Opera Warhorses

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

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

January 19th, 2011

The very first commentary I wrote for this website, entitled Expanding 1955’s Standard Repertory, was my  second ever web post. Five years and a few weeks hence, its discussion remains relevant.

To an extent the economic downturn in the latter half of the five year period, has made that commentary’s conclusion that expansion of the opera repertory continues to be concentrated with operas that premiered during the 140 year period between Mozart’s “Nozze di Figaro” and Puccini’s “Turandot” even more solid. If anything, opera companies have become more cautious in their offerings, with “Nozze di Figaro” and “The Magic Flute”,  the two principal bel canto comedies Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” and Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore”, Verdi’s “La Traviata” and Puccini’s “La Boheme” and “Madama Butterfly” becoming seemingly indispensible fare to buttress the seasons of most companies.

In this environment, less familiar fare entails risk. The risk can be beyond the capability of a company to manage it, as when a local opera company that had adventurously announced a Handel opera had to cancel its season because ticket sales for the baroque masterpiece were cripplingly low.

Committing to a new production of a broadly unfamiliar work can be especially stressful for any company. Thus, it has been very satsifying to witness the re-evaluation of Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West)” that I have argued was very much needed, occurring simultenously in several centers of opera performance. The catalyst was the opera’s centenary in December 2010, but, unlike parochial revivals of operas in isolation, concerted action worldwide was observable.


[Below: Dick Johnson (Salvatore Licitra, right) stands on the coffin that Sheriff Jack Rance (Roberto Frontali, left) has had built for him, but Minnie (Deborah Voigt, on horseback) has every intention that he should not hang; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

[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.]


Operas do not get revived without champions promoting the idea, and “Fanciulla” has had a coterie of champions in recent years. The late Julian Budden, whose three volume work on Verdi had done immeasurable good to that Maestro’s reputation, took on the cause of Puccini.  He made the case through exhaustive scholarship, that opera’s most popular composer is also one of opera’s technically most accomplished, and comes very close to uttering what to many traditional critics would seem to be heresy – that “Fanciulla” may not only be Puccini’s best work (the composer thought it was), but should be regarded as a contending nominee for the title of the 20th century’s best opera as well.

Important among “Fanciulla’s” champions is the Italian conductor Nicola Luisotti, who had committed to conducting the opera in San Francisco in 2oo5, but, fortunately, acceded to holding off in realizing that goal until the opera’s 100th birthday – a time that, in retrospect, seems more propitious.

By then, Luisotti had himself been transformed from being a one-time guest conductor to becoming the musical director of the San Francisco Opera. With his home ties to Italy and successful guest appearances in London, New York City and elsewhere his reputation  as one of the pre-eminent Italian opera conductors of his generation continues to grow.

San Francisco Opera’s General Director David Gockley signed off on  a new production of “Fanciulla”, co-produced with companies in Sicily and Belgium. One of the illustrious alumni of the San Francisco Opera young artists programs – now a world famous Wagnerian soprano – Deborah Voigt committed to learning the role of Minnie, the girl of the Golden West. It is a Puccini role, like the title role of “Turandot”, that requires a soprano voice that can soar above a Wagnerian sized orchestra.

After San Francisco’s Summer of Love for the Golden West Girl, Team Fanciulla spread out to other parts of the world – Voigt and Luisotti to the New York City’s Met in December for the actual 100 birthday in the site of the opera’s world premiere, a production that the Met filmed for for one of its widely seen cinemacasts. Meanwhile, the artists singing Dick Johnson and Jack Rance in the San Francisco production, Salvatore Licitra and Roberto Frontali, celebrated “Fanciulla’s” birthday in the Sicilian run of the production, while Voigt moves West to Chicago for its revival there.

All in all, critical reception seemed supportive of “Fanciulla” taking a more central place in the opera repertory. There were, of course, detractors – including the usual  “nattering nabobs of negativism” (to appropriate Vice President Spiro Agnew’s famously alliterative phrase). Some of the more vocal of the curmudgeons have gravitated to the financial press – David Littlejohn to Fox Corporation’s Wall Street Journal, Martin Bernheimer to the Pearson LLC’s Financial Times – and neither, of course, would give the Girl a break.

And one New York critic revealed that “Fanciulla” had more empty seats at the Met than did a performance of “Boheme” that he attended. (Even noting that New York City has had some horrendous winter weather and that an empty seat is not necessarily an unsold one, it should be stated that if the expansion of the opera repertory is dependent on the “expansion” operas matching “Boheme” in seat sales, then we  surely will not see very many new additions to the standard repertory.)

