Opera Warhorses

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San Francisco Opera’s Calendar Year 2011 – Another Year of High Caliber Performances

December 20th, 2011

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.)

Calendar year 2011’s mainstage productions at the War Memorial Opera House were a series of successes, with three solid San Francisco-owned productions conducted by Nicola Luisotti and a world premiere. The best of the best included the complete Francesca Zambello production of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs”, the imported John Pascoe production of Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia” and Sir Nicolas Hytner’s production of Handel’s “Xerxes”.

Grade A+

Das Rheingold (Wagner)

The Zambello “Rheingold”, the first of the “Ring” co-productions with the Washington National Opera, received its San Francisco premiere in Summer 2008. “Rheingold” introduced the War Memorial Opera House to Mark Delavan’s Wotan. Lustrous at that time, in its 2011 revival “Rheingold” shone even more brightly as the prologue to Zambello’s entire “Ring”.

Although Zambello has her particular viewpoints as to what constitutes good and bad behavior in the cosmos, what is striking about her images – a gold rush era mine for Nibelheim, an upscale house in the Hamptons in obvious need of remodeling and repair for the temporary home of the gods, the bridge to Valhalla the gangplank to an ocean liner – is how chameleon-like Wagner’s storyline and music can be, fitting well with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of imaginative concepts.

There is not a single character in “Das Rheingold” who is a human being, yet the struggles for power (Wotan, Alberich, Mime) and the desire for emotional control over another being (Fricka) prove to be universal traits, whether gods, dwarves, giants or humans.

As one brilliantly imaginative example, Zambello’s Freia, hostage of the giants, becomes the poster child for Stockholm Syndrome. Although Wagner made it clear that Fasolt had fallen in love with Freia, Zambello finds reciprocal romantic feelings of Freia for Fasolt, so that it is genuinely affecting when Freia grieves that Fasolt has been murdered.

[Below: details of the contract for building Walhalla are discussed by the construction giants, Fafner (Daniel Sumegi, far left) and Fasolt (Andrea  Silvestrelli, third from left), and the gods Freia (Melissa Citro, second from left) and, from right to left, Wotan (Mark Delavan), Donner (Gerd Grochowski), Fricka (Elizabeth Bishop), and Froh (Brandon Jovanovich), and the demi-god Loge (Stefan Margita, center); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The San Francisco Opera Orchestra, led by the company’s former music director, Conductor Donald Runnicles, showed its skill and maturity. A strong cast was assembled, surrounding Delavan’s inspired Wotan. Gordon Hawkins’ Alberich, Stefan Margita’s oily Loge, David Cangelosi’s Mime, Elizabeth Bishop’s Fricka all stood out.

The first night of the “Ring” marked the debut in a Wagnerian role for tenor Brandon Jovanovich, the Froh, who would be assaying a far bigger Wagner role on the next evening.

[For my performance review, see: “Rheingold” Evolves in First Full Zambello “Ring” – San Francisco Opera, June 14, 2011.]


Die Walkuere (Wagner)

For “Walkuere” Zambello creates four striking stage concepts. The first act, set in and around Hunding’s haus was originally conceived by Zambello as part of a world in which the rustic characters in John Boorman’s film Deliverance might exist.

But once you see the tidy, knick-knack filled house that Sieglinde keeps, you can think of the first act dynamics in quite a different way. Observing Hunding’s affectionate interplay with Sieglinde, with his arms around her waist, while the couple joins Siegmund in drinking from long-necked beer bottles, suggests that Hunding and Sieglinde were a couple coping contentedly until Hunding’s previously unheard-of brother-in-law suddenly appears to to wreak havoc in their marriage.

The first scene of Act II, a penthouse corporate office in the clouds high above a vertical city, is a tour de force in which Wotan and Fricka display the humor and affection as well as the steely determination of each party in a power couple to further their personal agendas. The act’s second scene evokes the fight scenes in more that one teenage rumble movie, with the battle between Hunding and Siegmund occuring in the junk-strewn right-of-way beneath a freeway overpass.

[Below: Bruennhilde (Nina Stemme, front left, on landing at bottom of stairs) steps forward to take her punishment from her father Wotan (Mark Delavan, right) as her eight Valkyrie sisters stand on the stairs beside her; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The final act is a true coup de theatre with the eight Valkyries dressed as parachuting aviatrices, several landing at once to the Wagner’s most famous musical composition (other than the tune of “Here Comes the Bride”).

A welcome continuity was obtained by having Delavan and Bishop repeat their roles as Wotan and Fricka on the consecutive nights of “Rheingold” and “Walkuere”.

