Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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In Quest of High Drama in Early 19th Century Opera – September 2015 to March 2016

May 24th, 2015

Often, the early 19th century operas of Verdi are dismissed as merely vehicles to display the technical vocal skills of artists, with little attention to the operatic “plots”. However, modern directors, many with long experience with the theater, have found that the early operas of Verdi and his predecessors Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini have much to offer dramatically as well as musically.

Below is a list of performances of selected early 19th century Italian operas that I am scheduled to review in productions created or staged by such formidable theatrical talents as Francesca Zambello, Michael Cavanaugh, Anne Bogart and Kevin Newbury:


This list is supplementary to previous lists in this “Quests and Anticipations” series of selected operas being performed from June 2015 through February 2016:

Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” at the Glimmerglass Festival, San Francisco Opera and Los Angeles Opera and Mozart’s “La Finta Giardiniera at the Santa Fe Opera [See In Quest of Mozart Operatic Magic – July 2015 to March 2016.]

Tutino’s “Two Women (La Ciociara)” at the San Francisco Opera, Higdon’s “Cold Mountain” at the Santa Fe Opera, Heggie’s “Great Scott” at The Dallas Opera and Adamo’s “Becoming Santa Claus” at The Dallas Opera [See In Quest of Operatic World Premieres – June-December, 2015.]

Bernstein’s “Candide” at the Glimmerglass Festival and Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” at the San Francisco Opera [See In Quest of American “Opera Repertory-Expanding” Musical Works, March-September, 2015.]

Donizetti’s “La Fille du Regiment” at the Santa Fe Opera, Verdi’s “Macbeth” at the Glimmerglass Festival and Verdi’s “Nabucco” at the Seattle Opera [See In Quest of Donizetti and Early Verdi – March 2015 through August 2015.]

Richard Strauss’ “Salome” at the Santa Fe Opera and Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger” at the San Francisco Opera [See In Quest of Operas by Wagner and Richard Strauss: March-November, 2015.

Verdi’s “Rigoletto” at the Santa Fe Opera [See In Quest of Popular Verdi Operas – October 2014 to Summer 2015.]

Berlioz’ “The Trojans (Les Troyens) at the San Francisco Opera, and Vivaldi’s “Cato in Utica” at the Glimmerglass Festival [See In Quest of Less Well-Known Operas – February to August, 2015.]

Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” at the San Francisco Opera and Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro at the San Francisco Opera and the Houston Grand Opera [See In Quest of “Figaro” Operas – February 2015 through February 2016.]



Luisa Miller (Verdi), San Francisco Opera, September 11, 16, 19, 22, 25 and 27(m), 2015.

Francesca Zambello’s 2000 production of Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” is revived for the opening of San Francisco Opera’s 2015-16 season.

[Below: the hunting scene in the 2000 San Francisco Opera production of “Luisa Miller”; resized image of a production photograph for the San Francisco Opera.]


The revival is staged by Laurie Feldman and stars Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo and Leah Crocetto as Luisa. Ukraianian baritone Vitaliy Bilyy is Miller, Rafal Siwek is Conte Gualtiero. Andrea Silvestrelli is Wurm and Ekaterina Semenchuk is Frederica.

Nicola Luisotti conducts. The sets are by Michael Yeargan, the costumes by Dunya Ramicova.


Lucia di Lammermoor (Donizetti), San Francisco Opera, October 8, 11(m), 13, 16, 21, 24 and 28, 2015.

A new production has been created for San Francisco by Michael Cavanagh and Erhard Rom whose mountings of Floyd’s “Susannah” for San Francisco Opera and Adams’ “Nixon in China” for Vancouver Opera (seen also in San Francisco) are in the forefront of the use of computer projections to enhance the theatrical experience.

[Below: Diana Damrau as Lucia di Lammermoor in the 2014 New York Metropolitan Opera performances of Mary Zimmerman’s production; edited image of a production photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Diana Damrau and Piotr Beczala return as Lucia and Edgardo. Baritone Brian Mulligan (Cavanagh’s Nixon for San Francisco) is Enrico. Nicolas Teste debuts as Raimondo.

