Maometto II/King Roger/Arabella, Santa Fe Opera

The Santa Fe Opera’s season this year is unusually stimulating, thanks in large measure to gripping productions of two deserving operas that have long had ardent champions. Szymanowski’s opulently expressionistic King Roger has stunned audiences in several venues of late, while Rossini’s grandly tragic Maometto II has had less currency, the present revival having been stimulated by a new critical edition.

In treating the Turkish sultan Maometto’s siege of the Venetian city of Negroponte, this opera from Rossini’s rich Neapolitan period shows an unexpected side to a composer celebrated for his comedies. A tragic aura pervades the entire work, achieved by a richly expressive musical vocabulary and an unusual amount of through-composed writing working in tandem with musical numbers of unusual length. David Alden’s production has some idiosyncrasies, such as a witch-like figure who wonders about while holding a skull, but it makes something of the east-west cultural clash and above all allows the human drama to unfold forcefully.

Jon Morrell’s set depicts the walls of the city, which the bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni, heading a strong if imperfect cast as Maometto, breaks through in a spectacular entrance. He goes on to give an equally spectacular performance that recalls Samuel Ramey in his prime. As Anna, daughter of the Negroponte commander, the promising soprano Leah Crocetto has moments of vocal edginess but rises grippingly to the challenge of her extended final scene, in which Anna chooses suicide over submission to the lustful Maometto.

A debut performance of a new critical edition ought to reveal the subject opera in pristine scholarly form, but unfortunately there are cuts here, and loud, unwritten high notes from the singers to conclude numbers go against the opera’s tone. Frédéric Chaslin, Santa Fe’s chief conductor, brings out the score’s dramatic intensity.

King Roger (sung in Polish) is one of those operas from the 1920s that can strike some as over the top, yet it draws listeners in just as surely as its mysterious Shepherd (Dionysus in disguise) captivates the inhabitants of 12th-century Sicily. In pitting the Shepherd against insecure King Roger, the opera retells Euripides’ Bacchae while omitting its lurid violence. Stephen Wadsworth’s probing production finds King Roger troubled from the start, mistrustful of his wife Roxana and appalled yet fascinated by the Shepherd. Characters sometimes communicate simply by looking into each other’s eyes.

The richness of Thomas Lynch’s décor and Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes serves as a visual analogue to Szymanowski’s glittering score while emphasising that Szymanowski chose the Sicilian setting because of its cultural breadth. The baritone Mariusz Kwiecien gives a towering performance as King Roger, whose turbulent psychological journey concludes with a paean to the sun and achievement of peace with himself. Szymanowski invested the Shepherd with vocal lines of seductive appeal, which William Burden sings persuasively. Erin Morley, in lovely, resonant voice, is excellent as Roxana. The stylistically multifarious score, luxuriant in the extreme, unfolds lucidly yet vibrantly under the direction of Evan Rogister, a young conductor on the rise.

Strong leadership on the podium is basic to Santa Fe’s successful summer. In Strauss’s Arabella Andrew Davis achieves clear textures in music notable for orchestral complexity. Heading a well-balanced cast that includes Heidi Stober (Zdenka) and Mark Delavan (Mandryka), Erin Wall is not the most glamorous of Arabellas, but her voice is warm and her phrasing alluring. Tim Albery’s direction makes a fine ensemble of the cast so that even talky sequences following the discovery of Arabella’s supposed infidelity have tension. Both he and Davis respect the opera’s whiff of nostalgia, which helps give the musical high points a bittersweet tinge.

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