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Gockley’s San Francisco Opera in 2008 – A Straight “A” Average

December 31st, 2008

For the third consecutive year of David Gockley’s San Francisco Opera General Directorship, I am summarizing my year’s performance reviews, having attended and reviewed at least one performance of each work mounted for the San Francisco Opera’s “main stage” at the War Memorial Opera House.

Also, I am grading each performance attended, following the grading scale established for the previous years. An “A” grade means that the performance was at a level expected of one of the world’s great opera houses. If there are special circumstances that make such a performance especially memorable, I will give an A+.

If there is a minor concern that did little to detract from an otherwise impressive performance, I will give an A-.  Grades of B, C (and theoretically lower) suggest increasingly significant problems or deficiencies. I have attended performances at San Francisco Opera or elsewhere that I would have graded with a D or F, but none of these have occurred during the General Directorship of David Gockley. (Although there were “B’s” and “C’s” given in 2006 and 2007, this was a time of transition between general directors with quite different approaches to choosing the operas to be performed.)

The summaries of each performance are my “snap reviews”. The more extensive review of each performance is hyperlinked.

Grade A+

Ariodante (Handel) – San Francisco Opera’s successes in performing Handelian opera are associated with the British stage director John Copley, who added another Handel masterpiece – about the mysterious kingdom of Scotland during the time of Charlemagne – to San Francisco Opera’s performance history.

[Below: Susan Graham (left) as the Knight Ariodant and Ruth Ann Swenson as Ginevra; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

The always memorable Susan Graham in the title role was joined by an impressive debut by Sonia Prina as the evil Polinesso, Duke of Albany, and an extraordinary performance by Ruth Ann Swenson as Ginevra. Others in the strong cast were Eric Owens as the King, Richard Croft as Lurcanio and Veronica Cangemi as Dalinda.  Patrick Summers conducted masterfully.

For a more extensive review, see: Graham, Swenson, Prina Luminous in S. F.’s Stellar “Ariodante” – June 15, 2008

Lucia di Lammermoor (Donizetti) – Natalie Dessay chose the most famous of all bel canto prima donna roles for her triumphant San Francisco Opera debut, joined by lyric tenor Giuseppe Filanoti, also debuting.

[Below: Natalie Dessay is Lucia and Giuseppe Filanoti is Edgardo in a Graham Vick – Paul Brown production; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Although another “Lucia” production was originally planned, Gockley substituted a production from the team of Graham Vick and Paul Brown. Brown’s set designs characteristically (and surreally) meld “inside” and “outside” scenes. Brown’s great moon and sloshy heather seemed a perfect setting for Dessay’s convincing portrait of a young girl seized by a murderous madness.

The orchestra, conducted by Jean-Yves Ossonce, included the ethereal glass harmonica that Donizetti had specified to accompany Lucia in her mad scene. Dessay’s coloratura fireworks and intense acting, the Vick-Brown production, and the glass harmonica made this a “Lucia” that surpassed the audience’s obviously high expectations.

For a more extensive review, see: Dessay’s Lucia di Lammermoor Delights in San Francisco – June 29, 2008

Simon Boccanegra (Verdi) – This was an average San Francisco Opera performance of Verdi’s late middle era masterpiece, but anyone knowing the star-studded performance history of this opera at the War Memorial, will know that this characterization is a huge compliment. Dmitri Hvorostovsky repeated his arresting portrait of a man who accepted power reluctantly but held it skillfully.

[Below: Dmitri Hvorostovsky is Simon Boccanegra, Doge of Genoa; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Barbara Frittoli was an affecting Maria Amelia, Patrick Carfizzi a properly sinister Paolo, and Vitalij Kowaljow, a basso cantante who deserves his place in the lustrous annals of great basses who have sung Fiesco Grimaldi in San Francisco. Marcus Haddock, whose lyric voice is taking on heavier roles, was quite good as Gabriele Adorno. Donald Runnicles demonstrated once again that he is as great a Verdi conductor as he is with Wagner, Mozart, Puccini and contemporary opera.

The beautiful production from Covent Garden, seen in San Francisco for the second time this decade, seems to suggest that we focus our attention on the beauty of the Ligurian Coast, the finery of the doge’s palace (and Verdi’s wonderful music), rather than the roughhouse political intrigues of this story about Renaissance Genoa.

For a more extensive review, see: Verdian Back to Basics: San Francisco’s Satisfying “Simon Boccanegra” – September 21, 2008.

The Bonesetter’s Daughter (Wallace) – Author Amy Tan proved to be an effective librettist for Stewart Wallace’s brilliant recreation of Tan’s best selling novel about a grandmother who lived a tormented life in rural China, her daughter who, as an adult, emigrated to the U. S., and a granddaughter who grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Conductor Steven Sloane melded the full San Francisco Opera orchestra with an expert group of Chinese percussionists and other masters of Chinese instruments to produce an astonishing and always interesting sound.