Nicola Luisotti conducts. Mattie Ullrich designs the costumes.


Norma (Bellini), Los Angeles Opera, November 21, 29(m), December 2, 5 10 and 13(m), 2015. 

I have reported on Anne Bogart’s production of “Norma” for Angela Meade [See Legend Making at the Kennedy Center: Angela Meade’s First Norma – Washington National Opera, March 9, 2013] as I have on the performances of Jamie Barton as Adalgisa and Russell Thomas as Pollione [See A Second Look: “Norma” at the San Francisco Opera – September 14, 2014.]

[Below: Norma’s priestesses in the 2013 Anne Bogart production of “Norma” for Washington National Opera; resized image of a production photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]


The Los Angeles Opera imports Washington National Opera’s Bogart production with a cast that includes Meade, Barton and Thomas, as well as the distinguished basso Morris Robinson as Oroveso.

Neil Patel created the sets, James Schuette the costumes. James Conlon conducts.


Maria Stuarda (Mary Stuart), Seattle Opera, February 27, 28(m), March 2, 5, 9, 11 and 12, 2016.

Seattle Opera double-casts major roles in its opera productions. Donizetti’s opera is based on Schiller’s Romantic Era drama about an imagined in-person confronation between Protestant Queen Elizabeth I and Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots.

The title role has attracted the great 20th and 21st century divas. Seattle Opera has cast Serena Farnocchia and Joyce El-Khoury as Maria and Mary Elizabeth Williams and Keri Alkema as Elisabetta and John Tessier and Andrew Owens as Leicester.

I have reported on Farnocchia’s Liu in Munich and her Donna Elvira in San Francisco, but relevant is her creditable performance as Maria Stuarda [See The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Stephen Lawless’ “Maria Stuarda” in Toronto – May 4, 2010.] El-Khoury’s successes in the Donizetti repertory suggests that those able to sample both casts should find the effort rewarding.

Singing all performances is Weston Hurt as Talbot, Michael Todd Simpson as Cecil and Renee Rapier as Anna.

[Below: Director Kevin Newbury; edited image of a promotional photograph for the Bard (New York) Festival.]


The sets are Neil Patel’s and the costumes are Jessica Jahn’s from the Minnesota Opera, but Seattle Opera’s director will be Kevin Newbury, whose work in staging both contemporary operas (including world premieres for San Francisco Opera and Santa Fe Opera) and early 19th century Italian works I have admired. Carlo Montanaro conducts.

Tags: Quests and Anticipations

Don Giovanni in Bohemia: How the Community of Prague Assured Mozart’s Last Four Operas

May 16th, 2015

Note from William: In celebration of the 50th anniersary of the San Diego Opera, I will be re-printing program notes that the opera company commissioned me to write. The fifth of these, re-printed with the kind permission of the copyright holder, the San Diego Opera, will be the program notes for their February 2014 performances of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”.



Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s two greatest operas – “The Marriage of Figaro: (1786) and :Don Giovanni” (1787) – were created midway between two tumultuous challenges to the “old order” that existed in the late 18th century – Great Britain’s final defeat in 1781 in its war to retain its American colonies and the French Revolution (1789).

It is far from inevitable that Mozart would have composed either opera. The world is fortunate that events broke as they did, and that Mozart was in position to benefit from them.

In most of Europe, theaters and opera houses were licensed by each sovereignty. Government censors inspected the content of works to be performed, to be certain no radical political thoughts, nor even negative inferences to the ruling elites, were being advanced.

Expressions of erotic feeling, at odds with both Catholic and Protestant teachings, were closely scrutinized and censored. Anything defined as sacrilegious was prohibited.

In an era when theatrical content was suspect, operas that glorified the vocal virtuosity of singers, with no intention of promoting a message through the opera’s plot, suited the authorities (as well as the singers). Operas of the earlier Renaissance and baroque periods typically were based on classical or mythological themes.

