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The Independent Culture

Building an opera house in the scrub of the northern New Mexico wilderness might have seemed like lunacy in 1956, but the Santa Fe Opera celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. It's a visceral experience; coyotes screech from dusty creeks, shafts of orange lightning crash into the mountains, the moon rises through the back of the open stage.

An eclectic audience enjoys tailgate picnics; oysters and champagne for a tuxedoed oil baron; burritos and beer for a Hispanic family in a Chevy Impala. Nose-studded students in tatty jeans rub up against diamonds and dinner jackets. World-class singers brave swelling lips, nose bleeds and dehydration from the 7,000ft elevation.

It's sometimes called the "Glyndebourne of the South-West", but the comparison makes the general director, Richard Gaddes, bristle. "Not to put Glyndebourne down, but I'm looking out at the desert," he says. "We have the mariachi band here after the season's over, Alison Krauss. Locals feel ownership of the company. It's a completely different experience."

The 2006 season opened with Anne Sofie von Otter as Carmen. The role is problematic for her, and Lars Rudolfsson's Ibsenesque directing let her down.

Tim Albery's production of The Magic Flute was at times hilarious and heartbreaking. Natalie Dessay floated her silvery top notes as Pamina, and Joshua Hopkins' young and sexy Papageno was a vocal and dramatic triumph.

In Massanet's underperformed Cinderella, Laurent Pelly's high-camp direction elicited unimaginable performances from the principals and the chorus. Joyce DiDonato shimmered in the title role.

Bruce Donnell's production of Strauss's Salome had a miscast Janice Watson as the necrophiliac temptress. The choreography was awful; and Salome's moment of sexual supremacy was reduced to a dance of seven dirty Kleenex.

The American premier of Thomas Ades' The Tempest saw a coup de théâtre from director Jonathan Kent; the chorus came up through a body of water like dripping ghosts, and Cyndia Sieden's Ariel defied vocal gravity with dog-whistle high notes.

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