Opera Warhorses

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

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Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2016

February 23rd, 2017

Over 11 years ago, I began the series of reviews, interviews and essays that constitute the content of the www.operawarhorses.com website. Later in 2017, I expect to post my 500th opera live performance review.

At the end of each of the past eight years, I’ve posted essays that I call “thoughts and assessments”, in which I discuss issues relating to the live performance of opera.

What Should an Opera Review be About?

I have used these year-end essays in part to explain the criteria I employ for my own reviews. Most important, I believe an opera performance review should concentrate on the performance – the principal singers, orchestra, chorus, staging, set designs and the overall experience. A world premiere or revival of a little known opera will usually require a more detailed discussion of the opera itself.

All of my reviews are opera performances. I attend a lot of operas (including “musicals” performed by opera companies) each year both in the North America and abroad, and write occasional essays about the operas themselves (which my reviews might hyperlink). But I don’t review ballets, or chamber music or symphonies, or theater outside of opera. This allows more time to prepare for any performance I am scheduled to review.

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[Below: Ezekial Cheever (Ian Koziara, center) takes the testimony of Giles Corey (Chaz’men Williams-Ali) as Judge Danforth (Jay Hunter Morris, right) listens skeptically, in the 2016 Francesca Zambello Glimmerglass Festival production of Ward’s “The Crucible”; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

[For my performance review, see: Review: Mulligan, Barton, Zambello, Paiement Make the Case for “The Crucible” – Glimmerglass Festival, August 5, 2016.]

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Regardless of who is writing, all performance reviews are subjective, and may or may not be helpful to persons attempting to learn about a performance they attended, to confirm their own reaction to that performance and perhaps to find an explanation of why the opera was performed in a particular way.

Others might read the review to decide whether to invest the time and money to attend a later performance. Some may wish to read reviewers’ comments on how a particular artist performed and what the reviewer thought about the production.

What Should Not be in a Performance Review?

Any critic who regularly reviews operatic productions likely wishes privately that certain operas would be performed more often and other operas less often, if at all. In the past couple of years, I’ve cited unfair comments by lead critics of local “newspapers of record”, one excoriating the local opera company’s management for mounting Verdi’s “La Traviata”, another newspaper critic blasting his company for mounting Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” too often.

These are hardly performance reviews, but messages to the opera company’s management that the reviewer dislikes seeing familiar fare too often and wishes that some other work would have been performed instead. In both cases the negative reviews were unfair to the artists. The casts were of international caliber in intelligent productions, the musical and dramatic performances well done.

The lead time for a major company choosing an opera for its repertory begins years before the performance, and once the final decision on the opera is made, virtually irrevocable contracts are signed. The economics of running a leading opera company do not permit the company to avoid scheduling at least some of the most popular works as part of a season.

Embedding destructive comments in a performance review that decry opera company management’s repertory choices cannot have a constructive outcome. Such comments, if the critic feels a shot across management’s bow is warranted, would be more appropriate in a separate essay, perhaps discussing the opera season just completed, or the upcoming season just announced.

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[Below: Women arrange the bier of Juliette in Santa Fe Opera’s Stephen Lawless production of Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

[For my performance review, see: Review: A Surprise at Santa Fe Opera – Joshua Guerrero joins Pérez, Aceto in Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette”, July 29, 2016.]

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Preserving the Operatic Performance Legacy

One of my areas of interest, that I’ve discussed in this annual series of “Thoughts and Assessments” is what I have regarded as a lack of adequate investment by opera companies, libraries or institutions founded in support of the arts, music or drama in the archiving the history of operatic performance.

I think few people appreciate how much work goes into an operatic production – often years of preparation costing hundreds of thousands of dollars for a work that might be performed five or six times. Some of these productions will be fortunate enough to be revived by the company and/or used by other companies, and production rentals might even be a source of opera company revenues.  In too many cases, however, an opera company, having insufficient space or and inadequate rental budget to store past productions will cart them off to the junkyard.