A small group of libretti, comprised of safe works that caused no problems for the censors, were constantly reset to music. During that decade Joseph II, son of Austrian Hapsburg empress Maria Theresa and brother of Marie Antoinette, succeeded to the Austrian throne on his mother’s death.

[Below: the Emperor Joseph II of Austria, who approved the libretto for “The Marriage of Figaro”, even though based on the  controversial Beaumarchais play; edited image, based on a painting from life by an unknown artist.]


Supremely confident in his own intellect, he famously ruled as an “enlightened despot”.

Among his policies were successful efforts to strengthen the merchant class of Prague, capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia, a possession of the Austrian Habsburg Empire.

Although not a religious Catholic, the Emperor did not interfere with Catholic efforts to reform Prague’s educational system, stressing music as a safe emphasis for the historically rebellious Bohemians.

The 30-year old Mozart had very clear ideas on how to reform opera: infuse it with dramatic situations, sex and popular melody. He had impressed the Emperor by composing 1783’s German language opera Abduction from the Seraglio.

Meanwhile, Beaumarchais’ incendiary play Le Mariage de Figaro whose indictment of aristocratic privilege is considered by many a contributory cause to the French Revolution that took the life of Joseph II’s sister, had been banned in Austria as it was elsewhere in Europe.

Because the Emperor liked Mozart and his proposed librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, he allowed Figaro to be composed and to premiere in Vienna in 1786.

It turned out to be an unsettling experience for Mozart. Embittered by the intrigues that surrounded Figaro’s Viennese reception, Mozart, dependent on commissions for whatever music royal patrons desired, might well have spent what were to be the last five years of his short life neglecting the operatic genre.

Fortunately for posterity, later in 1786, the Marriage of Figaro became a giant hit with the musically literate, urban bourgeois theatergoers of Prague. The Bohemian kingdom’s major opera house, the Nostitz Theater, had been built only three years earlier.

[ Count Nostitz’ Theater (now the Estates Theater) in Prague; edited image of a photograph from wikipedia commons.]


There, Mozart’s Seraglio and his Italian Figaro were so successful in Prague that it encouraged Prague’s opera house director, in order to capitalize on Prague’s ecstatic adulation of Mozart, to commission Mozart and da Ponte to team up to create Don Giovanni for the next year’s Prague opera season.

Today, we celebrate seven Mozart operatic masterpieces, which might have stopped at three masterpieces – Idomeneo, Seraglio and Figaro – had not the success of Seraglio and Figaro in Prague inspired and refocused Mozart’s enthusiasm for opera – which led to four last masterpieces – Don Giovanni, Cosi fan Tutte, La Clemenza di Tito (which premiered in Prague) and The Magic Flute – in the five final years of his life.

The concept of opera as an entertainment for middle class audiences was a departure from opera’s early history as a diversion for royalty and courtiers.

The Bohemian nobility preferred to spend their time in the Vienna-based imperial court. This resulted in Prague’s smaller population being more “middle class” than Vienna’s, and more musically literate due to the Bohemian educational system.

Da Ponte remarked that it was Prague where Mozart’s music was understood from the first moment it was played. Prague’s discerning citizens recognized that Mozart’s beautifully composed and richly orchestrated music continuously illuminates the dramatic action of Figaro and Don Giovanni with their long sections in which no break in music or drama occurs.

[Below: In his final hours, Don Giovanni (Ildebrando d’Archangelo, above) embraces Donna Elvira (Myrtò Papatanasiu, below) in the 2015 San Diego Opera production of “Don Giovanni”; edited image of a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


They also appreciated the infusion of enlightenment ideas – Figaro’s tirade against the noble class, Don Giovanni’s refusal to bow to religion or social custom to renounce the “pursuit of happiness” that he believed to be his right. They relished the sexy plot lines in which empowered women were the intellectual equals of their menfolk.

