Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Starting Something

August 01, 2011

Isabel Leonard

There were a number of highlights from this year’s Santa Fe excursion. One of them for me was seeing and hearing mezzo Isabel Leonard in performances that stood out in my mind for their beauty and technical ability. She’s appeared in Santa Fe before this year and is well known on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera as well in both Mozart and Rossini roles. She was most notably filmed in the Claus Guth production of Cosi Fan Tutte during the 2009 Salzburg Festival. This season in Santa Fe she is the scene stealer in Vivaldi’s Griselda where she sings Costanza. The fact that she has one of the most challenging and well known arias from the opera, “Agitata da due venti”, doesn’t hurt of course, but after two viewings of the biggest ovations for any individual singer I saw in this year’s festival it felt like a major arrival to my ears. Of course, Leonard has enjoyed increasing notice all over the world in the last five years and is no stranger to any of the major opera and concert stages. So it may have been my own awakening more than anyone else's, but this Costanza felt like something more than another well-sung Dorabella or Cherubino. Leonard held the large empty stage and kept all attention unwaveringly focused on her prodigious performance, the kind of thing the biggest opera superstars do everyday.

And just to put a point on it, on Sunday I stopped by the Scottish Rite Center before leaving town for a solo recital from Leonard hosted by the Santa Fe Concert Association. The SFCA presents classical programs in Santa Fe throughout the Fall and Winter, and this recital, the first in a brand new series, was a way to give some of the great vocalists involved with the opera festival a chance to perform in a concert setting. It’s a new series and a new program for everyone involved and this first recital, which is followed by one from Daniel Okulitch on August 2 and Eric Owens on August 7, was seen by an almost sold out crowd in the acoustically beautiful, if somewhat visually odd, auditorium of this Masonic temple.

Isabel Leonard as Costanza Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2011

And outside of feeling like I was part of some Cremaster VI movie at the odd moment, it was a purely enjoyable program focusing on bread and butter arias that have made Leonard’s career to date. The hour long set included both of Cherubino’s arias, “Una voce poco fa” from The Barber of Seville, and “Svegliatevi nel core” from Handel’s Giulio Cesare. There were also three songs from Rachmaninoff and de Falla’s Seven Spanish Folk Songs. All of this is likely familiar material to fans of vocal music, but Leonard made the show seem very fresh with her warm personable manner and expressiveness. She could be fiercly intense at one moment and playful to the point of giggling the next in service to these pieces. She was accompanied by Joseph Illick who is the director of SFCA, giving the show an added layer of familiarity and fun. And for the group on Sunday afternoon, including myself, it was clear that this is a young singer destined for much bigger parts in the very near future. (Including Rosina at the Met this fall.)

The other interesting thing about this recital was the continued expansion of Santa Fe as a summer music and art destination. Granted both Santa Fe Opera and the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival have been staples for decades now. And the various art shows including the Indian Market at the end of August give the city a cache in at least one corner of the art and antiques world. But the nearly sold-out recital showed that there is plenty of hunger and interest in music during the summer beyond what the city has already. Perhaps Santa Fe could become the Salzburg of North America? Sure Santa Fe is half the size, but it has all the beauty that rivals that European city. Of course, there are still some major issues including the absence of an association with a major international orchestra, the city’s elevation, and a dearth of performance venues. But wouldn’t it be great to have such an expansive multi-site performance and music festival of that kind on our own shores. One can dream. And maybe our own Karajan will come along one day in the desert Southwest to unify the necessary forces.


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