More often than not, I suspect, there is not even what I would regard as a proper photographic record of what the production looked like. (Here performance DVDs may be useful, although the DVD is a movie of the performance, showing what the DVD producers and editors wish us to see, rather than a mechanism for recording the details of the set design or the costumes.)

In my reports on excellent productions of Boito’s “Mefistofele” [Review: “Mefistofele” Impressively Performed by Schrott, Castronovo, Penda and Blue in New Philipp Himmelmann Production – Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, May 16, 2016] and Wagner’s “Das Liebesverbot” [Review: Mariame Clément Mounts Wagner’s “Liebesverbot”: Opéra du Rhin, Strasbourg, May 17, 2016], I praised the inventiveness of the costumes the Baden-Baden and Strasbourg choruses wore (each individualized to represent a different character).

There is no way these costumes could have produced without the collaboration of the creators of the production working with perceptive costume designers and extraordinary craftsmen who realized the designs.

In my ongoing conversations with British director John Pascoe, he has detailed the complex processes required to develop a single new costume for soprano Renée Fleming for a Metropolitan Opera production of Verdi’s “La Traviata” [see Dressing Renée Fleming’s Violetta: A Conversation with John Pascoe, Part 7].

One imagines there was great satisfaction from the Baden-Baden and Strasbourg costume staffs in their products for the new “Mefistofele” and “Liebesverbot” productions. But there were no production photos of the choral costumes in the detail that I would have wished to accompany my performance reviews available when I needed them.

If I discover that a photograph record of those costumes has been made, I offer as much space on the www.operawarhorses.com website as would be needed needed to share them with a larger audience.

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[Below: Amneris (Ekaterina Semenchuk, right) seeks the attention and love of Radames (Brian Jagde, left) in Francesca Zambello’s 2016 San Francisco Opera production of Verdi’s “Aida”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

[For my performance review, see: Review: Zambello’s Spectacular “Aida”, San Francisco Opera, November 5, 2016.]

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What should be done to preserve the operatic performance heritage, so much of which is lost each year? There are some promising green shoots.  At the San Francisco Opera, an institution that will be celebrating its centennial year early in the next decade, and the opera company with whose performances I have the longest association, preservation of its history and legacy has become a major concern.

That company has hired professional archival staff and has provided that staff with resources to collect and organize the myriad of residual materials – programs, recordings, photographs, testimonials, props, costumes – whatever can be located and preserved.


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[Below: Edward Kynaston (Ben Edquist) performs the role of Desdemona in The Bard’s “Othello” in the world premiere of Carlisle Floyd’s “The Prince of Players”; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

[For my performance review, see: World Premiere: A Triumphant “Prince of Players” for Composer Carlisle Floyd, Baritone Ben Edquist – Houston Grand Opera, March 5, 2016.]

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The www.operawarhorses.com “50 Year Anniversary” Features

The new San Francisco Opera investment in its archives meshes with one of this website’s activites.

Each of the San Francisco Opera performances I attended five or more decades ago are (or will soon be) the subject of my “50-year anniversary” observances. The list of opera stars I was able to see is live performance through 1967 includes Licia Albanese, Ettore Bastianini, Sesto Bruscantini, Boris Christoff, Regine Crespin, Mario del Monaco, Victoria de los Angeles, Sir Geraint Evans, Leyla Gencer, Tito Gobbi, Reri Grist, Hans Hotter, Marilyn Horne, Dorothy Kirsten, Alfredo Kraus, Cornell MacNeil, Jolanda Meneguzzer, Birgit Nilsson, Luciano Pavarotti, Leontyne Price, Leonie Rysanek, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Cesare Siepi, Giulietta Simionato, Joan Sutherland, Renata Tebaldi, Jess Thomas, Richard Tucker, Jon Vickers and Leonard Warren.

There were historic reasons (probably unduplicatable) why such an illustrious and famous list of opera stars all performed in San Francisco in the late 1950s and 1960s. I believe that discussing those historic reasons will yield insights into how the San Francisco Opera became one of the world’s most important opera companies.