What was appreciated in Prague continues to be treasured in the 21st century. There is no opera written before Figaro and Don Giovanni that is remotely as popular as either of these immortal works. Figaro and Don Giovanni transcend all operas that preceded them because Mozart and Da Ponte were able to free themselves from decades of government regulations and musical fashions and traditions that hobbled opera’s ability to meet its dramatic potential.

[Below: Don Giovanni (Marius Kwiecien, right) seeks to seduce Zerlina (Andriana Churchman, left) on her wedding day in the 2014 Robert Falls production of “Don Giovanni”; edited image of a Michael Brosilow photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]


Baroque era arias might represent a separate emotion – love, anger, despair – But, however charming the beautiful baroque melodies, the inherent dramatic content of such works is minimal.

The source material for Marriage of Figaro, based on an incendiary French play that devastatingly ridicules aristocratic privilege is radically different from Don Giovanni’s old, often-used libretto that taught the moral consequences of degeneracy.

Yet Mozart and da Ponte infused into each work highly dramatic, psychological character studies. None of Mozart’s predecessors or contemporaries created either characters or dramatic situations with the psychological depth we recognize in these works.

Mozart’s triumphant Prague Don Giovanni inspired another brilliant opera with Da Ponte: Cosi fan Tutte. After that there yet another work for Prague La Clemenza di Tito in 1791, this one based on another old libretto, updated for the coronation of a new King of Bohemia to promote the ideal of an enlightened monarch. A similar theme was evoked in The Magic Flute, Mozart’s final opera.

During the decades following the French Revolution (whose effects were still being felt when Mozart died) the hand of censors of operatic content was strengthened.

It’s highly improbable that the libretto of Figaro (that Joseph II had approved, reversing his own earlier bans on performing Beaumarchais’ play) would have received approval a half-decade later. Likely also, the da Ponte libretti with their open sexuality and enlightenment ideas challenging authority, would have fallen from favor.

Fortunately, the success of Figaro in Prague led to the amazing half-decade of Mozart’s operatic masterpieces. Ultimately, what was first appreciated in Prague, became known to the whole world – that Mozart was a dramatic as well as a musical genius.

The most poignant “what-if” in operatic history is the question of what might have resulted, if Mozart, like Giuseppe Verdi, composed operatic masterpieces until he was 80. Perhaps a more sobering question is whether Mozart his last four operatic masterpieces, if the operagoers of Prague had not taken Mozart’s Figaro to heart and inspired him to continue writing operas. :


Tags: William's Program Notes

Review: An Elegant “Marriage of Figaro” – Korea Opera Festival (Seoul Arts Center) May 10, 2015

May 11th, 2015

The first offering the Sixth Korea Opera Festival, held in May and early June 2015 was Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro”, performed by the Muak Opera Company on three consecutive days at the attractive and acoustically impressive Seoul Arts Center.

[Below: the Seoul Arts Center with the skyline of Seoul in the background; edited image, based on a photograph for Delta Air Lines.]


Kihwan Sim’s Figaro

The title role was sung by Korean and German-trained bass-baritone Kihwan Sim, who is a mainstay at the Frankfurt Opera.

Sim proved an engaging Figaro, vocally secure and a fine actor.

[Below: Bass-baritone Kihwan Sim was Figaro; edited image, based on a publicity photograph from alsteartists.com.]


Lyubov Petrova’s Susanna

His character’s betrothed (after all impediments to their marriage were cleared away), was the Susanna of Russian soprano Lyubov Petrova.

I had previously reported on Petrova’s Oscar in  a Houston several years ago (in which Ryan McKinny, this performance’s Count Almaviva, also participated  [see Vargas, Podles Brilliant in Puzzle Box “Ballo”: Houston – November 2, 2007] and her Elvira at the Kennedy Center [The Italian Girl in D.C. – May 18, 2006.]

Petrova was a brilliant Susanna, her last act aria Deh vieni, non tardar a memorable experience.

[Below: Soprano Lyubov Petrova was Susanna; edited image of a photograph from Intermusica.]


