and premieres of new and recent works continues to produce some of the most exciting opera in America. Of course, the productions this year are sharing room with news about many transitions - the news of music director Alan Gilbert's departure and the appointment of his most excellent and esteemed replacement Edo de Waart, and now the news that general director Richard Gaddes, the companies 2nd general director in 50 years will retire as soon as his replacement is appointed. Here's hoping the board makes another excellent decision in this selection.

As has been the case for me in recent years, my trip to the Santa Fe Opera festival ended with a bang - this year in the form of Platée. This production of Rameau’s Baroque comic gem comes from Laurent Pelly, and while it is well worn, having premiered in Paris in 1999 with subsequent revivals and a DVD release, it is still a thrill to see it live. It is undoubtedly the strongest show in this year's festival. My fondness for this production is no secret and seeing it in Paris under Mark Minkowski’s direction was my favorite performance event from last year. It’s hard not to sit there with a smile on your face throughout. Plus when was the last time you heard an audience applaud for special effects at an opera?

Jean-Paul Fouchécourt as Platée and Wilbur Pauley as Jupiter
Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2007
Pelly is a master at wit and whimsy on stage, and Platée seems custom-made for his talents. Light on the pathos and heavy on the satire, the production also greatly benefits from the genius comic choreography of Laura Scozzi. In bringing the production to Santa Fe, it was certainly necessary to scale down some of the elements from the original due to size constraints of this New Mexico stage. In fact, it is surprising to see how many of the original ideas are still intact – even the pyrotechnics and Mercury and Jupiter descending from the ceiling in chandeliers are still here. The set, smaller in scale, is a progressively decaying wonder that is intact as is La Follie's megalomaniacal attention-grabbing theatrics.

Of course, in the end it is a facsimile of the original and the copies do have some flaws. Most notably here are the significant changes in the quality of casting. Jean-Paul Fouchécourt is still in the starring role which is a good thing considering that it's as if it was written just for him. His timing is excellent and he is comic without having to mug. However, few of the singers can live up to the vocal quality of the previous Paris casts. With the exception of Heidi Stober’s La Follie, much of the cast’s lack of mastery of Baroque vocal styles was painfully apparent. Even the dancers, while quite good, seemed a little less sharp than they should have been. Still, the joys here far outnumber any quibbling over specifics of individual performances, and this is one show not to miss if you have the chance to get tickets for the last two performances on the 16th and 22nd.

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