My work with the San Francisco Opera archival staff and on these remembrances have inspired me to begin yet another website feature –  occasional essays about the significance and importance of the San Francisco Opera in the evolution of opera performance in the mid-20th century and beyond.

These will begin later this year, and will include one of the memorable events that occurred in San Francisco 50 years ago – the beginning of the San Francisco Opera director Kurt Herbert Adler’s association with a 32-year old Italian tenor, Luciano Pavarotti.


For my previous year-end essays, see:

Opera in Live Performance: Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2009, Part One

Opera in Live Performance: Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2009, Part Two

Opera in Live Performance, Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2010, Part One

Opera in Live Performance, Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2010, Part Two

Opera in Live Performance, Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2010, Part Three

Opera in Live Performance, Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2011, Part One

Opera in Live Performance, Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2011, Part Two

Opera in Live Performance: Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2012, Part One

Opera in Live Performance: Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2012, Part Two

Opera in Live Performance: Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2013,

Opera in Live Performance: Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2014,

Opera in Live Performance: Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2015




I don’t regard it as proper to think of opera either as a sub-category of music or as a sub-category of drama. Its component parts include music and drama, but it transforms both.

I’m aware that this website is one of the places that persons who have attended and because of it I try


Tags: 2005-2016 William's Commentaries

Review: A Fun-filled, Fast-paced, Finely Cast “Falstaff” – San Diego Opera, February 18, 2017

February 19th, 2017

The San Diego Opera opened a four performance run of “Falstaff”, Verdi’s operatic adaptation of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor. One of opera’s great masterpieces, “Falstaff” abounds in complex vocal ensembles, that require ten principal singers of great skill.

Roberto de Candia’s Falstaff

The production’s strong cast was led by the Falstaff of Italian baritone Roberto de Candia. Falstaff, deluding himself that he is a seducer of married women, is ultimately put in his place by the Windsor wives. De Candia gave a vocally secure, sympathetic portrait of the dissipated, self-absorbed knight.

[Roberto de Candia as Sir John Falstaff; edited image, based on a J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson.photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

De Candia was a student of basso buffo Sesto Bruscantini, who was one of the greatest of mid-2oth century masters of Italian opera’s comic roles. De Candia’s performance was in the grand tradition of Italian comic opera.

De Candia displays an affection for this iconic role – portraying a character who shows resilience in the face of the two separate (“fool me twice”)  humiliations that comprise the story of the opera.

Ellie Dehn’s Alice Ford

Leading the Windsor Wives’ defense against the Sir John’s schemes is Alice Ford, elegantly sung by soprano Ellie Dehn.

[Below: Alice Ford (Ellie Dehn, right, seated), plays the mandolin while awaiting the arrival of Sir John Falstaff (standing, left); edited image, based on a J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson.photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

A gifted vocal artist, Dehn is one of the many contemporary international opera stars who are graduates of Philadelphia’s prestigious Academy of Vocal Arts.

Californians have been fortunate to have seen her perform multiple roles at both the San Francisco and San Diego operas [for the former, see, for example, A Beautifully Sung, Engaging “Cosi fan Tutte” at San Francisco Opera – June 9, 2013 and Review: Roberts, Jagde and Dehn in “Carmen” – May 29, 2016.]

Maureen McKay’s Nannetta Ford and Jonathan Johnson’s Fenton 

Verdi weaves beautiful melodies throughout “Falstaff”, much of it assigned to the lovers Nannetta (Maureen McKay) and Fenton (Jonathan Johnson), who are central to a sub-plot regarding Nannetta’s father’s determination to choose a different husband for her.

McKay, an alumna of the Seattle Opera’s Young Artist’s program and the ensemble of the Komische Oper, Berlin, was a radiant Nannetta.

[Below: Maureen McKay as Nannetta; edited image, based on a J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson.photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

McKay’s Nannetta, disguised as the Queen of the Fairies, leads an ethereally beautiful chorus of supernatural beings (actually, the disguised Windsor women and their allies) at the witching hour at the Oak of Herne.

