You could call Hans Werner Henze's Venus and Adonis nostalgic for tapping into the now historic aesthetic of Alban Berg - expressionist hyperchromaticism and all. But the German composer's newest opera, now getting its first American performances at the Santa Fe Opera, is hardly easy listening - or watching.
Each of its three characters is portrayed by both a singer and a dancer. Although relatively conjunct, the vocal lines resist any suggestion of a conventional tune. While capable of almost impressionist beauty (at Adonis' starry transfiguration) and not really atonal, the orchestral and choral writing are highly chromatic and often densely compacted.
Librettist Hans-Ulrich Treichel's adaptation (via Shakespeare) of the Greek legend supplies a classic love triangle. Mars is in love with Venus, who is in love with Adonis. Free-spirited and elusive, the mortal youth eventually succumbs to the goddess's wooing. But with the jealous Mars enraged, Adonis is gored to death by a wild boar, after which he's transformed into a star.
Alfred Kirchner's Santa Fe staging doesn't make the audience's task any simpler. We need several of the opera's mere 70 minutes to figure out just who the dancers are and what they're doing.
The libretto gives the three singers generic names, befitting their roles in a rehearsal. But the Prima Donna, sometimes with score in hand, is singing the part of Venus, Clemente the part of Adonis, and the Hero-Player the part of Mars.
The dancers more explicitly act out the drama - and inner thoughts and fantasies. A separate vocal sextet functions as a classical chorus, setting and commenting on scenes.
Designer John Conklin puts the action in a crumbling, whitewashed loft with grimy windows and skylight. Costume designer David C. Woolard has the three principal singers in modern suits and dresses.
The riveting Alvin Ailey dancer Sarita Allen, who plays Venus, wears a (faux) breast-baring red dress. Brock vonDrehle Labrenz, the terpsichorean Adonis, wears a flimsy loincloth. Mars, in the person of Peter Mantia, is done up in a leather skirt and multidaggered helmet. The six madrigalists (the chorus) are dressed as commedia dell'arte clowns.
At the Wednesday performance, Lauren Flanigan (Prima Donna), Christopher Ventris (Clemente) and Stephen West (Hero-Player) sang their parts sturdily but without much shape or dynamic variety. The madrigalists dispensed their slithery, tight harmonies with caution.
I could imagine a sleeker, more transparent orchestral contribution, although conductor Richard Bradshaw seemed on top of things. Ron Thornhill's vivid, angular choreography was the production's most compelling feature. There may be a significant, imaginative opera here, but Santa Fe's rendering doesn't yet have its full measure.
The Santa Fe Opera will repeat Venus and Adonis at 9 p.m. Aug. 11. Call 1-800-280-4654 (toll free) or check the Santa Fe Opera Web site, www.santafeopera.org.