Opera Warhorses

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San Francisco Opera’s Calendar Year 2010 – Straight “A” Average Trending Higher

December 12th, 2010

Note from William: Since 2006, at the end of each calendar year concurrent with the David Gockley administration at the San Francisco Opera, I have given letter grades to each of the productions performed by the company that year.

The criteria are simple. An “A” reflects a musical and theatrical performance and production that would meet the standards for a “world class” performance in any opera company internationally. And, to make sure that I remain informed of what “the world” is offering, I periodically attend and review performances at many of the major opera companies of North America and Europe.

Since San Francisco Opera is the only company whose every production I have attended at least once during each calendar year since 2006, it is the only one that I rate in this fashion. (I think it would be unfair to make any comparable judgment of another company in which I missed significant numbers of their productions. Perhaps it’s also unfair to choose this one company to bestow this annual rating to, but once something like this starts, and people look for it, it takes a while to get out of the habit of doing it.)

There is one obvious thing about the ratings. The grades have been rising over time. There has been no “C” awarded since 2006, and nothing lower than an “A-” since 2008. This year, there are six rated A+ and three rated A. This is not, in my estimation, grade inflation. It is indicative that the partnership of General Director David Gockley and Musical Director Nicola Luisotti has achieved higher overall standards for the San Francisco Opera than it has enjoyed since the “Golden Age” of General Director Kurt Herbert Adler (1954-1981).

And, with the summer performances of Francesca Zambello’s wondrous production of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs” and the 2011-12 season soon to be announced, which will include such fare as the season opening performances of Puccini’s “Turandot”, the world premiere of Christopher Theofanidis’ “Heart of a Soldier” and Renee Fleming’s return in John Pascoe’s extraordinary production of Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia” (among the operas sure to get an early “buzz”), it looks to me like purchasing San Francisco Opera tickets for calendar year 2011 is a worthwhile investment as well.

Eight of the nine productions performed by the San Francisco Opera in 2010 were “new to San Francisco” and three of the nine (“Fanciulla”, “Werther” and “Vec Makropulos”)  were new productions, never before seen anywhere.

Grade A+

La Fanciulla del West – The Girl of the Golden West (Puccini)

San Francisco Opera, the nearest international opera company to the geographic location of  “The Girl of the Golden West”, showed off an appealing new production of Puccini’s musically complex masterpiece in honor of the opera’s 100th birthday.  It provided the occasion for the role debuts for the three principals (Deborah Voigt’s Minnie, Salvatore Licitra’s Dick Johnson, and Roberto Frontali’s Jack Rance), as well as the role debuts for every other member of the cast. This new to “Fanciulla” team set forth high musical and dramatic standards to inaugurate the opera’s next century .

Lorenzo Mariani’s production concept,whose sets are by Maurizio Balo, is a joint project with Sicily’s Teatro Massimo di Palermo (where late December 2010 performances are scheduled with Licitra and Frontali) and Liege, Belgium’s Opera Royal de Wallonie.

[Below: Minnie (Deborah Voigt) persuades the men of the mining camp to release Dick Johnson (Salvatore Licitra) from the gallows; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Conductor Nicola Luisotti, a champion for this work, led the San Francisco Opera Orchestra in a demonstration of the score’s brilliance. Tenore di forza Licitra displayed the kind of voice of power and beauty for which the War Memorial Opera House was built. Voigt proved that a Wagnerian power voice with a luminous top is the perfect sound for Minnie.

[For my performance reviews, see: Voigt, Licitra Lead Sizzling San Francisco Centennial Celebration for “Girl of the Golden West” – June 9, 2010 and A Second Look: Nicola Luisotti, San Francisco Opera, Champions of “Fanciulla del West” – June 27, 2010.)

Die Walkuere (Wagner)

New to San Francisco is the second opera in Francesca Zambello’s clever “Ring of the Nibelungs”. Its life begun in a joint project with the Washington National Opera, where this “Walkuere” production was first seen in 2007 (see my review at Zambello’s Dazzling “American Ring ‘Walkuere’” at Kennedy Center – March 28, 2007). Zambello demonstrates that themes of power lust, insincerity, manipulation, betrayal, delusion, love and self-sacrifice are universal, and fit just as well surrounded by iconic American images as they do in, say, a primeval forest inhabited by Teutonic gods.

[Below: Wotan (Mark Delavan, lowest step left) and Bruennhilde (Nina Stemme, lowest step right) are flanked by Bruennhilde’s eight Valkyr sisters; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The production proved four things. First, that Wagnerian opera can be sung beautifully, and Mark Delavan (Wotan), Nina Stemme (Bruennhilde), Eva-Marie Westbroek (Sieglinde), Christopher Ventris (Siegmund), Raymond Aceto (Hunding) and Janina Baechle (Fricka) did just that.

