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Strange Scenic Appendages At Santa Fe

July 28, 2009

The Santa Fe Opera Festival does things so right. In one respect though, my few days of opera-going at the Festival last week were marred by the sudden and unexpected intrusion of extreme wrongness in the shape of misguided scenery.

In Chas Rader-Shieber's production of Don Giovanni starring Lucas Meachem, blood red paint boldly turned what would otherwise have been idyllic, old-fashioned provincial village scenery into something artfully demonic. But the effect was ruined in the final scene when scenic designer David Zinn decided to introduce enormous cupboards which protruded from the stage like strange Martian growths. The cupboards opened up to reveal an eerie white light like something out of a science fiction film. When Don Giovanni made his final exit by jumping into one of the cupboards I couldn't help but laugh. Not sure this was the desired effect.

Chantal Thomas' powerful set design for Laurent Pelly's production of La Traviata starring Natalie Dessay followed a similar pattern. I was completely sucked in by the set overall -- a series of granite coffin-like boxes layered on top of each other which reminded me strongly of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. Death ingeniously hung over the production throughout the party scenes thanks to Thomas' scenic theme. But in Act 2 Scene 1 set in Violetta's country house, Thomas introduced one of the ugliest bits of scenery I've ever seen -- a lumpish, fake grassy green knoll. Not only was the snot-like appendage an eyesore, but it also made no sense in terms of the plot. Violetta and Alfredo are supposed to be living beyond their means at this point in the story. But the pastoral schtick spoke of "the simple life", especially as played out by Dessay and Saimir Pirgu as Alfredo, dressed as they were in unadorned, frumpy country garb.

Then there was the Hildegard Bechtler's set design for Jonathan Kent's production of Paul Moravec and Terry Teachout's new opera, The Letter, which left much to be desired all the way through. Bechtler recreated the 1930s colonial look through lots of bland, off-white interiors, which trundled endlessly on and off-stage hampering the pace of the action. Flapping muslin curtains to one side of the proscenium created a fine sense of balmy nights in the jungle as well as a supernatural feel to the piece, which enhanced Teachout and Moravec's ghostly reading of Somerset Maugham's more prosaic original short story and stage play. But the effect was over-used. It also unhelpfully obscured the big opening moment where Patricia Racette as Leslie Crosbie shoots and kills her lover.

Maybe the services of a production dramaturg would be helpful to root out these scenic misfires...

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