Jovanovich was a youthful looking and excellent acting heldentenor, suggesting that the jugendlich Wagnerian roles will be a major part of his career from this point on. Nina Stemme, should she assert her claim to being the reigning Bruennhilde of our day, would have the San Francisco audiences backing her all the way.

[For my performance review, see: Power Singing, Powerful Imagery in Zambello’s “Walkuere” – San Francisco Opera, June 15, 2011.]


Siegfried (Wagner)

“Siegfried” is the most like a Once Upon a Time fairy tale of any Wagnerian opera, with a dragonslayer-hero, a sleeping beauty, scheming dwarves, and a spear with a spell so powerful that the world begins to out of spin control when the hero shatters it.

Zambello’s approach proved to be just as imaginative as in the first two operas, with both Alberich and Mime existing in states of poverty (the former with his possessions in a shopping cart, the latter raising Siegfried in a rusty trailer surrounded by a yard of junk), while waiting for the dragonslayer-to-be to grow to manhood.

Unlike the Zambello “Rheingold” and “Walkuere”, her “Siegfried”, which had premiered at the Washington National Opera, had not been seen in San Francisco before. In this opera the two principal characters are Siegfried (Jay Hunter Morris) and the dwarf Mime (David Cangelosi), supplemented by the vocally demanding characterizations of Alberich (Gordon Hawkins), Wotan disguised as the Wanderer (Mark Delavan) and Bruennhilde (Nina Stemme).

[Below: Mime (David Cangelosi, right front) goes about the business of raising a hero; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

All the cast sang and played their roles excellently, with Cangelosi’s stunningly  athletic performance as Mime especially memorable.

[For my performance review, see: Down and Out in Zambello’s American Ring: Sly, Theatrically-Centered “Siegfried” Satisfies – San Francisco Opera, June 17, 2011.]


Goetterdaemmerung (Wagner)

“Goetterdaemmerung” has always been my favorite opera, and one I consider to be a great bargain for the opera “consumer”. (No opera company can expect to get back but a fraction of the cost of producing it from ticket sales, whatever price they dare put on the ticket.)

Act I is the longest act of any multi-act opera. Its orchestration requires as large and as skilled an orchestra as any company is ever called upon to provide. The demands on the singers, particularly the Siegried (Ian Storey) and Bruennhilde (Nina Stemme), are daunting. And, to add to the complexity and cost, a full chorus is necessary.

In fact, the complexity and expense turned out to strain co-producer Washington National Opera’s fiscal resources, and San Francisco Opera became the site of the first performances of the final part of Wagner’s Nibelung saga a la Zambello.

[Below: Bruennhilde (Nina Stemme, left( and Siegfried (Ian Storey, right) both swear an oath on the spear of Hagen (Andrea Silvestrelli, center); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Whether or not every Zambello detail resonated with the audience (Rheinmaidens using garden trash bags to pick up after the mess the men had made of things) hardly mattered. The final scene proved affecting,  in which Bruennhilde, Gutrune and the Rheinmaidens share the grief of Siegfried’s death and the satisfaction of the Ring finally returned to the place it belongs.

Even an unexpected romance on the side between Hagen and Gutrune, who share a bed to watch late-night TV, proved that moments of light-heartedness can shine through even the destruction of the world’s order (at least the order conceived by the gods who ruled before the Age of Mankind).

“Goetterdaemmerung” is a triumphant experience when it is performed under the leadership of a great conductor (Donald Runnicles), by a first rank symphonic entity (San Francisco Opera Orchestra) and when presented in a theater with brilliant acoustics (the War Memorial Opera House).  Stemme was an absolute phenomenon. Andrea Silvestrelli’s Hagen, Gordon Hawkins’ Alberich, and Melissa Citro’s ditzy Gutrune were notable.

[For my performance reviews, see: Glorious “Goetterdaemmerung”: Nina Stemme Glistens – San Francisco Opera, June 5, 2011 and “Goetterdaemmerung”: Strong Finish to the First Zambello “Ring” – San Francisco Opera, June 19, 2011.]


Lucrezia Borgia (Donizetti)

The John Pascoe production of Donizetti’s operatic adaptation of Victor Hugo’s play, was used for “Lucrezia”‘s first appearance ever at the San Francisco Opera. The opera was the vehicle for the return of Renee Fleming, who has been absent from San Francisco operatic productions for over a decade.

