Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the ‘Standard Repertory’ of opera

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In Quest of Opera Company Performances of American Works – July 2014 to February 2015

April 18th, 2014

This feature highlights selected performances of operas in at the 2014 Glimmerglass Festival, and in San Francisco and Los Angeles that I am scheduled to review.

This list is supplementary to previous lists in this “Quests and Anticipations” series of selected operas being performed from July, 2014 through February, 2015. These are Bizet’s “Carmen” in Santa Fe [See Popular Opera Offerings in Southwestern Vacation Destinations – March-September, 2014], “Fidelio” in Santa Fe and “Ariadne auf Naxos” in Glimmerglass, New York [See Selected French and German Opera Offerings Coast to Coast April-August, 2014]; and “Don Pasquale” in Santa Fe and “Norma” and “La Cenerentola” in San Francisco [See “Bel Canto” Italian Works in Toronto and the American Southwest – April-October, 2014].  


Carousel (Rodgers and Hammerstein), Glimmerglass (NY) Festival, July 12, 18, 26(m), 27(m), August 1, 4(m), 10 (m), 14, 16(m), 19(M) and 22, 2014.

Chicago’s award winning legitimate stage director Charles Newell brings to Glimmerglass his conception of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel”.[Below: Director Charles Newell, edited image , based on a publicity photograph from the Goodman Theater of Chicago.]


Ryan McKinny, who opened the previous Glimmerglass Festival as Wagner’s Dutchman, will sing the role of Billy Bigelow. [See Rising Stars: An Interview with Ryan McKinny.]

Sharon Apostolou is Carrie Pepperidge, Degorah Nansteel is Nettie Fowler, with Joseph Shadday, Enoch Snow, Ben Edquist and Jigger Craigin in key roles.

Doug Peck conducts. John Culbert is set designer, with costumes by Jessica Jahn.


An American Tragedy (Picker) Glimmerglass (NY) Festival, July 20(m), 25, 31, August 5(m), 7, 9(m), 11(m), 16 and 24(m), 2014.

Composer Tobias Picker and librettist Gene Scheer have revised their operatic version of Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy”.

George Manahan conducts and Peter Kazaras directs the opera, whose sets are by Alexander Dodge, costumes by Anya Klepikov and choreography by Eric Sean Fogel.

{Below: Director Peter Kazaras, resized image, based on an Alan Alabastro photograph for Seattle Opera.]

Seattle Opera staging rehearsal for "The Daughter of the Regiment"

The opera’s cast is almost exclusively comprised of 2014 Glimmerglass Festival Young Artists. Daniel Curran is Gilbert Griffiths, Christian Bowers is Clyde Griffiths, with Vanessa Isignan as Roberta Aiden.

Bella Griffiths is Meredith Lustig, Cynthia Cook is Sandra Finchley and John Kapusta is Reverend McMillan. Thomas Richards is Orville Mason. Aleksey Bordanov is Samuel

Susannah (Floyd), San Francisco Opera, September 6, 9, 12, 16 and 21(m), 2014.

San Francisco Opera’s general director David Gockley, has, throughout his career, been an advocate for “Susannah”, the seminal work of American composer Carlisle Floyd.

It is no surprise that he has dedicated San Francisco Opera resources to a new production of Floyd’s work, created by stage director/production designer Michael Cavanagh, whose production of Adams’ “Nixon in China” (another opera for which Gockley is a committed advocate) was enlisted for the opera’s San Francisco Opera debut.

[Director Michael Cavanagh; edited image of a publicity photograph from philly.com.]


Gockley spared no effort in casting this American masterpiece, second only to George Gershwin’s and DuBose Heywood’s “Porgy and Bess” in total performances of American operas.

Dramatic soprano Patricia Racette sings the role of Susannah Polk, with heldentenor Brandon Jovanovich as Sam Polk and basso cantante Raymond Aceto as the conflicted preacher Olin Blitch.

James Kryshak is Little Bat McLean, with Catherine Cook, A. J. Glueckert, Suzanne Hendrix, Erin Johnson, Jacqueline Piccolino. Joel Sorensen and Dale Travis rounding out the cast. Karen Kamensek conducts.

These are not “Susannah’s” first performances on the War Memorial Opera Stage (it having been mounted for Lee Venora and Norman Treigle for San Francisco Opera’s budget-priced Spring Opera Theater a half century earlier.