But the review of the New York Times’ influential Anthony Tommasini was eminently fair to the opera, and it seems quite certain that 2010 has ended with more partisans for Puccini’s great opera than when the year began.


[Below: King Xerxes (Susan Graham) walks with the ladies of London; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

[For my performance review, see: “Xerxes” Unexcelled – Houston Grand Opera, May, 2, 2010.]


Of course, “Fanciulla” is the case of “repertory expansion” within the boundaries of the aforementioned 140 year period. Yet one can observe progress, even during this in the periods before and after the 140 year period as well. Those who have read my review of the Houston Grand Opera presentation of Handel’s “Xerxes” will note that it was performed uncut – an extraordinary idea for a Handel opera – and that, in my opinion, Sir Nicholas Hytner’s witty production satirizing 18th century London tastes set new marks in performing Handel. Although the Hytner production is British, it was an audience of Texans who showed  that we in the 21st century can handle our Handel uncut.

Handel operas continue to increase in popularity and certainly in performance numbers. Since my 2005 essay on repertory expansion, I have attended and reviewed productions of “Rodelinda” and “Ariodante” in San Francisco, “Tamerlano” in Los Angeles and “Radamisto” in London, with a production of “Hercules” scheduled for Lyric Opera in Chicago in March. Gluck has been represented as well on these web pages with productions of “Iphigenie et Tauride” in San Francisco and “Alceste” in Santa Fe.

Many of these baroque productions are imaginative and praiseworthy. However, I believe the Hytner “Xerxes” excels above them all and should be recognized as one of the great works of art, that should be declared a world treasure along with the David Hockney productions in the possession of the San Francisco and Los Angeles Operas, the current Seattle production of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs” and the surviving productions of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, among other productions of note.

Thus, I am delighted that San Francisco Opera’s Fall 2011 season will include the Hockney “Turandot” (which also opens the San Diego Opera season in the next several days), the Hytner “Xerxes” and the Ponnelle “Carmen” – a third of their announced productions already on my “world treasures” list.


[Below: A lovesick Faust (Toby Spence) sits pensively next to Marguerite’s sewing machine; resized image, based on a Catherine Ashmore photograph, courtesy of the English National Opera.]

[For my performance review, see: Toby Spence Stars in Des McAnuff’s Rousing ENO Production of Gounod’s “Faust” – London, October 14, 2010.]


One of the parts of the standard repertory that seemed in danger of contracting at the beginning of the 21st century was the French repertory. It was as if only Bizet’s “Carmen” had a secure position in any company’s repertory.

One opera that seemed to be in a bit of decline was Gounod’s “Faust”, even though no French opera before it is as popular as it is even today, nor is there any French opera created since, save “Carmen”, that  has ever been as popular. That “Faust’s” fortunes were waning seemed emblematic of the problems that companies had mounting French operas.

But over the century’s first decade, there have been some green shoots. Part of this is a resurgence of interest in “Faust” itself. Although I have been only a cheerleader for the Gounod revival, I have tried to express my thoughts formally on two of Gounod’s works (see my articles in the 2010 San Diego Opera program on “Romeo et Juliette” and their 2011 opera program on “Faust”.) See also my essay The Devil’s Details Part II: Thoughts on Gounod’s “Faust” elsewhere on this website.

I will discuss some of the relevant issues raised by Berlioz’ “Damnation of Faust”, Carre’s play “Faust et Marguerite” and Gounod’s “Faust” in a subsequent post, but I am convinced that the elements that attracted these Parisians to Goethe’s epic are in tune with 21st century thinking. That as insightful a Broadway director as Des McAnuff could find contemporary relevance in Gounod’s version for 21st century London audiences at English National Opera’s Coliseum speaks to the underlying strength of Gounod’s Parisian approach to Goethe’s “Faust”.

In fact, I believe that there is a rapport between 21st century tastes for stories with supernatural, surrealistic and culturally exotic elements and the works of the French opera composers of the mid and late 19th century.  The nativists Berlioz, Gounod, Thomas, Bizet, Delibes, Massenet, Saint-Saens and Debussy exploited themes to which we in the 21st century can relate. There is much that today’s opera goer would respond to, that this imposing group has produced.

In the next post of this “Thoughts and Assessments” series, I will continue the discussion of French opera production in 2010, and will discuss 20th and 21st century opera as well. For those who wish to comment on this post, or any other item on this website, please contact me at operawarhorses@yahoo.com.

Tags: William's Thoughts and Assessments