Opera Warhorses

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

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Gockley’s San Francisco Opera in 2007 – Improving Already High Grades

December 10th, 2007

San Francisco Opera’s General Director David Gockley became the sixth person in history to hold that position at the beginning of Calendar Year 2006, technically midway in the 2005-06 season. For the San Francisco Opera’s administrative purposes (including the important function of selling season tickets), the opera “season” is considered to run from September to early July, but this website finds it just as logical to consider the opera year as going from the end of May to early December, with January through most of May and the July-August period considered the San Francisco Opera “off-season”, vacation, production planning and rehearsal months.

Gockley’s mid-year ascension to power reinforced my preference for thinking in terms of calendar years rather than “academic years”. Last year this led to posting a snapshot of my reviews of each of the calendar 2006 operas, rather like the end of the year summaries of some old-time newspaper critics. I also assigned letter grades. This year, in July and October, I published cumulative “snap reviews” of the 2007 season so far.

For today’s posting, my previous snap reviews are repeated, so that my reactions and the grades for all ten productions seen in 2007 are all together. Each snap review has been followed or will be followed by a more extensive review. (At the date of this posting, some of my longer essays on performances seen in October, November and December have not yet been posted. As each is completed, this post will be revised to place the appropriate hyperlink at the end of the snap review.)

I do not grade on a curve. Generally, if I regard a performance and its production as meeting “world class” expectations, it will receive an “A” or even an “A+”, if it is an extraordinary experience that excels such expectations.

I have seen most San Francisco Opera productions in the War Memorial Opera House presented since 1960 and I review performances at other houses also (in the year 2007 alone including four at the San Diego Opera, three at the Houston Grand Opera, and one each at the Los Angeles Opera, Washington National Opera (Kennedy Center), Opera National de Paris, Zurich Opera and Pittsburgh Opera) for this website. This experience helps give me some perspective on the performances on which I comment.

As a person who has been witness to what I regard as the previous heights of San Francisco Opera’s glory, during the general directorship of Kurt Herbert Adler, I have long felt that a slow decline in standards set in after Adler left in 1981 that accelerated in the 1990s and early part of this millenium.

I was hopeful that Gockley would eventually be able to reverse that trend. What is astonishing is how quickly the quality of singing and of the theatrical productions being performed in San Francisco has turned around. My grades for the 2007 operas have far exceeded what I expected to be assigning.

To be fair to Gockley’s predecessor, Pamela Rosenberg, some of the reversal of fortune was a result of commitments she and Musical Director Donald Runnicles made previous to her leaving, but Gockley picked and chose among her plans for Summer 2007 and the 2007-08 season, and the high grades (6 A+’s, 3 A’s and a B) for what actually was presented may be considered as resulting from his determination to refocus what San Francisco Opera is presenting.

To paraphrase one of his stated objectives, he is determined to make the San Francisco Opera a favorite place for the greatest operatic talents of the day. The great successes of 2007 include such incomparable singing talents as Thomas Hampson, Angela Gheorghiu, Mariusz Kwiecien, Susan Graham, Denyce Graves, James Morris, Patricia Racette and Olga Borodina. Several other equally impressive singers whose career paths are on an upward climb are given special notice in the summaries of the ten operas following. (Gockley has already announced or soon will announce the names of other major recording artists that have contracted to appear in 2008 or later seasons.)


The Rake’s Progress (Stravinsky) – It is possible to doubt that this opera, almost six decades old, will ever achieve the popularity of the operas of the standard operatic repertory, and still believe that this imaginative re-staging of the opera by a truly creative team – most of whose members hail from Quebec – can significantly increase the number of the opera’s champions. The corresponding musical team was as strong as one could imagine assembling: Donald Runnicles conducted, with William Burden (Tom Rakewell), James Morris (Nick Shadow), Denyce Graves (Baba the Turk), Laura Aiken (Ann Trulove), Kevin Langan (Trulove) and Steven Cole (Sellem the Auctioneer) in the key roles.

[James Morris is Nick Shadow and William Burden (seated) is Tom Rakewell; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

But it was the breathtaking Quebecois imagination – Stage Director Robert LePage, Set Designer Carl Fillion, Etienne Boucher (Lighting) and Francois Barbeau (Costumes), assisted by Stage Director Sybille Wilson – that transformed a high quality musical performance into a theatrical triumph. Shifting the story from 18th century London to East Texas oil fields, Hollywood movie lots, and the ocean view terrace (with swimming pool) of unhappily married media celebrities, made the sophisticated W. H. Auden libretto seem surprisingly au courant.