Yet “Susannah”, which has been performed by the Metropolitan Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Houston Grand Opera among the top tier companies, has never before been performed as part of the regular San Francisco Opera season.

[See: Rising Stars: An Interview with Brandon Jovanovich and also  Rising Stars: An Interview with Raymond Aceto, Part 1 and Rising Stars: An Interview with Raymond Aceto – Part 2.]


The Ghosts of Versailles (Corigliani; Los Angeles Opera, February 7, 15(m), 18, 21, 26 and March 1, 2015.

A new production, hailed as the opera’s first full-scale production of the 21st century, introduces Corigliani’s work to Los Angeles audiences. James Conlon conducts this opera that brings us up to date on the afterlife of the beheaded French queen Marie Antoinette (Patricia Racette), her equally unlucky husband, King Louis XVI (Kristinn Sigmundsson).

The former queen encounters the playwright Beaumarchais (Christopher Maltman), and a group of his famous characters, known to both ancien regime theater audiences and opera goers since the times of Mozart and Rossini – Figaro (Lucas Meachem), Susanna (Guanqun Yu), the Count (Richard Croft) and Countess (Lucy Schaufer) Almaviva and Cherubino (Renée Rapier).

[Below: Director Darko Tresnjak; edited image of a Walter McBride photograph for broadwayworld.com.]


Others in the cast are Robert Brubaker, Philip Cokorinos, Victoria Livengood, Patti LuPone, Scott Scully and Stacey Tappan.

Theater director Darko Tresnjak creates the new production.

Tags: Quests and Anticipations

Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Masterful “Don Quixote” – San Diego Opera, April 5, 2014

April 6th, 2014

The San Diego Opera revived its 2009 production of Massenet’s “Don Quichotte” (translated into the Spanish and English as  ”Don Quixote”, the more familiar name for Cervantes’ caricature of the elderly would-be knight-errant).

Massenet’s opera, loosely based on episodes suggested by Cervantes’ epic, was presented again as a vehicle for Ferruccio Furlanetto, arguably the pre-eminent contemporary portrayer of Massenet’s knight [For my previous review, see: Furlanetto, Campbell Lead Compelling Revival of Massenet’s “Don Quixote” – San Diego Opera February 14, 2009.]

[Below: Don Quixote (Ferruccio Furlanetto, holding lance); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


Created in 1910, near the end of Massenet’s life, “Don Quisote” was associated with two great early 20th century bassos, the French Vanni Marcoux and the Russian Fyodor Chaliapin.

With a lushly Romantic score, that did not fit the 20th century orthodoxies for contemporary works, it was rarely performed until interest in it was revived for its potential as a dramatic vehicle for internationally ranked bassos.

American audiences saw Samuel Ramey’s Don Quixote in the 1990s, 21st century audiences have experienced Ferruccio Furlanetto’s.

[Below: Eduardo Chama as Sancho Panza; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


Massenet’s Man of La Mancha

Massenet has distilled a simple plot from Cervantes’ sprawling classic.

Quixote, accompanied by his squire, Sancho Panza, seeks to woo Dulcinée, who, without thinking through the consequences, suggests that he recover a pearl necklace for her that was stolen by the leader of a troop of bandits.

Quixote (after the diversion of jousting with a windmill he mistakes for a giant) encounters the bandits, whose leader finds his demeanor very strange but so inspiring that he gives Dulcinée’s pearl necklace back to Quixote.

Dulcinée is astonished when Quixote returns with the necklace, first laughs at his proposal of marriage, then, seeing that she has hurt him, attempts to assuage his feelings.

Quixote leaves Dulcinée’s villa heartbroken, and, believing that Dulcinée is beckoning from a star, dies.

[Below: Anke Vondung as Dulcinée; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Don Quixote 

One cannot imagine mounting this opera without a world class voice in the lead, but Furlanetto fills that bill elegantly, projecting no simpleton, but a complex, sympathetic figure,

Here, the Italian basso’s full range is effectively employed, beautifully lyrical in Quixote’s serenade Quand apparaissent les étoiles and the final scene as he focuses on the star he imagines contains Dulcinée as Quixote nears death.

Although one cannot characterize Massenet’s Quixote as a comic character, there are comic elements, particularly his fussy swordfight with his rival Juan (humorously played by tenor Simeon Esper) and, in what some will regard as the opera’s most memorable scene, Quixote’s horseback charge into a windmill’s blades.

