Opera Warhorses

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

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Best Bet Revivals of “World Class” Operatic Productions 2007-08

July 29th, 2007

This website has reviewed several live operatic performances over the past two years that I believe are worthy of the attention of the wider community of opera aficionados. Some I have characterized as “world class”, suggesting that it would have been worth the effort for an opera aficionado to have gone to some considerable trouble and expense to have experienced the performance. But how does one know they are going to see a world class performance?

If one is a season subscriber in a house that seeks to present the best possible productions and casts available in the world, there is a good chance that that mission will be accomplished rather often. But it seems inconceivable in an age with a much larger number of opera companies producing works than, say, six decades ago, that any one company anywhere will have a monopoly on the best productions and casts of every opera in the world’s performance repertoire.

For most opera-goers who are subscribers to a particular company’s performance series, the time, logistics and costs of attending the operas performed by the casts that their season tickets provide them, may well exhaust the resources they can devote to opera. However, even those who support one company may wish from time to time to see something different in another venue.

Sometimes there is even the opportunity to see a performance that would be as good (or better) as can be seen in any place in the world. Unfortunately, trying to divine which performance is going to be world class and which one routine or even sub-optimal is a tricky one.

One can try to guess what will be great from the general reputation of the opera company or the assembled cast, or, perhaps a bit less often, from confidence (based on past experience) in the work of a particular production designer or stage director.

I think one very good predictor of a potentially “world class” experience, is that a production recognized as world class is revived by an opera company, whose management is demonstrating the same care in choice of conductor, stage director and cast as the original production. (Just repeating a great production will not necessarily work if lesser talents have taken on the assignment from the first cast and crew.)

Beginning with this page, this website will highlight those revivals of “best of class” productions as “Best Bets Among Current Revivals”, two at the San Francisco Opera and one at the San Diego Opera. The revivals cited on this page are those that I have personally seen in the house in which they originally premiered, and which are being revived at that house.

In a later posting, I will mention productions that I regard as of more than routine interest, that I have seen performed at one opera company, that are scheduled to be performed at another. Obviously, neither web-page will be represented as an exhaustive list of revivals of great productions scheduled to be seen in some part of the world, but recommendations made out of personal experience.

Each of the productions appearing on the “best bet” list is strongly recommended. Each production previously had an extensive review on this website which is cited. In the case of each of the revivals, I am planning to attend a performance of the revival. Those interested in these three performances should be aware that each is likely to sell out, sooner rather than later.

Best Bets among Current Revivals of World Class Operatic Productions;

Samson et Dalila (Saint-Saens), San Francisco Opera, September 7, 11, 13, 16 (matinee), 19, 22, 25, 28, 2007.

In the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s, San Francisco Opera General Director Kurt Herbert Adler poured millions of dollars into creating elaborate opera productions meant to last for decades, but many of these appear to have been discarded by current General Director David Gockley’s immediate predecessors, who seem not to have regarded custodianship of production masterpieces as any of their concern.

[Below: Dalila (Olga Borodina) leads the Bacchanale; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

For those who wonder about San Francisco Opera’s past glory, Nicholas Joel’s 1980 production with Douglas W. Schmidt’s sets, originally created for Placido Domingo, Shirley Verrett and Wolfgang Brendel, miraculously survived. This production, which is frequently downsized for presentation by smaller opera companies, has been a popular vehicle for proselytizing this most accessible of the French Grand Operas in other parts of the United States. (Bizet’s “Carmen”, Gounod’s “Faust” and Massenet’s “Manon” were not conceived, as was “Samson”, in the French grand opera style.)

However, to enjoy the full magnificence of both the opera and the production, one must see it in the War Memorial Opera House, for which these lavish sets were created. This would also be a great time for those who come to the work with real or imagined prejudice to open one’s mind to the lush and beautiful, but highly sophisticated, music and to its psychological drama, which transcends the French grand opera genre.

Opening San Francisco Opera’s 2007-08 season, Olga Borodina, arguably one of the greatest Dalilas in the opera’s performance history, is scheduled to repeat the role at the War Memorial, with Juha Uusitilo (High Priest) and Oren Gradus (The Old Hebrew) in major supporting roles. Clifton Forbis, the scheduled Samson, making his San Francisco Opera debut, is an unknown at the War Memorial, but performed this difficult role most creditably in San Diego Opera performances earlier this year at the slightly smaller San Diego Civic Theatre (see the review of his performance, cited below). Patrick Summers conducts the San Francisco Opera orchestra.

