“Die Fledermaus” is a waltzy, party of an oper(etta). “The Golden Cockerel,” less familiar, is based on a Russian fable, and features a Tsar in a fat suit and a vision of Donald Trump. Both productions, at Santa Fe Opera’s 2017 summer season, have offered opportunities for the costume shop to go wild. If the two productions are less meaty than “Lucia di Lammermoor,” less experimental than “The (r)evolution of Steve Jobs,” and not at all harpsichordy, like “Alcina,” they are designed to be crowd-pleasers. Lightness and humor go a long way to making opera accessible to a summer audience.
Both also feature plots which are comically cumbersome. “Fledermaus” has its second act costume party, which is a pretext for mistaken identities, and an opportunity for the characters to misbehave. The rest is a set-up and wrap-up. In “The Golden Cockerel,” there is an army in search of a battle it never finds. Musically, the Johann Strauss II score in the former, and the Rimsky-Korsakov exoticism of the later, paint color and drama in broad strokes, like the costuming. The singers add their own life and beauty to all this bright-colored entertainment.
Susan Graham, in the pants-role of Prince Orlosvsky in Fledermaus, is a trickster in drag, having fun onstage at the costume ball. In the operetta format there is an excess of speaking, but at least Graham is offered the opportunity to play with her lines, through her character’s witty mispronunciations and word-play. When the talking and comedy dominate the music in the third act, things begin to bog down. Still, it is the presence of some of the most romantic waltzes of the day which redeem the wordy excesses of the show.
Graham does not have the showier vocal parts, these belong to Jane Archibald, as the maid who sneaks into the party, and Devon Guthrie, as her mistress, both sopranos of considerable power and beauty. Of the men, Kurt Streit, as Gabriel von Essenstein, was convincing both vocally and dramatically. Too much stage-craft and attempted comedy can sometimes get in the way of singers singing, but this was not the case here. Joshua Hopkins, as the dramatic ringleader at the party, had his tenor voice out in good stead. Dimitri Pittas, as an Italian opera singer cliché, was more marginally effective, required to buffoon himself at the mercy of the plot.
Costumes here, by Zack Brown and Christianne Myers, offered sherbet-colored gowns for the sopranos, handsome suiting for the men, and Hugh Hefner-style pajamas for the Prince, who was constantly changing her facial hair. There was a madcap tone to the costumes and behavior at the party, with same-sex coupling, women in spa robes and towel turbans, and ballerinas who sprang out to add some flash. Conductor Nicholas Carter kept things sprightly and the chorus brought full-throated fun to the proceedings. Director Ned Canty seems to possess a good sense of comic staging and a knack for crowd-control, but his decision to have Kevin Burdette, in the non-singing role of the jailer Frosch, bump around an awkward Act III jail set for extended periods of Charlie Chaplin-style physical comedy was not as successful.
The set of the “Golden Cockerel” featured an impressively huge arc of translucent material which reminded me of a ramp at a skateboard park. Projections by Driscoll Otto were no mere atmospheric suggestions here, they were animations which played a major dramatic role in the opera. The Cockerel only appeared on-screen (while Kasia Borowiec sang the part offstage), as did approaching armies and views of the city where Tsar Dodon attempted to rule from his bed. Wearing a fat suit, Tim Mix, as the Tsar, was able to carry off the comedy of the role, which was more Russian-sardonic than Fledermaus-style slapstick. Here Kevin Burdette, as General Polkan, got to sing and be silly. His beheading was somewhat a dramatic relief.
Soprano Venera Gimadieva, from Tatarstan, Russia, brought considerable power to her vocals, throwing out sky-high notes while simultaneously showing skin. Her Act II aria was a feat of endurance, but also of acting. The lengthy strip-tease and seduction she performed (surrounded by a bevy of chorines with white ostrich feathers) had convincing eroticism. With charm and wry smile, she offered an impressive star-turn.
Here, the costumes included brocade robes in a rainbow of earthy colors for the townspeople, and humorously exaggerated outfits for the leads, including purple beards, woven battle-wear, and a Trumpian fashion shocker at the end. The Astrologer, sung in an appropriately weird tone by tenor Barry Banks, was Andy Warhol in a wig and sunglasses, and Gimadieva’s turquoise gown and headdress in Act II were a shot of color in a battlefield of army brown.
Special mention goes to Meredith Arwady, as the babushka sidekick to the Tsar. Her joyfully low contralto notes were offered from an actress constantly scurrying around like the mother hen to a stage-full of peons and palace full of idiots.
The humor of “Golden Cockerel” is offered with a Russian sense of dread, a political metaphor in the time of Alexander Pushkin, but all too perfect in a current political situation which also features general malaise, at least for some of the populace. The ending of the opera, basically a wry wink at the audience, seemed momentarily baffling, but ultimately logical.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s music had delicious Scheherazade lushness in moments, as well as some lovely, church-like chorale passages for peasants, soldiers, and fan dancers, in different sections. As the Tsar, Mix, who replaced Eric Owens in the bass-baritone lead, was effective but not as vocally and dramatically impressive as Owens is said to be in this particular role. Gimadieva clearly relished the diva aspects of her part, had no problem singing in her skivvies, and grew wicked, delighting in her First Lady pantsuit at the finale. It would be a pleasure to watch her tear into heavier role.