For a more detailed review, see: The Remaking of San Francisco Opera, Part IV: “The Rake’s Progress” – December 9, 2007


Madama Butterfly (Puccini) – When this powerful two-act rethinking of the David Yeargan-Ron Daniels conceptualization of the 20th century masterpiece was presented in 2006, it had the feel of an almost perfect performance – with Patricia Racette in the title role and Donald Runnicles conducting. If only there had been an equally worthy Pinkerton and Sharpless!

[Below: Patricia Racette enacting Butterfly’s suicide; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Gockley revived it the very next season with two cast/conductor teams splitting five non-subscription performances during holiday shopping season, and as the perfect gift for the holiday month for those holding the Runnicles-Racette option, Gockley teamed Racette with Brandon Jovanovich as Pinkerton and Stephen Powell as Sharpless.

For a more detailed review, see: The Remaking of San Francisco Opera Part III “Madama Butterfly” – December 8, 2007


La Rondine (Puccini) – This opera had only one main season performance of “La Rondine” in its history prior to Fall 2007, and that performance’s Magda was born in 1887 and its Ruggero in 1891. Nine decades after its world premiere the opera became the Fall’s surprise hit in San Francisco. The role of Magda became the vehicle for the San Francisco Opera debut role of Angela Gheorghiu, in Nicolas Joel’s elegant Toulouse production (co-produced with Covent Garden).

[Below: Angela Gheorghiu is Magda; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Her co-star, Mischa Didyk (Ruggero), continued his welcome display to San Francisco of his repertoire of Tchaikovsky and Puccini tenor roles. Gerard Powers (Prunier), Anna Christy (Lisette) and Philip Skinner (Rambaldo) effectively rounded out the assignments in roles critical to the plot, while Adler fellows Rhoslyn Jones, Melody Moore, Katharine Tier and Ji Young Yang provided luxury casting for four smaller comprimaria roles. After a 15-year absence, Ion Marin returned to the War Memorial to conduct.

For a more detailed review, see: The Remaking of the San Francisco Opera Part II: Gheorghiu and “Rondine” – November 25, 2007


Macbeth (Verdi) – Thomas Hampson proved his status as an operatic super-star is richly deserved in a bravura performance of this first of the great Verdi dramatic baritone roles. The contract with Hampson had been locked in by the previous General Manager, and with it an agreement to buy from Zurich Opera David Pountney’s easily ridiculed production of the opera, that savages both the Bard and the intentions of the great Italian composer. Performed in the weeks around Thanksgiving, thanks were in order in San Francisco for finally securing Hampson, whom its Opera had helped train in his early years, in a role worthy of his talents, while thanks were in order in Zurich for selling off a production that met many people’s definition of “Eurotrash”.

[Below: Thomas Hampson is Macbeth, observing the procession of Apparitions; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]


Hampson’s male colleagues – Raymond Aceto as Banquo, Alfredo Portilla as Macduff and Noah Stewart as Malcolm – were excellent. Had the Lady Macbeth (Georgina Lukacs) been of the same caliber, this performance would have scored a low A, in spite of the poorly received physical production.

For a more detailed review, see: Hampson Transcends Quirky “Macbeth” in S. F. – November 18, 2007


Appomattox (Glass) – Philip Glass’ idiosyncratic compositional style, that builds on repeating musical patterns, interspersed with effusive melody, provides the matrix for a profound musical AND theatrical experience of a kind that one misses in much of contemporary opera. Those of us who appreciate Wagner’s genius may recognize the parallels between “Appomattox” and the mature compositions of Wagner – the wall of sound created by a large orchestra and chorus in support of the principal singers, the imaginative use of stagecraft and lighting, and the intent that the words of the drama are always understood. Conductor Dennis Russell Davies led the extraordinary effort.

In this case the words that librettist Christopher Hampton and Glass have assembled are almost always based on the actual words or reported sentiments of the historical characters presented, but, again like Wagner, it is the composer himself clearly in command of every aspect of this production. There are other parallels with opera from the Romantic era, including the intermixture of chorus and principals engaged in exuberant melodies, such as the chorus of black soldiers from the Arkansas Brigade arriving in defeated Richmond, or in expressions of sorrow and profound loss, poignantly sung by the wives of the President (Heidi Melton as Mary Todd Lincoln) and Generals Grant (Rhoslyn Jones as Julia Dent Grant) and Lee (Elza van den Heever as Mary Custis Lee).