Second, that the imagination of Francesca Zambello and the superb acting skills of this cast can make a thrillingly dramatic experience out of this long opera, with the first act’s scenes between Westbroek, Ventris and Aceto worthy of study in a stage actor’s master class. Third, Conductor Donald Runnicles and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra achieve Wagner’s goal that the orchestra is itself the major character in the opera, and fourth, that those who attend next Summer’s Runnicles-led complete “Ring”  are assured of one hell of a show.

[For my performance reviews, see: An American “Walkuere”: Runnicles, Wagner and Zambello At San Francisco Opera – June 10, 2010 and A Second Look: Stemme, Delavan, Lead Power Cast of San Francisco Opera “Walkuere” – June 13, 2010.]

Aida (Verdi)

Two distinct themes are merged in a new to San Francisco unveiling of Houston Grand Opera’s “Aida” co-production with the Royal Opera House Covent Garden – one the colorful sets and two the Verdian singing. The physical sets are immersed in psychedelic colors conceived by the maven of London’s Carnaby Street counterculture, Zandra Rhodes.

[Below: Aida (Micaela Carosi) in an introspective moment; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

But it is not Rhodes’ pleasing palette that in itself earns the A+. What made this an ultimate “Aida” is the artistic leadership of San Francisco Opera’s musical director, Conductor Nicola Luisotti, enlisting a superb cast he assembled from among artists he has worked with in his international career: the Italians Micaela Carosi (Aida), Marcello Giordani (Radames) and Marco Vratogna (Amonasro) and the American Dolora Zajick (Amneris). Even the smallest roles had noteworthy voices, with the emerging star tenor David Lomeli as the Messenger.

[For my review, see: Brilliant Cast, Colorful Production, Luisotti’s Masterful Conducting Enliven San Francisco “Aida” – September 19, 2010.]

Werther (Massenet)

The second “new to the world” production of 2010 is Mexican Stage Director Francisco Negrin’s complex and insightful production of Massenet’s “Werther”, co-produced with Chicago’s Lyric Opera, which will mount it in 2012. The character of Werther, conceived by Goethe, is the archetype of a dangerously obsessed individual, who destroys himself before he manages to wreck the lives of those around him.

Massenet created a lushly melodic opera, whose title role (here sung beautifully by Ramon Vargas) is one of the prime roles for a lyric tenor to show accomplishment in the French style. What Negrin unlocks in this production is the surreality with which Werther sees the world, which creates its own surreal thoughts (which Negrin manifests in a dream) in Charlotte (Alice Coote), the reluctant object of his affection. Imaginatively, Negrin portrays the characters of Albert (Brian Mulligan) and Sophie (Heidi Stober) as having a much more central role to the opera’s plot’s evolution than one experiences in traditional productions.

[Below: Albert (Brian Mulligan, below) has become concerned that the student Werther (Ramon Vargas, above) is obsessed with Albert’s wife; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

A couple of the critics, apparently defending the traditional ways of presenting Werther (showing him as just another lovesick tenor?), so missed the mark on what Negrin was doing, that Negrin himself responded to one particularly caustic electronic review by citing my review of his production (see below) as someone who understood Negrin’s intentions.

For those in Chicago, thinking forward to 2012, I strongly recommend the production, and personally look forward to seeing it again.

[For my review, see: “Werther” Re-invented, Yet Again – Francisco Negrin’s New Production at San Francisco Opera, September 15, 2010.]

Le Nozze di Figaro (Mozart)

Just because Nicola Luisotti has proven himself an amazing conductor for the operatic works of Verdi, Puccini and Richard Strauss, doesn’t mean he can’t be phenomenal conducting Mozart as well. San Franciscans were treated to a lively performance by the San Francisco Opera orchestra with Luisotti at the keyboard (harpsichord, of course) as well as the podium.

However, as a precautionary measure to be sure that Luisotti’s first performances of Mozart in San Francisco were fail safe, he was given as good a Mozart cast as one can imagine assembling, led by the engaging Figaro of Luca Pisaroni and the incomparable Susanna of Daniele De Niese, in her San Francisco Opera debut. Also in the cast were the charming Countess Almaviva of Ellie Dehn, another stalwart performance by Lucas Meachem as the Count Almaviva, and a welcome San Francisco Opera debut for Michele Losier (Cherubino).

[Below: Luca Pisaroni as Figaro; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

As if these principals were not enough to assure a Luisotti triumph, the legendary John Copley was brought in as stage director for this Zack Brown production that Copley himself directed when it was new in ’82. The resulting stage business was hilarious, not in small measure due to the comic antics of John Del Carlo (Don Bartolo), Catherine Cook (Marcellina) and Greg Fedderly (Don Basilio).

[For my performance review, see: Copley Directs, Luisotti Conducts, Sparkling “Nozze” Ensemble – San Francisco Opera, October 3, 2010.]

Vec Makropulos – The Makropulos Case (Janacek)

Nothing in the season was more symbolic in linking David Gockley’s leadership to the Golden Age of Kurt Herbert Adler than his creation of a new production of the mellifluous Janacek fantasy opera, “Vec Makropulos”, for which Adler mounted the American premiere, as “The Makropulos Case”, for Marie Collier in 1966.