Hei-Kyung Hong’s Countess

Of great significance of Korean opera fans was the return to Seoul of Metropolitan Opera star soprano Hei-Kyung Hong after a decade-long absence from opera performance in the South Korean capital.

She proved a skilled Mozartean, adept at comedy, flirtatious with Cherubino while elegantly accepting her errant husband’s apology in the final scene.

Fortunately I did not have to judge which of the prima donne sang their most famous aria the most exquisitely – Petrova’s Deh Vieni or Hong’s Dove sono. 

[Below: Soprano Hei-Kyung Hong was the Countess Almaviva; edited image, based on a publicity photograph.]


Ryan McKinny’s Almaviva

This is the second time in a six-week period that I have been present at a performance of Ryan McKinny’s Almaviva [see Review: New Faces for “Marriage of Figaro” – Los Angeles Opera, March 21, 2015].

McKinny has in recenet months added to his performance repertory such dramatic baritone roles as the Dutchman [Ryan McKinny, Melody Moore, Jay Hunter Morris Soar in “Flying Dutchman” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 18, 2013] and RIgoletto [Dramatic, lyrical and powerful: Ryan McKinny’s Rigoletto Role Debut – Houston Grand Opera, January 24, 2014].

Even so, his retention of the lyric baritone role of Almaviva provides him with a chance to display the depths of his acting skills and vocal flexibility that are not as obvious in the heavier roles.

[Below: the Count Almaviva (Ryan McKinny), in hiding, seeks a conquest; edited image, based on a Lyubov Petrova photograph, courtesy of Ryan McKinny.]


The remiander of the cast were Korean trained. Sunjun Kim was a sprightly Cherubino. The Don Bartolo was Nam Soo Kim, with Yoon Jin Song the Marcellina and Byoung Oh Kim to Don Basilio. Jong Sun Park was Antonio and Sae Joung Choi was Barbarina. The opera was conducted by Seung-Han Choi.

Sex Lives of the Almaviva Household

The stage director, Paula Williams, presented an Almaviva household in which the sexual attractiveness of the individual members of the household was far more important than each person’s position in the 18th century French class systems satirized by Beaumarchais, the dramatist on whose works “The Marriage of Figaro”, is based.

The armchair (familiar in traditional productions) in which Cherubino, and then Almaviva, hides is replaced by a bed. In the first of a couple of extra-textual appearances by Figaro in Williams’ conceptualization of the piece, Figaro sits on a bed with Marcellina. The older woman aggressively pursues Figaro’s sexual charms (until they later discover they are mother and son).

Cherubino briefly snuggles with the Countess in her bed,

Figaro, having learned that Susanna and the Countess have exchanged outfits, roams with his hands across what he knows is Susanna’s body encased in the Countess’ dress.

Of course, we know he knows the Count is watching him intimately embracing the woman the Count believes is his Countess, and we know that Figaro is seeking revenge for the Count lusting after Susanna.

But Figaro’s hands travel across his disgised wife’s body with so with such fervor as to leave me wondering whether Figaro might be fantasizing that it is the Countess herself in the Countess’ dress.

Dae Woo Park’s sets

Dae Woo Park’s first and second act sets were serviceable – interlinked panels each with portholes above openings representing windows or doors. Arranged one way, they formed the servants’ quarters with the doors to the Count’s and Countess’ respective rooms.

The panels were then recombined to portray the Countess’ bedroom with the closet and window over the garden that are both so important to the opera’s plot,

The open space of the third act, in which the wedding parties could freely assemble, ingeniously gave way to the fourth act in which the space was trnasformed into the orchard and garden in which the disguised women pursued their intrigues.

The Korea Opera Festival

Regrettably, travel constraints prevented my attending more than one of the Korea Opera Festivals five offerings. (The other “Western operas” were Puccini’s “Trittico”, Rossini’s “Mose” and Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur”, rounded out by a Korean offering.

Even so, the opera I was able to see was brilliantly performed and reflective of the depth of talent that South Korea has produced to enrich the world’s supply of opera stars.


Tags: 2005-2015: William's Reviews