This is a message opera. Glass’ message is that three great men – President Lincoln (Jeremy Galyon) and Generals Grant (Andrew Shore) and Lee (Dwayne Croft) – had agreed on a strategy of reconciliation at the end of one of the most destructive experiences in all of human history, but that forces intent on revenge, unwilling to accept defeat, postponed that reconciliation for another hundred years. Those forces led to the assassination of Lincoln and the creation of the Ku Klux Klan as agents of a century of acts of murder and mayhem vividly chronicled by the opera.

[Below: General Ulysses S. Grant (Andrew Shore), left, and General Robert E. Lee (Dwayne Croft); edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Noah Stewart, one the seven current Adler Fellows creating roles in this opera, gives a memorable portrait of T. Morris Chester, a black journalist who reported on both the Fall of Richmond and a massacre of black soldiers seven years later. Towards the end of the opera in a gripping monologue, white supremist Edgar Ray Killen (in an extraordinary portrayal by Philip Skinner), disabled and in jail for his part in the murders of civil rights leaders in th 1960s, shows himself unrepentent. But it is the revulsion one feels at the events Glass and Hampton have chosen to mark this dark period of history that suggests that Killen (who as of this date is still alive) is the tragic anachronism, and that this nation has for years been working out the reconciliation that had been so important to the president and the two generals. Wagner used opera to promote the unification of Germany, Verdi the unification of Italy. Glass, raised in Baltimore, sees the need to promote reconciliation of North and South, white and black, and, in his mission, has created a masterpiece.

For a more detailed review, see: The Remaking of San Francisco Opera, Part I: Glass’ “Appomattox” – October 14, 2007


Die Zauberfloete (Mozart) – What originally had been announced as the 1980 Maurice Sendak production of “The Magic Flute” – a milestone in Gockley’s career at Houston – had to be changed when it was discovered that flooding from 2005’s Hurricane Wilma (which hit Florida when the Sendak production was being warehoused by Miami’s Florida Grand Opera) had resulted in irreparable long-term damage to the existing sets and costumes. Fortunately, Gockley was able to secure the Los Angeles Opera’s production, designed by British satirical cartoonist Gerald Scarfe and directed by Stanley M. Garner. It proved to be a magical experience, with dazzling costumes and sets from Scarfe’s apparently limitless imagination.

[Below: Tamino (Piotr Beczala), on ground, has drawn the attention of the Three Ladies (Kendall Gladen, Elza van den Heever and Katherine Tier); edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Donald Runnicles was again at the helm as conductor. The crucial trio of Tamino, Pamina and Papageno were triumphantly performed respectively by Piotr Beczala, Dina Kuznetsova and and the debuting Christopher Maltman. Other contributors to a successful evening were Erika Miklosa (Queen of the Night), Elza van den Heever, Kendall Gladen and Katharine Tier as the Queen’s hilarious three ladies, Greg Fedderly (Monostatos) and Georg Zeppenfeld, a baritonal-sounding Sarastro (but with a basso’s low notes) in his American debut.

For a more detailed review, see: The Magic Scarfe: “Zauberfloete” in San Francisco – October 13, 2007


Tannhauser (Wagner) – Graham Vick and Ian Judge are both stage directors renowned for their productions of The Bard’s plays, and both have taken on the assignment to find new meanings in contemporary productions of Wagner’s “Tannhauser”, Vick for the first new production planned by new San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley, Judge for last Winter’s Los Angeles Opera season. What each found is astonishing. Where Judge displayed great interest in the First Act’s Venusberg, presented so graphically that it not only shocked the socially conforming minnesingers in the Wartburg, but much of Los Angeles as well, Vick mined the second act’s song contest. In fact, the whole opera is transformed into a large unit set representing the Wartburg hall where music competitions were held.

[Below: Elizabeth (Petra Maria Schnitzer) opens the Hall of the Minnesingers; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Vick found his handle on the mysterious story by transforming both pilgrims and minnesingers into a community of religious charismatics. In this presentation, Tannhauser is being pulled by two different worlds, each as passionate and centered on self-abandonment to communal love (spiritual in the Wartburg, physical in the Venusberg) as the other, but completely at odds with the other world. Petra Maria Schnitzer (Elizabeth) sounded as beautiful as she did in February in Los Angeles, but her husband Peter Seiffert was in much better voice in San Francisco than earlier, confirming his reputation as a great Tannhauser. James Rutherford (Wolfram), Petra Lang (Venus), Stefan Margita (Walther) and Gregory Reinhart (Biterolf) were vocally impressive. Donald Runnicles conducted superbly.