Jonathan Johnson, himself a member of the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Center for Young Artists, was an engaging Fenton, his sweet-voiced Dal labbro il canto estasiato vola setting the mood for the the charming beginning of the Oak of Herne scene.

[Below: Falstaff, in the costume of the mythical Black Huntsman (Roberto de Candia, right) has come to the Oak of Herne, expecting a liaison, only to frightened by what he perceives is a myriad of demonic spirits led by Fairy Queen, who actually is Nannetta (Maureen McKay, left) in disguise; edited image, based on a J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson.photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Nannetta and Fenton express their love for each other throughout the opera, but it is the Oak of Herne scene in which the two characters most vividly center the audience’s attention.

[Below: Jonathan Johnson as Fenton; edited image, based on a J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson.photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

I had previously noted a fine performance by Johnson in a smaller role in Chicago [Review: A World Class Cast for Berlioz’ “Les Troyens” – Lyric Opera, Chicago, November 13, 2016] and believe that Johnson, a leggiero tenor, is at the beginning of an important opera career.

Marianne Cornetti’s Mistress Quickly and Kristin Chavez’ Meg Page 

Mistress Quickly is an “over-the-top” role, which mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti pursued with relish. It’s been a decade since I saw Cornetti as Azucena [see Nicely Done “Il Trovatore” in Verdi-Friendly San Diego – April 4, 2007] in this theater.

Her Quickly, much of whose role lies low in the  mezzo register, proved to be another impressive achievement in Verdian singing.

[Below: Mistress Quickly (Marianne Cornetti, left) persuades a suspicious Falstaff (Roberto de Candia, right) that he is an object of desire of her Windsor compatriots; edited image, based on a J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson.photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Kristin Chavez, completing the quartet of Windsor women, sang the part of Meg Page.

[Below: Meg Page (Kristin Chavez) is the recipient of an undesired proposition; edited image, based on a J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson.photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Chavez, who had performed the role of Maddalena in another San Diego Opera Verdi opera performance [see Power Verdi: Ataneli, Vargicova Excel in San Diego Opera “Rigoletto” – March 28, 2009], fit nicely into the vocal ensemble of the Windsor women.

Troy Cook’s Ford and Joel Sorensen’s Doctor Caius 

Baritone Troy Cook was the wealthy burgher Ford – Alice Ford’s husband and Nannetta’s father – who, like Falstaff, finds himself outwitted by the four Windsor women.

Cook performed Ford’s big aria È sogno? o realtà, convincingly, expressing the character’s jealous rage.

[Below: Troy Cook as Ford; edited image, based on a J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson.photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

I had seen Troy Cook in the smaller role of Bretigny in Massenet’s “Manon” at The Dallas Opera last year, but the role of Ford is a meatier assignment, which he successfully handled.

Sorensen, a tenor known for his insightful realizations of “character roles”, proved a formidable Caius.

[Below: Joel Sorensen as Doctor Caius; edited image, based on a J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson.photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

This is my fourth “Falstaff” review in which character tenor Joel Sorensen assayed the role of Dr Caius. Sorensen adds a strenuous physicality to the role of the aged character, which Sorensen retains up to the final set of curtain calls.

Sorensen’s character tenor roles are much sought after by the San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego Operas. In San Diego, his recent performances have included Beppe [Much to Like in San Diego Opera’s “I Pagliacci” – January 28, 2014] and Spoletta [Review: A Top Notch “Tosca” from Alexia Voulgaridou, Gwyn Hughes Jones and Greer Grimsley – San Diego Opera, February 13, 2016].

Simeon Esper’s Bardolfo and Reinhard Hagen’s Pistola

Falstaff’s fellow rogues, Bardolph (Bardolfo) and Pistol (Pistola) were hilariously played by two artists familiar to San Diego Opera audiences, American tenor Simeon Esper and German bass Reinhard Hagen.

Although American-trained, Esper’s career has been based in Germany where his large repertory of character tenor roles keeps him in demand at opera companies in Dresden, Dusseldorf and elsewhere.