[Below: Elina Makropulos (Karita Mattila) has used sex to get the formula to extend her existence; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Just as Adler chose Collier and Anja Silja, both great singing actresses, to perform the role of Emilia Marty/Elina Makropulos (a decade apart), Gockley chose Karita Mattila, who was electrifying in the part. The opera also introduced yet another world class artist, the Czech conductor Jiri Belohlavek, who achieved stunning results from the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

The team of Olivier Tambosi and Frank Philipp Schloessmann, responsible for the successful production of Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” for Mattila in Gockley’s first season in San Francisco, staged and designed the new production of “Vec Makropulos”.

[For the performance review, see: Brilliant Belohlavek Conducts Mattila’s Masterful “Makropulos” – San Francisco Opera, November 28, 2010.]

Grade A

Faust (Gounod)

We are in the period of celebrating the 150th anniversary of the earliest versions of Gounod’s “Faust”, the opera which became so popular that no French opera written before it has ever regained the level of popularity that “Faust” has maintained. In a production from Lyric Opera in Chicago, whose sets are by Robert Perdziola, the battle of angels (whose skin in the game was the angelic voice and witty acting of the Marguerite of Patricia Racette) and of demons (personified by the suave and all too likable Mephistopheles of John Relyea) plays out with stage direction by Jose Maria Condemi.

[Below: Faust (Stefano Secco) chats up Marguerite (Patricia Racette); edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Other noteworthy performances were the Valentin of Brian Mulligan and Siebel of Daniela Mack. Had Stefano Secco, the Faust, appeared in the Lyric Opera’s production of the opera with these sets (which I reviewed in November 2009), in a version that  Frank Corsaro directed, he would have ended up in heaven with Marguerite. San Francisco stage director, Condemi (as do I), sees Faust as a damnable scoundrel, so Secco’s Faust ends up in Hell.

[For my performance reviews, see: Racette Ravishing, Relyea Riveting in San Francisco “Faust” – June 5, 2010 and A Second Look: A Visually, Aurally Praiseworthy “Faust” at San Francisco Opera – June 20, 2010.]

Madama Butterfly (Puccini)

Stefano Secco, here as Pinkerton, performs his second “he done her wrong” role in San Francisco this year. In the performance I reviewed, the woman of misfortune, Cio Cio San, was played by Daniela Dessi. San Franciscans have only seen Dessi briefly, in mid-1990s performances of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”  and as this year’s second Butterfly, so have missed much of her career’s prime, but she gave a creditable rendition of Cio Cio San, which, with Secco’s Pinkerton, provided insight into an authentic Italian performance style.

[Below: Butterfly (Daniela Dessi) arrives on her wedding night, surrounded by her relatives; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The production, a treasure of Chicago’s Lyric Opera, was that of the legendary Harold Prince.

[For my performance review, see: Harold Prince’s Vintage “Butterfly” in San Francisco – November 5, 2010.]

Cyrano de Bergerac (Alfano)

On paper, the idea of reviving an opera by early 20th century post-verismo composer Franco Alfano, might not seem logical in a time of economic stress. But these days, to get Placido Domingo, the tenor for whom “superstar” seems an inadequate adjective, you produce whatever he requests. To make the command performance of more than routine interest, layer upon layer of intriguing features were incorporated.

An attractive production from Paris’ Theatre du Chatelet, whose first two scenes were especially memorable, was mounted. The musical score, often studiously alike the musical scores of such 1930s Errol Flynn cinematic extravaganzas as “Captain Blood”, fit nicely with a staging that enlisted a team of fencers to delight the audience in a  coup de theatre of swashbuckling (in the spirit of the original meaning of the adjective) fencing.

[Below: in a bakery that whips up pastries for the royal court, Cyrano (Placido Domingo, front) writes a note; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The three main characters, which, besides Domingo’s Cyrano, included Ainhoa Arteta’s Roxane and Thiago Arancam’s Christian, were attractively cast. Whether the personal issues of these three characters rise to “operatic” concerns is another matter, but there was no doubt that Domingo, whose amazing voice, now more baritonal than in decades past, retains its beauty and power, made this unusual opera into a razzle dazzle showpiece.

[For my performance review, see: Domingo’s Swashbuckling, Cinematic San Francisco “Cyrano” – November 6, 2010.]

For my review of John Pascoe’s production of Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia” at Washington National Opera, that would have rated an A+ using this scale, see: The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Radvanovsky, Grigolo in Pascoe’s WNO “Lucrezia Borgia” – November 17, 2008.

For the previous year end reports and grades on the San Francisco Opera seasons, see:

Grading Gockley’s San Francisco Opera 2009: Another Straight A Average, and

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

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

Grading Gockley’s First Year in S. F.

For those who wish to contact me to agree or disagree, please send me an e-mail at operawarhorses@yahoo.com.  Some of those comments may be published at some future date.

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