Nicholas Newton (L) and Ryan Speedo Green. Photo: Curtis Brown.
Mané Galoyan and Bekhzod Davronov (Alfredo Germont). Photo: Curtis Brown

Santa Fe Opera Opening Weekend 2024

La Traviata and Don Giovanni

Written by:
Michael Wade Simpson
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The life-force of high desert New Mexico—summer monsoon rains— almost always begins on opening weekend of the Santa Fe Opera, and this year was no exception. I was sweating in my suit on Opening Night for “La Traviata” and got soaked running from the parking lot to the Crosby Theater on Saturday night, for “Don Giovanni.” The rain started out picturesquely then got increasingly more tempestuous, with heavy showers, wind and a 20 degree drop in temperature. The theatre is open-air but covered; still, shivering in a wet outfit was no fun. All that is to say that I bailed on Act II.

I will not be discussing the end of Don Giovanni but would be remiss not to give Rachel Fitzgerald, who played Donna Anna, a big huzzah. Fitzgerald, who is an Apprentice Singer and understudy, stepped in for Teresa Perrotta (who withdrew for personal reasons) and nailed the role of Donna Anna. She sounded authoritative, with a full-bodied soprano voice, and her attention at understudy rehearsals paid off, as she was able to step right into the blocking and direction without a hint of insecurity. Bravo!

A word about Mozart operas. I generally find them about two hours too long. Perhaps it is a brain addled by handheld devices, but the most radical thing a director could do is not to reset the piece in Dickensian London (as this production has) but to make some liberal cuts. They do it to Shakespeare. Create a 90-minute greatest hits without the need for a plot.

“La Traviata” is a very straightforward story: courtesan with consumption falls in love with someone out of her league, but it’s too late anyway. “Don Giovanni’s” serpentine plot, on the other hand, finds Don Juan, the infamous lover, raping his way through London (in this case), collecting a rag-tag group of victims and haters. Eight main characters chase around in a funny/sad world marked by disguises, murder, vengeance, ghosts, love, marriage and hell. Which is not to say there aren’t moments of humor—that would be offered by the sidekick character, Leporello, fabulously played as a sympathetic clown by Nicholas Newton. In any case, that’s a lot of singing. Three-and-a-half hours worth.

In “Traviata,” the tragic, female lead, Violetta, was beautifully sung by Mané Galoyan, whose tone seemed to distill itself through the evening, into something very clear, very sad, and very beautiful. Her final aria “Addio del Passato” (A Farewell to the Past) was simple and stunning. While never looking physically like a dying waif, Galoyan is a convincing actress and pulled-off the director’s conceit—of a dying woman looking back at her life, extremely well.

Traviata also had a casting change. Alfredo Daza, from Mexico, stepped in as Georgio Germont, the father/bad guy, for Carlos Arámbula, who also resigned for personal reasons. A thankless role, Daza was not particularly successful vocally, a hooded tone caused his character to seem a little like Biden at his ill-fated debate—not particularly convincing in authority or delivery.

The young lover Alfredo Germont was sung by Bekhzod Davronov, a tenor from Uzbekistan. This was his debut in the role, and he sounded strong. Less convincing was his portrayal of a character who can one minute be happily in love with his fallen woman and then, not long afterwards, feeling cast aside (incorrectly), turn and insult her publicly. One wants to feel sympathy for a man who would do that, but perhaps it was really Violetta’s fault.

Perhaps the shortened version of Don Giovanni (still to be written) will also need to reconsider things in light of the “Me Too” movement. Granted, he does go to Hell at the end, but, Mozart music or not, the funny haha attitude taken toward the acts of a serial rapist is, to use another political allusion, like Donald Trump rationalizing his affair w Stormy Daniels. Trump as Don Juan? He wishes.

Set designers (Christopher Oram for Traviata and Yannis Thavoris for Don Giovanni) had interesting ideas about how to deal with the open-air theater’s lack of fly-space and wings. A giant turntable for Traviata revolved throughout, offering efficient set changes from bedroom, to ballroom, to country house in as quickly as a few bars of melody. Thavoris’ set for DG was built like a book with pages opening onto different scenes. The most striking image came at the beginning, in Don Giovanni’s study, where a wall of portraits of him in red, lined the walls. This was about the closest the production came to suggesting “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” which apparently inspired Stephen Barlow, the stage director.

If anyone cares, three of the major male roles in Don Giovanni were played by African-American men, possibly a first at Santa Fe Opera. The previously mentioned Nicholas Newton brought heart to the opera in his portrayal of Leporello. Soloman Howard, as Il Commendatore was quickly finished off in Act I, and I didn’t get a chance to hear him come back to life at the end. Ryan Speedo Green, who recently sang Charles in “Fire Shut Up My Bones” at the Metropolitan Opera was vocally impressive as Don Giovanni. As a lover/villain he was more of the bass/baritone/lover/villain with music winning out over acting in general. He was effectively evil but less effective as a seducer. However, Newton’s sympathetic Leporello meshed well with Green—they seemed to have a genuine relationship of mutual respect as twisted as that might sound.

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