Opera Santa Barbara is on a roll this season, offering uplifting programs that please audiences while revealing the potential of inter-organizational collaboration to enrich our performing arts community. The El amor brujo of Manuel De Falla is mostly ballet, but with an expressive operatic element provided by the mezzo-soprano soloist, a role sung in this production by Nina Yoshida Nelsen. The curtain opens on two performers playing one character — Nelsen as the voice of the conflicted protagonist, Candelas, and State Street Ballet’s Ahna Lipchik as her dancing embodiment. Thanks to Stacie Logue’s costume design, this twinning was both easy to see and delightful.
The inventive and lucid staging by director Layna Chianakas meshed beautifully with Cecily MacDougall’s breathtaking choreography. As the dueling love interests, Carmelo and Spectre, Tanner Blee and Ryan Lenkey were mesmerizing, proving that athleticism can enhance emotional characterization. Deise Mendonça made a splendid Lucia, and the overall experience of the choreography was profoundly satisfying — El amor brujo could be a textbook example of a story best told through dance. Nelsen’s arias brought out the extreme range of styles that De Falla was capable of at the height of his creative powers. To the State Street Ballet team that took on this bold assignment, “music sounds better with you.”
In less than no further ado, Steven Kemp’s engaging and multidimensional set became the deck of a French cargo barge for the opening scene of Il tabarro. This thrilling tableau of a male chorus unloading a giant net full of sacks while a lone soprano protagonist pondered her fate set the tone for the next hour’s rapid escalation of feeling and incident. As Giorgetta, the conflicted heroine, Alaysha Fox gave a gripping performance. Harold Meers delivered an equally convincing portrait of a man caught in something comparable to that big cargo net as her lover, Luigi.
Every opera should have a brilliant role for a mezzo-soprano, and Il tabarro is no exception. As La Frugola, the chatty wife of Talpa (Benjamin Lowe), Nina Yoshida Nelsen laid the fertile imaginative and musical soil out of which Giorgetta and Luigi’s deadly dream of urban escape flowered only to die. Finally, this Halloween holiday classic came complete with a dark villain, the murderous Michele, sung by the brilliant baritone Todd Thomas. Congratulations to Opera Santa Barbara and its artistic and general director Kostis Protopapas on presenting one of the season’s most significant highlights with this remarkable double feature.