The result of a collaboration between Fleming and Pascoe which had evolved over several years of discussion, Pascoe’s conceptualization of “Lucrezia” was originally mounted by the Washington National Opera. Pascoe fine-tuned the story of power struggles between the Duke (from the d’Este family) and Duchess (from the Borgia family) of the Renaissance city of Ferrara. In Pascoe’s hands, details of the plot are clarified, producing a dramatically cohesive performance.

[Below: Lucrezia Borgia (Renee Fleming, above) is shocked to discover that her son Gennaro (Michael Fabiano, lying on steps) was part of a group she had poisoned for revenge; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Strong casting and attractive sets assured stellar performances of an opera that more stage directors (and opera critics) should take seriously. Fleming and company were worth the “enhanced” ticket price (with a 20% surcharge), especially when joined by the solid Alfonso d’Este of basso cantante Vitalij Kowaljow. The astonishing voice of debuting Michael Fabiano heralds the career yet another first class Donizetti tenor. Elizabeth DeShong was an engaging Maffio Orsini.

[For my performance reviews and a commentary, see: Fleming, Fabiano, Frizza Fuel San Francisco Opera’s Flaming, Fulfilling First “Lucrezia Borgia” – September 23, 2011 and A Second Look: “Lucrezia Borgia” at the San Francisco Opera – October 2, 2011 and also “Lucrezia Borgia” – The Dramatic Foundations of Donizetti’s Opera.]


Xerxes (Handel)

Sir Nicholas Hytner’s production of Handel’s most light-hearted opera was imported from London to Houston in 2010 with Susan Graham (Xerxes), David Daniels (Arsamenes), Sonia Prina (Amastris) and Heidi Stober (Atalanta) in four of the principal roles. That quartet was signed to bring the opera to San Francisco, where each principal performed with great distinction, led by San Francisco Opera’s principal guest conductor, Houston Grand Opera’s Patrick Summers.

[Below: a scene from the first act of “Xerxes”‘; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Hytner envisioned the opera set in 18th century London, the time of the opera’s premiere, rather than Ancient Greece or Persia. That time was a great period of discovery of both the ancient and the natural world. The British museums and scientific societies collected and displayed historical artifacts, as well as biological and botanical specimens.

In the Hytner production, gray-clad London citizens wander about, examining such artifacts and specimens in their display cases. Paralleling this collective effort of London’s elite at self-improvement and book-learning, the tongue-in-cheek story of the romantic machinations of two sisters in love with one of two brothers and two brothers in love with one of two sisters wends its way to an amiable solution. The fact that one of the brothers is the King of Ancient Persia has virtually nothing at all to do with this opera’s story.

[For my performance review, see: Graham, Daniels, Prina Excel in Elegant, Witty “Xerxes” – San Francisco Opera, October 30, 2011.]


Grade A

Turandot (Puccini)

David Hockney, although best known for his famous paintings, is also the creator of several of the most important operatic productions, themselves works of museum quality, of which two are in the possession of the San Francisco Opera.

A world treasure, the vibrant and inspired “Turandot” is one of the works dating from when Hockney and Costume Designer (and illustrator) Ian Falconer were partners. One admires this show not just for the visual delights of Hockney’s sets and Falconer’s arresting costumes, but for the production’s lighting design and stage movements. All the elements  provide a flow of energy so appropriate to Puccini’s masterpiece.

[Below: the imperial commissioners Ping (Hyung Yun), Pang (Greg Fedderly) and Pong (Daniel Montenegro) attempt to dissuade Calaf, the Unknown Prince (Marco Berti) to leave the kingdom as Calaf’s father, Timur (Raymond Aceto) and his slave, Liu (Leah Crocetto), look on; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Nicola Luisotti conducted a vivacious performance, in which the debuting Irene Theorin was a praiseworthy Ice Princess, and Marco Berti an ardent Calaf. The trio of Ping, Pang, and Pong, with their finely choreographed movements, were sung nicely by, respectively, Hyung Yun, Greg Fedderly and Daniel Montenegro. Leah Crocetto’s Liu was affecting. Raymond Aceto’s excellent Timur was luxury casting.

[For my performance reviews, see:Luisotti Leads Superb “Turandot” Cast In David Hockney’s Treasured Production – San Francisco Opera, September 9, 2011 and A Second Look: Luisotti Improvises in “Turandot” Game Delay, then Hits a Grand Slam – San Francisco Opera, September 25, 2011.]


Don Giovanni (Mozart)

In San Francisco Opera’s 2010 season, Conductor Nicola Luisotti added Mozart to the list of operatic composers whose works he has conducted during his tenure as the opera company’s Music Director. His “Nozze di Figaro” was built around an American cast with Lucas Meachem and Ellie Dehn as the Count and Countess Almaviva. In 2011, Luisotti rejoined Meachem (Don Giovanni) and Dehn (Donna Anna) for Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” in a new production with an Italian team as stage director and set designer.