For a more detailed review, see: Charismatic S. F. “Tannhauser” – October 12, 2007


Samson et Dalila (Saint-Saens) San Francisco Opera in the late 1970s was a crucible for the creativity of Nicolas Joel, then a youthful apprentice to Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. Kurt Herbert Adler invited Joel to create a new production of Saint-Saens exotic French grand opera, “Samson et Dalila” in 1980 for Placido Domingo, Shirley Verrett and Wolfgang Brendel. This production, with sets created by Douglas Schmidt, is one of the most stylish of the Adler era, and is as bright and colorful as it was 27 years earlier. Although the Joel-Schmidt production is often seen in other opera houses, it was designed for San Francisco War Memorial Opera House and its elegance shines there.

[Below: Clifton Forbis is the blinded Samson; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

The 2007 mounting, conducted by Patrick Summers, stars Clifton Forbis and Olga Borodina, both effective in the title roles. Incisive stage direction by Sandra Bernhard helps make the point that while the Israelite men are a frightening force to the Philistine men, Dalila and the Philistine women know how to get the better of the Israelite men.

For a more detailed review, see: Exotic Immersion: “Samson” in S. F. – September 11, 2007


Der Rosenkavalier (Richard Strauss) Conductor Donald Runnicles led a performance that exceeded even the high standards of the San Francisco Opera, a company with a long history of presenting “Der Rosenkavalier” as intended. He opened many of the traditional performance cuts imposed on this opera. The rivals Octavian and Ochs were played by as convincing a pair of singing actors (Joyce Di Donato and Kristinn Sigmundsson) as have ever appeared here in those roles, Sigmundsson playing Ochs, not as a lout, but a nobleman with a considerable degree of class. The two objects of Octavian’s attentions were enchantingly sung by Miah Persson, the Sophie, and Soile Isokoski, the Marschallin, both of whom joined Di Donato in a memorable last act trio.

[Below: Soile Isokoski is the Marschallin and Joyce di Donato is Octavian at the end of an affair; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Deep casting resulted in noteworthy performances by Jochen Schmeckenbecher (Faninal), Bruce McPherson (Italian Tenor), David Cangelosi (Valzacchi), Catherine Cook (Annina), Heidi Melton (Marianne) and Jeremy Galyon (doubling as the Notary and Police Commissioner).

For a more detailed performance review, see: S. F. Opera – A Center for “Rosenkavalier” Excellence: June 24, 2007


Iphigenie en Tauride (Gluck) The opera is a museum piece, but the best museums house priceless treasures. Susan Graham is peerless in late 18th century roles such as Iphigenie. Bo Skovhus as her brother Oreste and Paul Groves as his soul-mate Pylade prove that Gluck’s later operas can delve into psychological realms and, with beautiful music sung with dramatic flair, can hold audience interest. Producer Robert Carsen, absent from San Francisco for almost two decades since his wildly successful conceptualization of Boito’s “Mefistofele”, has proposed some tentative solutions to the riddles of mounting this opera for contemporary audiences.

[Below: Susan Graham (with sword) is Iphigenie, Bo Skovhus is Orest, surrounded by dancers who act out the drama; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

The chorus is moved to the orchestra pit, where the extraordinary talent of Conductor Patrick Summers holds sway over chorus and orchestra. The principals on stage are joined by a troupe of over two dozen dancers. An almost constant presence, the dancers move the action along, and help bring these characters from classical Greek drama to life.

For a more detailed performance review, see: Night at the Museum: “Iphigenie en Tauride” Springs to Life in S. F. – June 17, 2007


Don Giovanni (Mozart) – Mariusz Kwiecien’s indelible image as a demonic Don Giovanni, prancing about the new production by David McVicar, earns his place in the San Francisco Opera pantheon of immortal performances in this role.

[Below: Mariusz Kwiecien is Don Giovanni; edited image, based on a John Lee photo, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

As an opening night surprise, Adler Fellow Elza van den Heever made a triumphant debut (her first appearance on any major opera company’s stage) as Donna Anna and won a sustained audience ovation. Conductor Donald Runnicles and the rest of the cast (including Oren Gradus, Twyla Robinson, Claudia Mahnke, Charles Castronovo and Kristinn Sigmundsson) were invariably excellent, with newcomer Luca Pisaroni making a strong debut impression as Masetto.

For a more detailed performance review, see: Kwiecien Excels in McVicar’s Dark Side “Don Giovanni” – S. F. June 2, 2007

The snap reviews and grading for the 2006 season can be accessed at: Grading Gockley’s First Year in S. F.

Tags: 2005-2016 William's Commentaries