San Diego Opera audiences have seen him in a half a dozen roles in the operas of Leoncavallo, Massenet, and Richard Strauss, including a previous pairing with Reinhard Hagen in which both were Wagnerian minnesingers [see Wagner Knows Best: Elegant San Diego Opera “Tannhäuser” Sticks to the Story – January 26, 2008]

[Below: Simeon Esper as Bardolfo; edited image, based on a J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson.photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

It is luxury casting to assign the role of Falstaff’s companion, the cutpurse Pistola, to the basso Reinhard Hagen, who sings the major Wagnerian bass roles in major European venues.

[Below: Reinhard Hagen as Pistola; edited image, based on a J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson.photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Though Hagen’s career is Europe-based, the one New World opera company he has visited regularly is the San Diego Opera, where most recently he sang the roles of Ramfis [Latonia Moore, Jill Grove Outstanding in the Zandra Rhodes Mounting of “Aida” – San Diego Opera, April 20, 2013] and the Commendatore [ Review: Ildebrando D’Arcangelo Leads Strong “Don Giovanni” Cast – San Diego Opera, February 14, 2015.]

Hagen’s sonorous voice enriched the ensembles, while his Pistola provided an opportunity for Hagen to show off his comic skills.

Maestro Daniele Callegari and the Musical Performance

“Falstaff” has complexities that are expecially noteworthy. On several occasions all those characters conspiring against Falstaff (the opera’s other nine characters) are singing at once – sometimes in different rhythmic structures.

A “Falstaff” conducter must simulatenously assure that each of the individual vocal performances are in concert with each other, while keeping track of all the instrumental groups playing Verdi’s sophisticated orchestration. In the final scene, the San Diego Opera Chorus, whose chorus master is Bruce Stasnya, joins the fray as supernatural spirits that torment Falstaff.

[Below: the “spirits” (the San Diego Opera Chorus) turn the vicinity of the Oak of Herne into a fairyland; edited image, based on a J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson.photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Maestro Daniele Callegari successfully enlisted the musical virtuosity of the San Diego Opera orchestra, chorus and the ten principal singers, whose result was a memorable evening in San Diego.

The Olivier Tambosi Production

French director Olivier Tambosi staged the production, which he created.

I had previously reported on the attractive Olivier Tambosi production on two occasions [see Bryn Terfel Triumphs in an Authoritative “Falstaff” – San Francisco Opera, October 9, 2013 and A Second Look: Luisotti, Terfel Teamed in Musically Brilliant, Well-Crafted “Falstaff” – San Francisco Opera, October 20, 2013.]

Significantly, the production sets were built in the San Diego Opera Studios. Designed by Tambosi’s frequent collaborator, Frank Philip Scholossmann, the sets and production were created for and are owned by the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Final Thoughts and Recommendations

The 2017 production of “Falstaff” is the final production chosen and cast by the San Diego Opera’s previous General Director, Ian Campbell, whose tenure was from 1984 through 2015. Originally scheduled for 2016, it was delayed a year during the re-organization of the company.

The performance was of the high quality associated with previous San Diego Opera performances, and argues well for the ability of the redesigned company to maintain the artistic standards on which the company’s favorable reputation worldwide has been based.

The performance’s opening night was greeted by a standing ovation from the San Diego Opera audience at evening’s end.

I recommend the cast and production enthusiasitically, both to the veteran opera-goer and the person new to opera.

Tags: 2005-2017: William's Reviews

Review: Freischütz American Style – Virginia Opera’s Praiseworthy “Magic Marksman” – Norfolk, January 27, 2017

January 28th, 2017

The Virginia Opera has taken on the project of introducing contemporary American audiences to one of the most influential masterpieces of opera, Carl Maria von Weber’s “Der Freischütz”. The opera’s infectious melodies enrich a succession of serene arias and engaging ensembles, yet it is a work that has rarely been performed in the Western Hemisphere.

The Virginia Opera enlisted British director Stephen Lawless to create both a new production and new English translation of the quintessentially German, ghost story-inspired singspiel.

