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Tucson Weekly Singing Praises

While Opera Elsewhere In The Country Is Struggling, The Lights Are Bright In Santa Fe.

By Robert Baird

AUGUST 3, 1998:  IN 1957 MORE, than a few people thought John Crosby was more than a little loco. Opera on a ranch in New Mexico? Would New Yorkers and other opera literati actually come to a state known for stuffed sopapillas and building the atomic bomb?

Forty-two seasons later, Crosby's idiosyncratic vision is alive, well and in a league with Salzburg, Glyndebourne and the other great summer opera festivals thanks in part to a gleaming new theatre.

Without casting too many aspersions on this season's repertoire, the star of the 42nd season of the Santa Fe Opera is not what occurs onstage, but the stage itself. The opera's new digs--a $19.5-million renovation of it's celebrated hilltop outdoor theatre just north of Santa Fe--feature a raft of improvements.

For those hardy souls who cherished the old days of opera under the stars--or more likely, a howling summer monsoon--it's time to bid adieu to your poncho and golf umbrella: A large, swooping roof now covers all the seats. That roof, faced on the inside with narrow wooden slats, and aided sonically by 10 acoustic reflectors over the stage, has also improved the sound, even for those in the back of the balcony. Now when the rain beats down you can still hear the music. The sides of the theatre are still open, so the al fresco experience is preserved.

Most importantly, the back of the stage remains open so that on clear nights the lights of Los Alamos can still be seen twinkling in the distance. The theatre has also been enlarged by 237 seats for a grand total of 2,126. Three productions attended this season indicate the opera is having no trouble filling those extra seats.

Other creature comforts include 37 new toilets, an elevator, a walk-in gift shop, and three full-service bars. Sunsets can now be viewed from the Stravinsky Plaza, named, of course, for the composer who always had a special place in his heart for the little opera lost in the land of enchantment.

Behind and above the stage, there's a new computerized lighting system, a new network of catwalks (the old ones would have challenged even the scrawniest alley cat), two emergency generators for when storms knock the power out, and finally--lest we forget we're in the Southwest's self-proclaimed City Different ("Fanta Se" to locals)--an earth-friendly water harvesting system which gathers raindrops in large tanks for later use in watering the opera grounds.

Designed by John Stewart Polschek (of Polschek & Partners Architects, in New York), the new opera house (the third on this site since the first opened in 1958) is a striking, white mast-and-rod structure whose lines are from a distance more than a little reminiscent of the new Denver airport. There is also what can only be described as a moat of water ringing the orchestra pit.

Prior to the 1999 season, the theatre will receive one last tweak: the grandly named "electronic libretto system." Instead of projecting English translations over the stage à la the Arizona Opera, this $2-million system will project titles on small screens affixed to the backs of the seats, much like the system now in use at New York's Metropolitan Opera.

Although many opera patrons hoped for a season whose risks matched the verve of the new theatre, the 1998 lineup is a fairly typical Santa Fe-style mix: a bread-and-butter Italian classic (Madame Butterfly); a broadly appealing Mozart entry (The Magic Flute); the obligatory Strauss (Salome)--John Crosby is a huge fan; a mild curveball (Berlioz' Beatrice and Benedict); and an American premiere (Ingvar Lidholm's A Dream Play).

The last opera to open before press time was Berlioz' Beatrice and Benedict, which is based on the Shakespearean comedy Much Ado About Nothing. As is often the case with the SF Opera, this less-than-standard selection emerges as the season's champ so far. Brilliantly conducted by Dutch maestro Edo de Waart, this production sparkled. Tim Albery's direction was nuanced and light, with many smiles and more than a few outright chuckles. The voices were outstanding: Beautiful and talented soprano Elizabeth Futral is simply one of the opera world's brightest up-and-coming stars. In the lead role, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham affected a horsiness perfectly suited to this tomboy-like role.

The set design by Antony McDonald (who also did The Magic Flute) deserves special mention. He takes considerable risks (or liberties, depending on how traditional you like your opera). Non-traditionalists will appreciate his artistry as both visually striking and innovatively versatile. Overall, Beatrice and Benedict was an attractive, effervescent production.

Richard Strauss' Salome opened July 25 with soprano Helen Field in the title role, and Crosby conducting; and Lidholm's A Dream Play opens on August 1, starring American soprano Sylvia McNair.

Tickets for the Santa Fe Opera range from $15 to $118 and are available by calling 1-800-280-4654. For more information on lodging, dining and places of interest, contact the Santa Fe Convention and Visitors' Bureau at 1-800-777-2489.

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