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After the tepid reception given to the world premiere of Tan Dun’s The First Emperor at the Metropolitan Opera last December, the American premiere of his Tea: A Mirror of Soul by the Santa Fe Opera looked to be a ho-hum event. Yet at the very least Tea, treated to a stunning production, emerged as a notably more satisfying specimen of Tan Dun’s idiosyncratic form of opera. The Chinese-born, American-trained composer combines eastern and western elements from an oriental perspective that draws on Beijing-style opera. At the Met he took a more traditional narrative approach, which was hampered by a clumsy libretto about a dictator’s quest for a national anthem.

Tea deals evocatively with a simpler subject: the ill-fated love between the Japanese Prince Seikyo and the Chinese Princess Lan, which arouses the fierce opposition of her brother. Conflict between Seikyo and the brother crystallises in a dispute over the authenticity of a source of knowledge called The Book of Tea. They duel, and Lan is accidentally killed by her brother. The story proved fit material for Tan Dun’s ritualistically stylised musical dramaturgy, with its sparse textures, austere vocal melismas, hints of neo-Romanticism, startling percussive rhythms and other diverse sounds – some watery, some even produced by crinkling paper. Still, there is something ersatz about the way Tan Dun’s operas behave as if creations from a distant past, and the music often seems facile. Further, in Tea there is more than a bit of hokum in the libretto – for a start, the purported philosophical implications of tea.

Tan Dun’s vocal writing, especially for soprano, sometimes requires an almost bel canto refinement, to which Kelly Kaduce, as Lan, responded superbly. Haijing Fu’s strong baritone and Roger Honeywell’s clarion tenor made for formidable adversaries, with notable contributions from Nancy Maultsby and Christian van Horn under Lawrence Renes’ informed baton. The new production – Tea’s first since its 2002 Tokyo premiere – finds the director Amon Miyamoto coping effectively with the opera’s slow pace and a stage picture (sets by Rumi Matsui, costumes by Masatomo Ora) that conjures up an elaborate vision of the ancient Orient, shrouded in mystery by Rick Fisher’s lighting.

Tea is part of a strong season of opera in the desert of America’s south west, Santa Fe’s first since Richard Gaddes, whose service goes back to 1969, announced his retirement as general director. It brought the company’s first Rameau staging. One mildly regretted the choice of Platée, already the subject of successful American productions, instead of a tragédie lyrique. But regrets dissipated before the madcap verve of Laurent Pelly’s production, which, like his 2003 Belle Hélène here, represented a new take on an opera he previously staged in Paris.

Rameau’s comedy about an ugly water nymph deluded into thinking she is the object of Jupiter’s eye is set here in a theatre (designer: Chantal Thomas) – first the stalls, later backstage – tinged with green algae. Laura Scozzi’s breathtakingly athletic choreography supplies dazzling diversion from the cruelty at the story’s heart, but the main action too was amusing, as Jupiter woos Platée in the guise of an ass, later an owl. As Platée, a touchstone role for the baroque French tenor, the much-esteemed Jean-Paul Fouchécourt delighted in Platée’s self-assurance, although his soft-grained voice was not ideal for the more brilliant music. By contrast, Heidi Stober, clad in a gown made of pages from musical scores (costumes by Pelly), scored with a comically aggressive performance of Folly’s glittering Act 2 “ariette”. Norman Reinhardt’s fine lyric tenor graced the music of Thespis and Mercury, with David Pittsinger in droll form and robust voice as Cithéron. Harry Bicket, conducting securely, delighted in the score’s onomatopoetic imitations of creatures of the swamp.

In contrast to Pelly, Mark Lamos brought few novel touches to Strauss’s Daphne, which returned for the third time since its 1964 American premiere here. Allen Moyer’s set consists of a bare stage with a leafy tree. Yet the simple approach worked efficiently enough, especially for Daphne’s moving transformation into a tree: she disappeared amid the on-stage tree’s branches while couples gathered round, at first watching in awe, then apparently resuming the Dionysian rites that the god Apollo disrupted – a carnal experience Daphne would never know. Erin Wall sang the title role beautifully in pure, resonant tones. Strauss, famous for his daunting tenor roles, created two for Daphne’s would-be lovers. Santa Fe cast from strength with Scott MacAllister (Apollo) and especially the fresh-voiced Garrett Sorenson (Leukippos). Kenneth Montgomery, Santa Fe’s acting music director, upheld the august Straussian credentials established long ago by its founder, John Crosby.

Puccini’s La bohème boasts a sparkling Musetta by the Cardiff “Singer of the World” (2005) soprano Nicole Cabell and a hugely promising Rodolfo from the tenor Dimitri Pittas. She was in lovely, creamy voice and, abetted by her svelte figure, was every inch the endearing flirt. He has a sound that combines ring and liquid beauty, and he phrased stylishly. As Mimì, Serena Farnocchia displayed an attractively focused soprano but her singing needed greater warmth and fluency.

Paul Curran’s staging was updated so subtly, some may not have realised it. One tell-tale sign was the Act Two parade, with tricolour waving and Musetta out in front as if she had stepped into Delacroix’s painting: the time is the first world war, and the point is to extrapolate from Mimì’s case and touch on the fragility of young lives generally.

A search for a new general director is now under way but Santa Fe already has a new chief conductor-designate: Edo de Waart. In a sense, de Waart succeeds Alan Gilbert, Santa Fe’s first music director, who resigned in the spring en route to being appointed music director of the New York Philharmonic.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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