Several months ago I had discussed this project with Lawless [see Opera as Drama: An Interview with Director Stephen Lawless] and was intrigued by the Virginia Opera’s intention to revive interest in this neglected work. Even though I reside on the opposite Coast, I flew across country to the production’s premiere in Norfolk, and am delighted to report that the result was worth the effort.

Lawless moved the story from Weber’s Central European setting to a village in the forests of New York, noting the parallels between Freischütz’ haunted Wolf’s Glen and Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow of Headless Horseman fame. Irving’s villagers are Dutch immigrants, Lawless’ villagers are German émigré huntsmen and their families.

Weber’s opera centers on a skirmish in the eternal battle between the Forces of Good and the Forces of Evil. In the opera, the agent for the Forces of Good is a Hermit (played in this production by Jake Gardner), the agent for Evil is the devil Samiel (also played by Gardner).

Corey Bix’ Max

The largest role in the opera, the huntsman Max, is sung by tenor Corey Bix. The role of Max requires a large voice with the weight and endurance we associate with the later composer Richard Wagner’s jugendlicher tenor roles. Bix proved up to the task.

To the character Max’ consternation, he, the community’s best marksman, has unexpectedly lost the preliminary rounds in an annual shooting contest whose main event prize would be the hand of the woman he loves.

In terror at the thought of losing his bride, Max becomes vulnerable to the huntsman Kasper’s suggestion that Max call upon supernatural dark forces at the Wolf’s Glen for aid.

[Below: Corey Bix as Max; edited image of a Ben Schill photograph, courtesy of the Virginia Opera.]

Joseph Barron’s Kasper

The driving force behind the opera’s plot is Kasper, who is nearing the end of a three-year contract with the Forces of Evil, at whose conclusion he must either offer a suitable replacement for his service or descend into Hell for eternity.

Kasper’s escape strategy – to secure magic bullets from the devil Samiel, first for Max’ shooting contest opponent Killian, then for Max himself – is Kasper’s elaborate scheme to ensnare the unwitting Max into becoming Kasper’s replacement.

[Below: Kasper (Joseph Barron) announces the unexpected results of a round in the shooting contest; edited image, based on a Ben Schill photograph, courtesy of the Virginia Opera.]

Bass-baritone Joseph Barron, whose performance elsewhere I admired [Role Debuts All Around in Intimate “Aida” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 23, 2012] made a strong impression as the villainous Kasper, both vocally and dramatically.

[Below: Kasper (Joseph Barron, left) has persuaded Max (Corey Bix, right) to join him in the haunted Wolf’s Glen to obtain magic bullets from a Devil’s minion; edited image, based on a Ben Schill photograph, courtesy of the Virginia Opera.]

Kara Shay Thomson’s Agathe

Max’ intended bride, the pure-hearted Agathe, was portrayed by soprano Kara Shay Thomson. Agathe’s lyrical music include two of the most ethereally beautiful arias in German opera.

Thomson performed these arias and her part in Weber’s finely crafted duets and trios with distinction.

[Below: Kara Shay Thomson as Agathe; edited image, based on a Ben Schill photograph, courtesy of the Virginia Opera.]

Jake Gardner’s Good Hermit and Evil Samiel

Jake Gardner, one of opera’s exemplary actor-singers, portrayed the point men on both sides of the good-evil battle lines. The devil Samiel is a spoken (at times shouted) role, whereas the good Hermit enlists Gardner’s secure bass-baritone.

[Below: Samiel (Jake Gardner) represents the forces of evil that have gathered at the Wolf’s Glen; edited image, based on a Ben Schill photograph, courtesy of the Virginia Opera.]

Gardner has a wide repertory of character roles in opera and musical theater presented by opera companies [see Review: “Sweeney Todd” at Houston Grand Opera: Nathan Gunn, Director Lee Blakeley Make a Compelling Case for Sondheim as Opera, April 24, 2015 and Glimmerglass Festival’s Annual Salute to Broadway: Dwayne Croft in Vibrant, Affecting “Music Man” – July 24, 2012 for my accounts of a few such Gardner roles.]