For the performance review, see: Exotic Immersion: “Samson” in S. F. – September 11, 2007.

For the review of this production in San Diego, with Clifton Forbis as Samson, see Seductive Denyce Graves Enthralls San Diego in “Samson et Dalila” – February 23, 2007.

Madama Butterfly (Puccini), San Francisco Opera, December 1, 5, 6, 8 (matinee), 8 (evening), 2007.

“Butterfly” is hands down the world’s most popular 20th century opera, and, paradoxically (like Puccini’s following work “La Fanciulla del West”) it remains undervalued. San Francisco Opera’s general director, David Gockley, its current music director, Donald Runnicles, and Runnicles’ announced successor, Nicola Luisotti, all approach Puccini (arguably the musical heir of both Verdi and Wagner) reverentially.

The Yeargan production of “Butterfly” (with its welcome 2006 revisions) is an extraordinary experience, returning to the original two act version that allows the vigil of Butterfly, Suzuki and the boy to continue through the night hours to the morning. It was that scene and Belasco’s stage lighting that attracted Puccini to the story. This production, incorporating a century of improvements in stage lighting technology with a fascinating, impressionistic characterization of early 20th century Japan, recreates the magic for the 21st century.

[Below: Suzuki (Zheng Cao, right) guards the sleeping Cio Cio San (Patricia Racette); edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

After his 2007-08 season was revealed, Gockley announced the addition of this opera, with five non-subscription performances occurring during San Francisco’s high season for holiday shopping. Two cast and conductor teams were announced with Runnicles and Patricia Racette (Butterfly) joining debuting Brandon Jovanovich (Pinkerton) for three performances and Conductor Stephen Smith, Marie Plette (Butterfly) and Carlo Ventre (Pinkerton) for the other two. Debuting Stephen Powell is scheduled to sing all five performances of Sharpless (two on one day) as is Zheng Cao, the Suzuki.

For those who might be tempted to San Francisco during the first eight days of December, consider this treat as an early present to themselves.

For the performance review, see: The Remaking of San Francisco Opera Part III “Madama Butterfly” – December 8, 2007.

For a review of a performance of this production last summer, in the context of the contemporary re-evaluation of Puccini’s great masterpiece, see: Puccini, Yeargan and Racette Team for Masterful S. F. Butterfly – June 18, 2006.

The Pearl Fishers – Les Pecheurs de Perles (Georges Bizet), San Diego Opera, May 3, 6, 9, 11 (matinee), 2008.

San Diego Opera tickets can be notoriously hard to secure, when the word gets out that an upcoming production is expected to be a hit. This production, created in 2004 by pop artist Zandra Rhodes, sold out months in advance. On its tour to other U. S. cities, including a very successful mounting at the San Francisco Opera, it charmed audiences everywhere. Returning to the San Diego Civic Theatre four seasons later, it highlights Charles Castronovo, who was memorable as Nadir in San Francisco, with Ekaterina Siurina (Leila) and Malcolm MacKenzie (Zurga) completing the triangle. Jose Gallisa reprises Nourabad, and Karen Keltner conducts.

[Below: Zurga (Russell Braun) arranges for the escape of Nadir (Michael Schade) and Leila (Isabel Bayrakdarian) in Zandra Rhodes production of Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

If one is able to secure tickets to this delight, regard it as more than the “guilty pleasure” that some characterize this 1863 work to be. The San Diego production benefits from some of the excellent musicological scholarship that Bizet’s operas are experiencing in recent years. This performance will be much closer to what Bizet intended than traditional 20th century performances, and proves revelatory as an early flash of genius from one of the great composers who died tragically young. For the real guilty pleasure, you will be in San Diego in early May.

For the performance review, see: Castronovo, Siurina Lead Magical San Diego Opera “Pearl Fishers” – May 9, 2008.

For more on Bizet, the musicological scholarship on “Pecheurs de Perles” and Zandra Rhodes, see: A new look for Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers”: Zandra Rhodes in San Diego & S.F.

Tags: Quests and Anticipations