Santa Fe‘s opera house is a scenery-studded 800-mile drive from Los Angeles; last week it seemed like home away from home. You ran into familiar Los Angeles faces everywhere — at the operas, and at other soul-renewing gathering places by day. John Crosby, who founded the Santa Fe Opera in 1957 and ran it until two years ago, wanted it that way: an imperial entity (like Bayreuth or Salzburg) to which people made pilgrimages from beyond the mountains. When Richard Gaddes took over last year, one of his first moves was to lure the local community into discovering that, up there on the hills above town, one of the world’s great musical ventures was alive and thriving. Crosby mightn‘t have cared less.

To that end, for example, Gaddes had the supertitle system — on small screens built into the backs of the seats, as at the Met — jiggered so that, with a push of a button, the text came on in either English or Spanish. That one move, out of many community-wooings instituted by Gaddes, boosted attendance last year by something like 5,000. Before Gaddes came to Santa Fe, he had founded and run the adventurous Opera Theater of St. Louis. You could say, in fact, that Crosby and Gaddes were the co-inventors of American summer opera — not just as casual outdoor entertainment (as at the Hollywood Bowl) but as an art form with its own unique shape and impact.

I saw five operas in five nights, and was both delighted and moved on most of those nights. The season’s new work — there‘s always one — was Kaija Saariaho’s L‘Amour de Loin, about which ecstatic reports (plus a few pirated broadcast tapes) had been circulating since the work’s premiere at Salzburg in 2000. That made it the summer‘s hot-ticket item for its three scheduled performances, so much so that management was obliged to sell tickets as well to the final dress rehearsal. Reports from abroad did not exaggerate; this is a work of extraordinary power and beauty. It is a work that, furthermore, restores to the lyric stage the quality of myth and mystery, an appeal to an audience to lose itself in timeless imagery, not just the reworking of some popular movie scenario that usually passes for operatic novelty these days. It is, in other words, a genuine opera.

The text, by the Paris-based Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf, is drawn from the medieval account of the troubadour Jaufre Rudel, the Countess Clemence whom he worships from afar for her purity of heart and body, and the Pilgrim who crosses the Mediterranean as a go-between to carry messages to the separated lovers. They, at the end, are united in transfiguring death. Peter Sellars’ evocative production filled the stage with water. That not only signified the gulf separating the lovers; it also cast a rippling shimmer that gorgeously reflected Saariaho‘s deep, dark, haunting music — the orchestra wondrously enhanced by subtle interspersed electronics. There is some of Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande in the flow of the vocal lines and in the orchestral undercurrents as well. Dawn Upshaw, who has owned the role of Clemence from the beginning, gave the performance that enlarged upon everything we thought we knew about her vocal realm. Simply put, her final ironic outburst, as the dead Jaufre lies in her arms, was the stuff of sublime operatic drama.

Monica Groop — the Melisande here not many years ago — was the Pilgrim; Gerald Finley, the Troubadour; Robert Spano conducted and wove from his orchestra a fabric that you could almost feel as well as hear. In Santa Fe‘s recently rebuilt opera house, in its unreal setting high on a mountainside, one of the spectacular aspects is the sound of that orchestra in that pit. A representative from Saariaho’s publisher allowed that there would be a recording, but not right away.

On other nights there was Stephanie Blythe‘s stunning, stage-filling Isabella in a hokey but endearingly updated The Italian Girl in Algiers, with, for example, a downed airplane to replace Rossini’s shipwreck. A shapely, classical staging of Mozart‘s La Clemenza di Tito — like the Italiana, a company premiere — was brightly lit by the agile, communicative Sesto of Kristine Jepson (the Sister Helen of Opera Pacific’s hapless Dead Man Walking). Patricia Racette, the enchanting Mimi last month in the Hollywood Bowl‘s La Boheme, was similarly splendid in an otherwise ho-hum Eugene Onegin; Rodney Gilfry, who was listed as Onegin, had dropped out — a victim, perhaps, of the task of singing operatic leads at 7,500 feet above sea level; Scott Hendricks was the merely adequate replacement. Racette also filled in, on short notice but firmly in command, for the ”vocally exhausted“ Sondra Radvanovsky in a La Traviata, stodgily conducted by John Crosby with all the standard-issue cuts: the cabalettas for Alfredo and Giorgio and the second stanzas of familiar arias.

For the first time since 1977, there was no opera by Richard Strauss; the scheduled Liebe der Danae was dropped — expensive production vs. traveling caution — after 911. The loss will be atoned for next season with a revival of Intermezzo. In his 40-plus years of imperial leadership, Crosby had imposed a distinctive image on the company: Strauss up the bazooty, relatively little Verdi, even less Wagner, a generous but selective attention to latter-day repertory (Stravinsky, Henze and the American premieres of Berg’s Lulu in both the two- and three-act versions).

Gaddes‘ plans aim at even broader horizons. Next summer’s list also includes Bright Sheng‘s Madame Mao in its world premiere. There are plans to further integrate the opera company into city life with winter performances in the downtown movie theater that has become Santa Fe’s performing-arts center. Part of the pleasure in journeying to Santa Fe from beyond the mountains is the chance to watch the steady taking-shape of a music consciousness there, a nice counterpoint to the plethora of art galleries and local crafts that have always made the place unique. For this the majestic Crosby can take his share of credit. So, now, can Gaddes. Last year Mayor Larry Delgado, himself an opera lover at least as far up the scale as Carmen, proclaimed a Richard Gaddes Day. John Crosby would have been horrified.

LA Weekly