[Below: Mistaking a cluster of windmills as hostile giants, Don Quixote (Ferruccio Furlanetto, left) informs his squire Sancho Panza (Eduardo Chama, right) that he, Quixote, will attack his foes; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


Eduardo Chama’s Sancho Panza

This is the third time that I’ve reviewed a performance of the Argentine bass-baritone Eduardo Chama in the role of Sancho – the production’s 2009 San Diego premiere, noted above, and, as well, a different production (although with San Diego Opera’s costumes) in Seattle [See Masterful Massenet: John Relyea’s Don Quixote at Seattle Opera – February 26, 2011.

Sancho has two big arias - one, suggesting that married men are the true heroes on earth, surviving the torments of women, seems always assured of an ovation, which Chama easily secured. The second is particularly affecting, defending Don Quixote's honorable life against the savage derision of Dulcinée's party-goers, earning Chama much-deserved additional applause.

Anke Vondung's Dulcinée and her "high voiced" suitors

Massenet deliberately intended to balance the low voices required for Quichotte and Sancho with five high voices. Thus, Dulcinée, whose part is written for mezzo-soprano, is pursued by four men, two of whom are sung by tenors and two of whom are sung by sopranos.

German mezzo-soprano Anke Vondung was a stylish Dulcinée, buttressed by an impressive quartet of artists playing four young suitors. The two tenors, Simeon Esper as Juan and Joel Sorensen were excellent in the two larger of the four roles.

[Below: Joel Sorensen (left) as Rodriguez and Simeon Espar (right) as Juan; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


I have occasionally argued that certain roles have been “under-cast” by this or that opera management, needing larger voices or more seasoned artists for the parts being played.

In the case of this “Don Quichotte” there are present two artists whom I consider far beyond the brief roles they have been assigned.

Susannah Biller’s major assignments at the San Francisco Opera [see, for example, World Premiere Review: Patricia Racette’s Gritty “Dolores Claiborne” at San Francisco Opera – September 18, 2013] and Micaela Oeste’s at Washington National Opera [Michael Chioldi, Micaela Oeste Enrich Washington National Opera’s Theatrically Absorbing “Hamlet” – May 22, 2010] are just some of the notable achievements of these two artists. It is a surprise seeing them in these small roles.

[Below: from left to right, Pedro (Micaela Oeste), Dulcinée (Anke Vondung), Garcias (Susannah Biller) and Rodriguez (Joel Sorensen) tend to thoughts of love; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


Choreograhy, Conducting and Scenic Design

Massenet’s opera is one of the more successful of the French operas composed after Bizet’s “Carmen”, exploiting the dramas of sunny Spain. Returning to the San Diego Opera to again choreograph “Don Quixote” is flamenco-trained Kristina Cobarrubia. The frequent opportunities for Spanish dancing provided the “local color” that established the opera’s cultural geography.

Returning also as the opera’s conductor was Karen Keltner. The opera was restaged by Keturah Stickman, utilizing the scenic design of Ralph Funicello and Missy West’s cheerful costumes.

[Below: a scene of the Spanish dancers; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]A San Diego Opera Epilogue


A San Diego Opera Epilogue

Although not a part of a performance review, it should be noted that the beginning of the evening was dramatic in itself.

Since my last report from San Diego [A Star-bright “Ballo in Maschera” – San Diego Opera, March 8, 2014] , the San Diego Opera, announced it would close down after the four performances of “Don Quichotte”. The company had previously announced the 2015 season, which was to be its 50th, but cited a precipitous decline in ticket sales and in donor contributions as the reasons for ending its operations.

The news alarmed opera companies and artists throughout the world, and its implications will be discussed later on these web pages.

However, what happened just before the performance began should be reported. The company’s general director, Ian Campbell, before Conductor Keltner came out to begin the performance, stepped onto stage to address the San Diego audience. At that point shouting, booing and catcalls erupted from  a considerable number of members of the audience, including derogatory shouting at Cambpell.

Demonstrating that the house was divided, a number of persons in the center orchestra section, applauded Campbell (his appearance was a courageous act) and stood to cheer him.

The audience quieted for Campbell to make the point that every seat in the theater was subsidized (the company having reported that the income from ticket sales was now only 36% of the cost of producing the operas) and that the audience should be respectful of the singers and artists performing that evening (which they were).

