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Judith Fein
Music and Dance Reviews
Performance Reviews
Various Performance Dances
The Santa Fe Opera
United States
New Mexico
Santa Fe, NM

Meditations on Dance and Movement's Role in The Santa Fe Opera's Roméo et Juliette, Capriccio and Vanessa

by Judith Fein
July 31, 2016
The Santa Fe Opera
301 Opera Drive
Santa Fe, NM 87506
(505) 986-5900
Judith Fein is an award-winning author, travel writer, speaker, and director. Her website is www.GlobalAdventure.us She wrote the libretto for the much-acclaimed opera, THE HOTEL EDEN, with music by Henry Mollicone (for reviews, see http://henrymollicone.com/musiclist/operalist/hotel-eden.
You know from the moment the overture begins in Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette at the Santa Fe Opera that you are in very sure hands with Director Stephen Lawless, Choreographer Nicola Bowie and Fight Directors Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet. Spectators like me were pulled right into the action opening night as 12 acrobats brandishing swords advance, retreat, thrust, parry and tumble in a vigorous kind of Capulet-Montague West Side Story street brawl set in the era of the U.S. Civil War.

Shakespeare’s tragic tale of star-crossed teen lovers revolves around the feuding Capulets and Montagues, who are afflicted with generations-old of hatred for each other. Their respective children, Juliet and Romeo, fall madly in love at first site, and are married secretly by Father Laurent, a surgeon/priest in a Civil War hospital. Romeo is insulted by Tybalt, a Capulet, and Romeo’s charismatic and hot-headed buddy Mercutio duels with him and is killed. A grief-stricken Romeo slashes it out with Tybalt, and the latter is killed. Romeo is banished, Juliet’s father forces her to marry Count Paris, and Father Laurent responds to Juliet’s pleas for help by giving her a potion that will induce a temporary death-seeming coma. During this fake death, Romeo sneaks into the mausoleum, drinks his own poison potion, and dies next to his beloved. Then she awakens, sees Romeo dying, and ends her life with a dagger. The story, told in a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, is faithful to Shakespeare, and also takes some liberties that work well in presenting the drama.

The opera bounces from funerals to elaborate balls, and dancing is prominent in the latter, including what may be an opera first––after beautifully executed jetés and pirouettes, danseuses Beth Miller and Susan Vishmid do a kind of flirtatious tutu-ed lap dance with admiring, seated Capulet men. Thanks to the keen choreographic eye for stage picture and movement, the chorus in the ball scenes is appropriately fluid and sometimes quite elegant. And the use of fans in the heated environment (on every level) punctuates the active participation of every singer onstage in the story; they are alert, focused, and always part of the gorgeous stage picture, which moves and changes with the grace of dance. The director and choreographer sometimes go out on a limb with choices like Juliet singing her entire “Je Veux Vivre” (I want to live) aria as she struggles to uncork a champagne bottle. Or Romeo’s page (sung by a woman playing a man and dressed in an androgynous skirt) and servants moving like drum majorettes on parade.

The second act, which is more melodramatic than the first, includes a lot of death and dying, and it was a wise choice to make the movement less flashy and emphasize, instead, the fact that Romeo and Juliet cannot keep their hands off each other, and it is their passion which both elevates them and is their undoing. The tragic end, when Romeo dies, includes a final gesture in space on his part: his arm rises dramatically in the air, and then falls lifelessly over the side of the tomb. And Juliet has one final gesture, when she falls over the body of her beloved, her arm slung over him in dying and undying love.

The audience, too, used its body– by leaping to its feet to acknowledge the singing of Soprano Ailyn Perez as Juliet, Tenor Stephen Costello as Romeo, Elliot Madore as Mercutio, Raymond Aceto as Laurent, and the highly polished dancers, acrobats, singers and musicians.

Capriccio, with music by Richard Strauss and text by Clemens Krauss, is as cerebral as Romeo and Juliet is physical and emotional. The opening-night audience seemed divided between those who loved it, and those who were bored, especially by the first act. Full disclosure: I fall in the latter camp, perhaps because I had personal experiences relating to the subject of the opera, but more about that later.

Capriccio premiered in 1942 in Munich, was Strauss’s last opera, and reflects his feeling about the state of opera and culture in Germany at that time. One main character is a poet, another a composer, a third is a director, and a fourth, more minor, is a prompter. The first two are in love with a countess, and they spend much of the opera debating, in a kind of heady recitative and dialogue, which is more important: music or words. And the countess has to decide which one to choose: Mr. Word of Mr. Music.

So now the promised disclosure. In the past, I was the librettist for an opera called Hotel Eden that was developed over three years, and had a heralded grand opening with many critics in attendance. Luckily, they responded positively both to the music and the libretto. But, in the aftermath, and during subsequent productions, the opera was referred to as the composer’s work. I was quite surprised, since the story, words, and characters preceded the music. I soon came to realize that in the opera world, it was the composer who ruled and music trumped words.

