Opera opens with breathtaking performance

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Special to the Monitor

On June 28, The Santa Fe Opera opened its season with “The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein,” a French operetta by Jacques Offenbach. This is an entertaining piece full of wonderful choreography, beautiful costumes and solid musicians.

The fact that this is an operetta rather than an opera may be deceptive to some opera-goers, but take note: This is not a short work. 

At just over three hours, this piece is definitely a full evening at the opera; however, Offenbach’s work is so entertaining that the audience doesn’t notice the time until the third act, at which point the story drags a bit. This doesn’t really detract from the overall experience, though, and Duchess is well worth attending for any fan of Opéra Bouffe. 

This work also consists of French music and English dialogue. The humor and general naughtiness in Lee Blakeley’s dialogue is enjoyable and suits this particular production very well.

Emmanuel Villaume, the conductor, does an admirable job of keeping everything together. Opening night for many operas can spell disaster, especially when a company has this many people and this much movement, and aside from one or two places where singers seemed a bit sluggish when starting off, the opera is seamless. 

Susan Graham, a Roswell native, plays the title character with panache. In the second act there is an opportunity for Graham to show off her skillful phrasing and perfect French diction in the aria “Dites-lui qu’on l’a remarqué.”  The entire audience was silent from the moment Graham started to sing, and her aria was delicate and breathtaking.

Anya Matanovič, the soprano who sings the role of Wanda, is a perfect match for Paul Appleby’s Fritz, and their voices sound fantastic together. Appleby’s relaxed acting and personality add depth to his role, and Matanovič’s facial expressions as she watches the Duchess attempt to steal her man read extremely well, without ever being overdone.

Jonathan Michie delivers a standout performance as Prince Paul. Michie is a silly, creepy Prince, with an expressive face and a gift for physical comedy. His voice has a mellow richness along with nice flexibility. 

Kevin Burdette’s constantly frustrated General Boum and Aaron Pegram’s subtle but tremendously effective Baron Puck fill out this trio of talented singers who excel at their physically demanding roles.

The chorus in this production seems enormous. The choreographer, Peggy Hickey, ensures that disorder never happens, along with staging the most athletic opera one could hope to see. 

The gymnastics and dancing are gorgeous, and the costumes highlight the choreography well, especially Prince Paul’s fantastic suit. 

This opera is funny, artistic and highly accessible for people of all ages and dispositions who aren’t easily bothered by a little risqué humor and a light political undertone. 

These are a normal part of Offenbach’s work and are tasteful and unobtrusive. For a light evening at the opera with music, dancing, and all sorts of surprises that keep the audience entertained and engaged, Duchess is a perfect choice.