[Below: The hermit (Jake Gardner, center) representing the forces of good, blesses the future marriage of Agathe (Kara Shay Thomson, left) and Max (Corey Bix, right), providing Max remains on good behavior during a one year probation; edited image, based on a Ben Schill photograph, courtesy of the Virginia Opera.]

Katherine Polit’s Aennchen and Kevin Langan’s Kuno

Soprano Katherine Polit won audience sympathy in her soubrette role of Agathe’s companion, Aennchen. Polit’s duets with Thomson’s Agathe were affecting, and Aennchen’s aria about the family dog being mistaken for a ghost was amusingly sung.

[Below: Katherine Polit as Aennchen; edited image, based on a Ben Schill photograph, courtesy of the Virginia Opera.]

Veteran basso Kevin Langan was an authoritative Kuno, Agathe’s father, whose holds the hereditary title of Ranger.

[Below: Kevin Langan as the Ranger Kuno; edited image, based on a Ben Schill photograph, courtesy of the Virginia Opera.]

Other cast members and musical performance

Trevor Neal was the huntsman Killian, who bested Max in the contest trials. Andrew Paulson was the Ottokar – in this production, the region’s Governor. Rachel Baunstein, Anna Feucht, Stephanie Marx and Christine Suits were the Bridesmaids.

The Virginia Symphony, led by Maestro Adam Turner, displayed a reverence for Weber’s score.

The overture and the opera as a whole have historical significance in the evolution of how such instruments as the woodwinds – particularly the oboe and clarinet – and French horns are used in opera composition. All these instruments contribute to the tonal colors that accompany the main themes of good and evil that recur throughout the opera.

[Below: Kilian (Trevor Neal, left) and the village women make fun of the failure of Max (Corey Bix, second from left) to win a single round in the shooting contest; edited image, based on a Ben Schill photograph, courtesy of the Virginia Opera.]

The Virginia Opera Chorus has a dominant presence in the opera, memorable in the opening number in which it jeers the hapless Max and in the rousing Hunters’ chorus of the final act. Aaron Breed is Virginia Opera’s chorus master.

 Stephen Lawless’ production

The choice of Lawless for rethinking how to present the overlooked masterpiece proved to be brilliant. The staging is fast-paced, the English translation by Dan Dooner and Lawless is clear and persuasive.

The overture begins with the stage behind a darkened scrim with woodland images. During the overture’s finale we are transported to the Annual Shooting contest in which Max and the huntsman Killian are engaged.

The scenes in the hunting lodge where Kuno, Agathe and Aennchen reside were represented by interior boxes that could be moved on or off the center stages

The rustic sets were by Lawless’ frequent collaborator, Belgian set designer Benoit Dugardyn.

[Below: the Benoit Dugardyn sets for the Virginia Opera production of “The Magic Marksman”; edited image, based on a Ben Schill photograph, courtesy of the Virginia Opera.]

The bright costumes were those of Costume Designer Sue Wilmington, the lighting, including the spooky Wolf’s Glen scene, was designed by Patricia Collins.

Lawless ends the opera with the villagers not only abolishing the series of contests but surrendering their hunting rifles. This act of surrender reminded me that Lawless recently created a new production of Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette” for the Santa Fe Opera [Review: A Surprise at Santa Fe Opera – Joshua Guerrero joins Pérez, Aceto in Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette”, July 29, 2016], that ends with the armies of the opposing sides laying down their arms, an outcome consistent with The Bard’s play on which the opera is based.

Lawless returns to the “disarmament” theme for the end of “The Magic Marksman”, even though, to me, the idea of hunters in the wilds of Central New York at the turn of the 19th century surrendering their rifles seems implausible. (This is my only quibble with Lawless’ inventive production.)


Stephen Lawless’ Virginia Opera “Magic Marksman” is a production that should help awaken interest in North America in this worthy opera.

I enthusiastically recommend the production, cast and opera both to the opera veteran and the person new to opera.



Tags: 2005-2017: William's Reviews