The principals that have been trained in the Western operatic tradition were Zheng Cao as Ruth Young Kamen and Ning Liang as her difficult mother, Luling Liu Young. They were ably supported by James Maddalena as Ruth Young’s husband and Catherine Cook as his mother.

[Below: a revelatory dinner at a San Francisco Chinese restaurant with Art Kamen (James Maddalena), Ruth Young Kamen (Zheng Cao), Luling Liu Young (Ning Liang) and Arlene Kamen (Catherine Cook); edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

The stage director, Chen Shi-Zheng, presided over as complex a series of multimedia events that has ever been shown on an operatic stage. In addition to such Western features as chorus and ballet (here engaged in Chinese music and dance), there were abundant elements of Chinese Opera – aerial gymnasts, and Chinese star Qian Yi, noted as a master of the kunju style of singing, as the grandmother (and bonesetter’s daughter), Precious Auntie. Qian Yi at times appeared as a ghost floating through through the air.

The Opera mobilized an array of talents – aerial choreographers, projection designers, even a Chinese rockstar who sang comprimario parts and played an ancient Chinese instrument, the suona.

For a more extensive review, see: Brilliant “Bonesetter’s Daughter” Dazzles at San Francisco Opera – September 20, 2008.

L’Elisir d’Amore (Donizetti) 2008 proved to be a great year in San Francisco for Gaetano Donizetti’s two most famous operas, with Dessay’s Lucia followed four months later by Ramon Vargas, surely the greatest Donizetti tenor currently performing, as Nemorino. Vargas’ colleagues in the romantic comedy, all in their San Francisco Opera debuts, were a spectacularly successful Inva Mula as Adina, Enrico Caoduro as Belcore and Alessandro Corbelli as Doctor Dulcamara.

[Ramon Vargas is Nemorino and Inva Mula is Adina; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

An attractive new production, shifting the opera’s time and place to the Napa Valley just before the U. S. enters World War I, is shared with Opera Colorado, Boston Lyric Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, Michigan Opera Theatre and Fort Worth Opera.

For a more extensive review, see: Vargas Shines Bright in Stellar S. F. “L’Elisir d’Amore” – November 9, 2008.

Grade A

Das Rheingold (Wagner) San Francisco Opera’s productions of the four operas of Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” were destroyed earlier this decade by the previous management, perhaps anxious to shed the costs of warehousing productions from the past. Unquestionably, if the sets still existed, it would be they, rather than Francesca Zambello’s “American Ring” that we San Franciscans would be seeing.

Not every Wagnerian wished to see the “Ring” presented as an adventure in pop American history, but Zambello’s creation, co-produced with the Washington National Opera, is always absorbing and truly thought-provoking. Having seen the “Rheingold” in San Francisco and “Walkuere” at the Kennedy Center, I hope this “Ring” survives the budgetary problems that have delayed WNO’s participation in developing the “Goetterdaemmerung” that will complete Zambello’s conceptualization.

But, even for Wagnerians who would prefer the Rhine not be transformed into the American River, nor Alberich and Mime become gold miners, nor the giants don big boots as construction workers, nor the gods reside in a Great Gatsby existence in some heavenly Hamptons, there was abundant treasure to be found.

[Below: Loge (Stefan Margrita, left) counsels Wotan (Mark Delavan) in Francesca Zambello’s “Great Gatsby” home of the gods; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Donald Runnicles again demonstrated that he is among the greatest of contemporary conductors of Wagner. The cast were exemplars of the idea that Wagnerian opera can be sung with the same attention to beautiful singing that one hears in early 19th century Italian opera. Mark Delavan was an imposing Wotan, Andrea Silvestrelli an extraordinary Fasolt and Stefan Margita a memorable Loge. Special kudos go to the Fricka of Jennifer Larmore, the Freia of Tamara Wapinsky and Mime of David Cangelosi.

The uniformly excellent cast also included Richard Paul Fink (Alberich),  Jason Collins (Froh), Charles Taylor (Donner), Jill Grove (Erda) and Guenther Groissboeck (Fafner). Catherine Cangiano, Lauren McNeese and Buffy Baggott were the seductive Rhinemaidens.

For more extensive performance reviews, see Delavan Shines in a Gleaming San Francisco “Rheingold” – June 14, 2008

and also: Pure Gold: A Second Look at S. F.’s “American Ring Rheingold” – June 22, 2008.

Die Tote Stadt (Korngold)Conductor Donald Runnicles triumphed in Salzburg and Vienna performances of Willy Decker’s surreal approach to Korngold’s opera. Set in the “dead city” of Bruges, the opera is about the widower Paul’s obsession with souvenirs of his dead wife. He works out his obsessions in dream sequences abounding in Freudian symbology.

This candidate for the most surreal of operas, requires a large orchestra and Wagner-size voices for the two principal roles. Torsten Kerl (Paul) and Emily Magee (Marie/Marietta) were sometimes challenged when singing over the “open pit” San Francisco Opera Orchestra playing at full volume in the cavernous War Memorial Opera House.