Whether there was an organized claque, or whether the angry tone of so much of the audence was spontaneous, I was not able to discern (although I suspect that both may be true).

But I have not seen any such demonstrations of audience discontent anywhere in North America. I would not have expected to see it in San Diego, especially taking place during the well-dressed Saturday night series.  More on this at a later date.

What I would have expected, and what did occur, was a resourding ovation at opera’s end. The audience rose spontaneously and immediately when Furlanetto began the curtain calls with a solo bow.

Every member of the cast, particularly Furlanetto and Chama, was warmly applauded – yet another triumphant opera evening in San Diego (perhaps, one of the last).

Tags: 2005-2014: William's Reviews

Dramatically, Visually Exciting EuroArts DVD of San Francisco Opera Performance of Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia”

April 2nd, 2014

Last Fall, EuroArts issued the first in a series of six scheduled DVDs of performances by the San Francisco Opera at its home, the War Memorial Opera House. The performance is of Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia”, starring Renée Fleming as Lucrezia, the Duchess of Ferrara.

[Below: the cover of the brochure accompanying the "Lucrezia Borgia" DVDs.]


What San Francisco Opera has presented is a dramatically plausible and vocally secure performance by Fleming, whose reputation as one of the most important operatic sopranos of the past 25 years is wholly deserved.

Returning to the San Francisco Opera after an absence of ten seasons from performing opera at the War Memorial Opera House, the company honored her wishes that an opera and production she championed be mounted for her.

Supporting Ms Fleming’s vocal performance in the sonic splendor of the War Memorial Opera House was a brilliant young cast that included lyric tenor Michael Fabiano as Gennaro, her illegitimate son who is unaware that Borgia blood flows in his veins; mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as the scrappy Venetian soldier, Maffio Orsini; and Ukrainian basso cantante Vitalij Kowaljow as Lucrezia’s sinister husband, the Duke of Ferrara.

Demonstrating the depth of casting that the San Francisco Opera can devote to a high profile project, major voices, several already singing principal roles in internationally ranked opera houses, were assigned to Gennaro’s and Orsini’s companions, and to the spy/operatives that served either Ferrara’s Duke or Duchess. These supporting roles were taken by Christopher Jackson, Brian Jagde, Austin Kness, Ao Li, Daniel Montenegro and Igor Viera.

The San Francisco Opera Orchestra, conducted by Donizetti specialist Riccardo Frizza, gave the spirited performance one expects of this orchestral ensemble so expert at opera performance.

[Below: a party scene in Ferrara; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, from johnpascoe.com.]


The History and Significance of the Pascoe Production

The production, created by British director John Pascoe, was originally created for the Washington National Opera Fall 2008 season, starring Fleming, with Placido Domingo conducting.

This is a production that I had reviewed three times. Two of those reviews were of performances with the cast whose performances were recorded on this DVD.

See  [Fleming, Fabiano, Frizza Fuel San Francisco Opera’s Flaming, Fulfilling First “Lucrezia Borgia” – September 23, 2011] for an account of the operas San Francisco Opera premiere.

See also my review of a later performance [A Second Look: “Lucrezia Borgia” at the San Francisco Opera – October 2, 2011].

[Below: the cover of the "Lucrezia Borgia" DVD.]


I had also reviewed the production with an entirely different cast at the Washington National Opera [The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Radvanovsky, Grigolo in Pascoe’s WNO “Lucrezia Borgia” – November 17, 2008].

Reviving Donizetti: A Movement in Two Stages

Donizetti operas other than “Lucia di Lammermoor” and a couple of his romantic comedies, were rarely performed in the later decades of the 19th century and early decades of the 20th century.

The “Donizetti Revival” of the mid-20th century was associated with superstar sopranos Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballe, Beverly Sills and, significantly, Leyla Gencer, the Turkish soprano who sang the very first bel canto role of her career (Lucia)  at the San Francisco Opera.

One shouldn’t state unequivocally that these mid-20th century artists ignored dramatic values – certainly Callas deserves her reputation for focusing the public’s attention on the dramatic possibilities of such assignments as the title roles of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” and “Anna Bolena”.

That said, I believe that the first stages of the Donizetti revival concentrated on getting the vocal performances right, with drama of secondary concern.