I reminded the composer that it would be sweet to have it acknowledged that the words, story, and characters did not materialize out of thin air. And we had very lively exchanges on the subject, but no one’s mind was changed.

So, in principle, I should have loved Capriccio, which was all about the aforementioned. But the debate was so basic and repetitive and uninteresting, that it sucked the life out of the subject and this brings me to the second part of my disclosure: early on in my career I taught English and creative writing. I always knew the writer was in trouble when the characters were a generic He and She, or A Man and a Woman, or two Sisters, or, a Poet and a Musician. It spoke of a lack of character development, and relegated drama, which should involve all the senses, to an affair of the head. So that just about sums up my reaction to Capriccio. Strauss clearly found the world he worked in full of competitive narcissists and egomaniacs, and bemoaned the lack of depth, content, taste, and innovation. The opera is clearly modern, as was part of the set, but it just didn’t work for this reviewer.

The singing and the musicians both onstage and in the orchestra were superb, and the casting could not have been better. The music was often soaring and beautiful, although not a work of genius. Joshua Hopkins is an earnest poet; Ben Bliss is an impassioned composer; David Govertsen is a comically self-absorbed director; mezzo Susan Graham is a self-assured actress, and soprano Amanda Majeski was a simply brilliant countess, who single-handedly carries the last twenty minutes, as she sings about which man she will choose, and the relationship between poetry and composition in a musical soliloquy.

In terms of movement, director Tim Albery has a keen sense of blocking and movement. Nothing is superfluous, and everything has meaning in terms of the relationships of the character. He has an original and noteworthy use of chairs, and the positioning of singers on those chairs. The way they sit, and where they face, how they get up and then sit again, reveals the state of mind, heart, emotions, and of the characters—from nobility to servants.

Choreographer Jodi Melnick provided a lovely “divertissement” for “a youngster from the provinces” (it is described this way by the Director) for Beth Miller, who does a graceful, extended, and somewhat repetitive solo turn as a danseuse in a very restricted space. The Director comments on her performance with words like, “what technique she has,” and “my latest discovery,” and “dance conquers gravity.”

The fifth opera of the season is Vanessa, which premiered in 1958 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, with music by Samuel Barber and, surprisingly, text by composer Gian Carlo Menotti. The work was inspired by Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales, and this elegant, mysterious opera is set in Nordic climes; if it had been a film, it could easily have been directed by Ingmar Bergman, the master of black and white bleakness, both exterior and interior.

It would be cruel and unusual punishment to reveal the whole story because part of the excitement of watching the opera unfold is that the plot surprises us, even if we know that a sense of despair and doom hangs palpably in the air. Briefly, Vanessa is a grief-stricken, aristocratic woman who pines for a man who loved and left her decades before. She cannot bear to think of the passage of time and her own aging, so she lives in a claustrophobic world where all the mirrors are covered. On a snowy night, her lover’s arrival is expected after all these years. Vanessa, completely overwrought, wants to know if he still loves her, and discovers that the visitor is not her beloved Anatol, but his son, who bears the same name. First devastated, she falls in love with the son, deluding herself into believing he is smitten by her, blinded by the way she wants things to be, rather than seeing him for the shallow, fortune-seeking rake he is.

When he first arrives, Anatol finds himself alone with Vanessa’s niece Erika, and the former seduces the latter with wine and words, and they sleep together. Anatol offers to marry her, with no long-term commitment or promises of eternal love. Tormented by love for the scoundrel, Erika refuses his offer, and tries to support his relationship with her aunt. The heavy hand of fate hangs over Erika’s doomed love, and she retreats into herself, and into the cloistered life of Vanessa’s home. She is judged harshly by Vanessa’s mother, the Baroness, a sort of moral compass, who knows and keeps her secret. The fifth of the principals is the Doctor, a trustworthy, older friend of Vanessa’s who ministered to her body since childhood, but admits to being pretty clueless about what goes in peoples’ heads and hearts.

Sean Curran, the choreographer, has done something really innovative in tandem with director James Robinson. There is no superfluous gesture in this sparse production. Crossing the room, touching someone on the shoulder, or smoking punctuate the stillness and take on weight and meaning. The economy of movement is broken when the Doctor declares he is proud that he is still a good dancer, and, when he gets tipsy, he brags that one of his younger dance partners tells him he dances too fast. He demonstrates his waltzing skills with Vanessa but, oddly, he is not a very stylish dancer and Vanessa is pretty stiff. There is something touchingly honest and innocent in their dancing, like old-fashioned, genuine people trying to get with the beat. When the Doctor shows the much-younger Anatol how to dance, the latter immediately catches on and within short order he grabs the Baroness’s cane and executes a deft little soft shoe. The suggestion is that Anatol is slick and dishonest. He is a modern man, unsentimental, capable of dancing around the situation with Vanessa and Erika, and slithering his way to opportunistic love. In contrast to the restrained, controlled elegance of the three women, Anatol takes up space; he sits and stretches out his legs unselfconsciously on a second chair. At another moment, Anatol falls on the floor laughing, and then ice skates with Vanessa. His agility matches the deftness with which he works the situation to his advantage.