[Below: Torsten Kerl, kneeling left, as Paul observing Marietta’s troupe in a dream sequence; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

The Decker concepts were spectacular, and advanced the cause of an opera never before performed by the San Francisco Opera. The cast, including several of the San Francisco Opera’s Adler fellows, was excellent. Worth special mention is Lucas Meachem, who sympathetically portrayed the dreamworld Pierrot. Meachem’s presentation of the clown’s famous ballad was a performance highlight.

For a more extensive review, see: A Seductive Dream: Runnicles’ “Tote Stadt” at S. F. Opera – October 12, 2008.

Boris Godunov (Mussorgsky) – A Scandinavian team developed an inventive production of Mussorgsky’s 1869 original version of “Boris Godunov” for superstar basso Samuel Ramey in Geneva. Over time, the production came under the influence of David Gockley, then at Houston Grand Opera, who commissioned the production’s revision, again for Ramey. Once he assumed the leadership of San Francisco Opera, Gockley traded Houston for the “Boris” production, which now must be counted as a San Francisco treasure (Houston receiving a more traditional production of Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” in exchange).

The “Boris” 1869 version, which includes none of the Polish scenes, nor the characters of Marina and Rangoni, is directly based on Pushkin’s play and differs in substantive ways from all of the permutations of the 1872 version.

This early version failed to impress the Russian bureaucrats assigned to approving operas. Yet, those of us in the 21st century –  who would have quite different opinions from late 1860s Russian authorities on many topics – can see the inner strengths in this version that directly melds the genius of Pushkin with the music of Mussorgsky.

These San Francisco performances are Ramey’s farewell to this important role, and he mustered his decades of experience to produce a gripping, theatrical portrait of the tsar. Vitalij Kowaljow was Pimen to Ramey (as he had been to Ferruccio Furlanetto in San Diego Opera’s presentation of the 1869 version in 2007) in a role that is quite a bit larger than what remains of it in the 1872 revision.

[Below: Samuel Ramey is Tsar Boris Godunov and John Uhlenhopp is Prince Shiusky; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

One of this production’s most striking features is the expansion of the role of the Simpleton, who in the 1869 version appears in the St Basil’s Church scene, cut from the official 1872 version. In the San Francisco Opera production, the simpleton is a mute role that appears in the scenes that precede the St Basil’s scene.

For a more extensive review, see: Ramey at S. F. Opera in Fascinating 1869 “Boris” Production – November 2, 2008.

La Boheme (Puccini) – For all its strengths throughout the operatic repertoire, the San Francisco Opera is arguably the House of Puccini, with a long tradition of hosting the world’s greatest performers of the Tuscan maestro’s operas.

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of Puccini’s birth, San Francisco Opera mounted his most popular opera, “La Boheme” for a contemporary “world’s greatest performer”, Angela Gheorghiu. Returning to the conductor’s podium after a three year’s absence was Nicola Luisotti, who will be succeeding Donald Runnicles as Music Director and Chief Conductor next season.

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

Michael Yeargan’s attractive sets have features that will surprise those used to traditional productions of this most familiar of operas. The cast supporting Gheorghiu was a fine one, with Piotr Beczala the Rodolfo, Brian Mulligan the Marcello, Norah Amsellem the Musetta, Brian Leerhuber the Schaunard, and Oren Gradus the Colline.

For a more extensive review, see: The Luisotti “Boheme” in San Francisco – November 22, 2008.

Grade A-

Idomeneo (Mozart) – Mozart’s early masterpiece was performed well under the leadership of conductor Donald Runnicles, with Kurt Streit in the title role. The originally announced Idamante, Alice Coote, withdrew early in the performance run because of an injured back. She was replaced triumphantly by Daniela Mack, a San Francisco Opera Adler fellow.  The other principal roles were played by Genia Kuehmeier as Ilia and Iano Tamar as Elettra.

[Below: Kurt Streit is Idomeneo; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

My one reservation about the performance was the production, by John Copley. Although mostly interesting, it was compromised by some of John Conklin’s aging sets, seen here once a decade since the late 1980s. Conklin’s sets mix inspired scenes of great beauty with settings that suggest the shambles made of ancient structures by periodic earthquakes in tectonically active Crete.

Were this as far as Conklin wished to go, the production would work fine. But this “reality-based” look at Ancient Crete is compromised needlessly by other scenes with incongruous, surreal images of broken columns and damaged statuary hanging out of the sky.

San Francisco need not devote its resources to a new production of “Idomeneo”, but should not consider reviving this production, without commissioning a “restudy” of it. Otherwise, they should sell it to another company that can “refurbish” it.

For a more extensive review, see: An “Idomeneo” Surprise in San Francisco – Daniela Mack’s Princely Idamante – October 26, 2008.

For the 2007 year snap reviews and grades, see: Gockley’s San Francisco Opera in 2007 – Improving Already High Grades,

and also: Grading Gockley’s First Year in S. F.

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