The vocal and dramatic elements within Donizetti operas

When the dramatic elements for staging an opera are secondary to the vocal, the principal concern of the director (and the singers) may be seeking the most advantageous vocal placement of the voices.

Singers may know instinctively (or by experience) what is the best posture for their vocal performances and from which point onstage they will sound best. An artist’s preferred spot may even vary from one opera house to another.

As an (perhaps stereotypical) example, consider when a lyric tenor wanders to the footlights. Is there a dramatic motivation for  his moving there, or is his purpose to place himself in the most sonically advantageous place onstage?

The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage

Donizetti’s music and pace has dramatic impact simply being performed. However, during the 21st century much thought has been given by stage directors (particularly those experienced in the British theater) as how to stage these operas to maximize their dramatic impact.

A director who is considering the drama onstage and the visual impact of the placement of each singer and chorister quite likely will have a quite different idea than certain artists as to where an artist should be placed.

However, increasing numbers of artists, espeically including American-trained artists, such as Fabiano and Deshong, are comfortable with the 21st emphasis on the dramatic performance.

[Below: Maffio Orsini (Elizabeth Deshong, left) is engaged in the defacement of a monument removing the "B" in "Borgia" to create the word "orgia" (orgy) as Gennaro (Michael Fabiano, right) look on; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of johnpascoe.com.]


The John Pascoe “Lucrezia”

The opera “Lucrezia Borgia’s dramatic possibilities had rarely been plumbed during the century and three quarters since its composition. Director Pascoe and both the Washington and San Francisco casts  (each of which was comprised of operatic artists who can act as well as sing) proved that this opera can be a grand night in the theater.

[See my essay on the opera's inherent theatricality: “Lucrezia Borgia” – The Dramatic Foundations of Donizetti’s Opera].

[Below: Director John Pascoe, resized image, from johnpascoe.com.]


Whereas some operatic directors appear to approach a Donizetti opera as merely a showcase for a diva with an improbable plot, Pascoe takes the work’s story-line seriously.

Back-stories have been thought through for Lucrezia (abused childhood) and Gennaro (gay, in romantic relationship with Maffio Orsini).

Of course, one can project any human experience onto any operatic character, but, unless the opera’s context supports that projection, it will make little sense to the viewing audience.

But, if the attributions are plausible and presented with clarity, a plot that seems little more than a device  to piece together arias that display vocal virtuosity might actually prove to be viably dramatic. Such, I argue, is the case with the Pascoe “Lucrezia”.

Delving into the psychological backgrounds of characters, and considering their relationships to each other leads to insights that assist the director in the physical staging of the opera. This can (and should) be a very different process from staging a opera that maximizes the vocal delivery of the artists.

Pascoe unabashedly uses the sentimentality that Donizetti’s music portrays of Gennaro’s longing for learning about the mother who abandoned him as an infant and Lucrezia’s longing to communicate with Gennaro, the Venetian captain she has discovered is the son who was lost to her.

Most striking is the idea of exploiting a gay relationship between Gennaro and Orsini (and there’s no reason not to believe that all of the companions are gay). As I’ve mentioned in my previous reviews, the gay bonds between Gennaro and Orsini provides a plausible motivation for Gennaro’s refusal to accept Lucrezia’s antidote to the poison meant for his companions that she mistakenly administered to Gennaro as well.

But is his resolve to die is shaken when Lucrezia reveals to Gennaro too late that she is his mother. With only moments left in his life, after the poison’s effect has passed the point of no return, Gennaro learns the truth about his origins. His chilling question “I am a Borgia?” has a powerful impact.

[Below: Michael Fabiano, in costume as Gennaro, and Renée Fleming, in costume as Lucrezia Borgia, at the end of a performance; resized image of a publicity photograph.]

Michael Fabiano Renee Fleming Lucrezia Borgia San Francisco 2011


I believe that one should take any opportunity to experience opera at the War Memorial Opera House. Although a DVD is not a substitute for a live performance, it can be a very desirable memento of a live performance for those who were able to attend and, for those who were unable to attend, a documentation of a significant staging of the work with a solid cast that was uniformly excellent in both the major and smaller roles.

I recommend the DVD without reservation.

For my interviews with key cast members, see: Rising Stars: An Interview with Michael Fabiano and Basso Nobile: An Interview with Vitalij Kowaljow.

Tags: 2005-2014: William's Commentaries