[Below: Don Giovanni (Lucas Meachem, below left) instructs Leporello (Marco Vinco, below right) to invite the statue of the Commendatore (Morris Robinson, above) to dinner; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Italian basso Marco Vinco, renown for his buffo roles in Europe, was impressive in his San Francisco Opera debut as Leporello. Americans Shawn Mathey (Don Ottavio), Kate Lindsey (Zerlina) and Ryan Kuster (Masetto) and Italian Serena Farnocchia (Donna Elvira) rounded out a successful Italo-American effort.

[For my performance review, see: Meachem, Vinco, Lead Cast of Imaginatively Staged “Don Giovanni” – San Francisco Opera, October 23, 2011.


Carmen (Bizet)

Another treasured opera production owned by the San Francisco Opera is Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s mounting of Bizet’s “Carmen”. Luisotti led this most popular of French operas in a rousing performance, in which Kendall Gladen, who was last seen here in her Adler Fellowship days, returned triumphantly to the War Memorial Opera House stage in the title role. Brazilian tenor Thiago Arancam was her Don Jose.

[Below: Don Jose (Thiago Arancam, left) appears to be fastening the restraints of Carmen (Kendall Gladen, center) as Zuniga (Wayne Tigges, right) looks on; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph; courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Stage Director Jose Maria Condemi reworked much of Ponnelle’s stage direction, but Condemi, like Ponnelle, presents ideas that always advance the story. Paolo Szot, fresh from Broadway successes, was Escamillo. Adler Fellow Sara Gartland was the Micaela.

[For my performance review, see: Kendall Gladen, Jose Maria Condemi, Nicola Luisotti Create a Consummate “Carmen” – San Francisco Opera, November 6, 2011.]


Grade B+

Heart of a Soldier (Theofanidis)

Throughout history, one can bet against any opera composed becoming a big and lasting hit and be correct 99 out of a 100 times. Even so, there are talented composers at work today, and it seems possible that among them will come some compositions that will hold their own on the operatic stage.

Christopher Theofanidis’ first large-scale effort at writing an opera for the mainstage of an international company became the third commissioned new opera to have its premiere in San Francisco during the General Directorship of David Gockley, following Glass’ “Appomattox” (2007) and Wallace’s “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” (2008).

“Soldier” is an opera commemorating the heroics of an individual whose sagacity and self-discipline saved almost as people from the Twin Towers as were lost the day of the Towers’ destruction, even though the hero perished in the effort. This opera becomes a monument to him. With accessible music, fast moving action, and an absorbing story, one can expect interest in reviving the opera, particularly for  anniversary dates of 9-11.

[Below: the Twin Towers offices are filled with employees, while Dan (William Burden, front left) and (Melody Moore, on bed, front right) try to obtain information on what is happening; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

In trying to figure out how to grade a performance in which there is no tradition in how to present it, I considered my grades of the two previous San Francisco Opera commissions – my A+ grades for “Appomattox” and “Bonesetter’s Daughter” and concluded, for the reasons stated below, that it should be a full grade lower that the other two.

Although all three operas are episodic, the Glass and Wallace works seemed to me to be more focused around a central theme. In “Appomattox”, Glass’ firmly held (and appropriate) view is that the assassination of Lincoln destroyed the efforts of Generals Grant and Lee in Appomattox Courthouse to create the basis for reconciliation between North and South. Wallace’s opera, whose somewhat autobiographical libretto is by Amy Tan, conjures up familial relationships and events that occurred long ago in China, but that cast a long shadow on the lives in the United States of her mother and herself.

In contrast “Heart of a Soldier” devotes considerable time to the stories of the late hero’s wife and his war-buddy, that, interesting as they might be, seem like they should be split off into separate works or left for the curious to peruse by reading the book on which this opera is based.

Sometimes a libretto can be fixed, to the long term benefit of the opera. Perhaps a reworked opera could be ready for the 15th anniversary of the events of the last hours of the hero’s incredible and inspirational life. But even with those reservations, the new opera was a theatrically valid, inspiring performance.

[Below: For my performance review, see: Hampson’s Heroic “Heart of a Soldier” at the War Memorial – San Francisco Opera, September 10, 2011.]


For last year’s scorecard, and hyperlinks to the previous years, see:  San Francisco Opera’s Calendar Year 2010 – Straight “A” Average Trending Higher.

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