Other uses of dance underscore the emotions of the characters. Vanessa, who begins the story as a somber, heavy person, executes one simple turn, which expresses her newfound gaiety with the young Anatol. The footman, overcome by all the wealth at a New Year’s party, clandestinely drapes himself in a guest’s fur coat and swirls comically. The guests waltz with Francis Ford Coppola-like musical cross-cutting between their lighthearted dance in the wings and the heavy central drama unfolding in the household.

The magnificent stars of the production are the soprano Erin Wall as Vanessa; mezzos Virginie Verrez as Erika, and Helene Schneiderman as the Baroness; tenor Zach Borichevsky as Anatol; bass-baritone James Morris as the Doctor; the gorgeous gray-toned and cleverly mobile set, replete with shattered mirror and ghostly trees in the forest outside, designed by Allen Moyer; and the gray-black-white costume design by James Schuette, which corresponds to the emotional states of the characters.

“Wow!” an audience member exclaimed excitedly as he exited the opera. “There is no mellow in this melodrama!”

Remaining Performances

Roméo et Juliette - August 16,25
Capriccio - August 11,19
Vanessa - August 12,18,24
Stephen Costello (Roméo) Ailyn Pérez (Juliette) in 'Roméo et Juliette.'

Stephen Costello (Roméo) Ailyn Pérez (Juliette) in "Roméo et Juliette."

Photo © & courtesy of Ken Howard

Susan Vishmid (dancer), Tim Mix (Capulet), and Beth Miller (dancer) in 'Roméo et Juliette.'

Susan Vishmid (dancer), Tim Mix (Capulet), and Beth Miller (dancer) in "Roméo et Juliette."

Photo © & courtesy of Ken Howard

Beth Miller (dancer), Emily Fons (Stéphano), and Susan Vishmid (dancer), in 'Roméo et Juliette.'

Beth Miller (dancer), Emily Fons (Stéphano), and Susan Vishmid (dancer), in "Roméo et Juliette."

Photo © & courtesy of Ken Howard

Ensemble Cast in 'Roméo et Juliette.'

Ensemble Cast in "Roméo et Juliette."

Photo © & courtesy of Ken Howard

Ailyn Pérez (Juliette) and Stephen Costello (Roméo) in 'Roméo et Juliette.'

Ailyn Pérez (Juliette) and Stephen Costello (Roméo) in "Roméo et Juliette."

Photo © & courtesy of Ken Howard

Amanda Majeski (The Countess), Susan Graham (Clairon), and Ben Bliss (Flamand) in 'Capriccio.'

Amanda Majeski (The Countess), Susan Graham (Clairon), and Ben Bliss (Flamand) in "Capriccio."

Photo © & courtesy of Ken Howard

Ben Bliss (Flamand), Craig Verm (The Count), Amanda Majeski (The Countess) and members of The Santa Fe Opera Orchestra in 'Capriccio.'

Ben Bliss (Flamand), Craig Verm (The Count), Amanda Majeski (The Countess) and members of The Santa Fe Opera Orchestra in "Capriccio."

Photo © & courtesy of Ken Howard

David Govertsen (La Roche), Joshua Hopkins (Olivier), Susan Graham (Clairon), and Craig Verm (The Count) in 'Capriccio.'

David Govertsen (La Roche), Joshua Hopkins (Olivier), Susan Graham (Clairon), and Craig Verm (The Count) in "Capriccio."

Photo © & courtesy of Ken Howard

Virginie Verrez (Erika) in 'Vanessa.'

Virginie Verrez (Erika) in "Vanessa."

Photo © & courtesy of Ken Howard

Zach Borichevsky (Anatol) and Erin Wall (Vanessa) in 'Vanessa.'

Zach Borichevsky (Anatol) and Erin Wall (Vanessa) in "Vanessa."

Photo © & courtesy of Ken Howard

Helene Schneiderman (Old Baroness) in 'Vanessa.'

Helene Schneiderman (Old Baroness) in "Vanessa."

Photo © & courtesy of Ken Howard

Zach Borichevsky (Anatol) and Virginie Verrez in 'Vanessa.'

Zach Borichevsky (Anatol) and Virginie Verrez in "Vanessa."

Photo © & courtesy of Ken Howard

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