Opera Warhorses

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

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Rating San Francisco Opera’s Productions Of Calendar Year 2012

December 9th, 2012

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.)

Grade A+

Nixon in China (Adams)

This opera, so closely associated with the San Francisco Opera’s General Director David Gockley, had never been performed by this company prior to 2012. The 25th anniversary of its world premiere at Gockley’s Houston Grand Opera was the occasion for its San Francisco premiere.

[Below: Chinese Chairman Mao Tse Tung (Simon O’Neill, left) greets American President Richard Nixon (Brian Mulligan, right) as three sycophantic secretaries (Ginger Costa-Jackson, Buffy Baggott and Nicole Birkland) mind their business; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Gockley chose Michael Cavanagh’s recent production for the Vancouver Opera for “Nixon’s” San Francisco Opera debut. Impressive projections and intelligent staging displayed the extraordinary strengths of the opera.

The brilliant cast was led by Brian Mulligan’s superb portrayal of Richard Nixon, with Simon O’Neill as Mao Tse Tung, Maria Kanyova as Pat Nixon, Chen-Ye Yuan as Chou En-Lai, Hye Jung Lee as Madame Mao. Patrick Carfizzi met the damands of the part of Henry Kissinger.

Also noteworthy was the San Francisco Opera chorus, intoning in unison, little red books in hand, the thoughts of Chairman Mao. The San Francisco Opera Orchestra was conducted by Laurence Renes.

For my reviews, see: 25 Years Old, “Nixon in China” Arrives at San Francisco Opera – June 8, 2012 and A Second Look: “Nixon in China” in San Francisco – June 17, 2012.


Grade A+ 

Attila (Verdi)

A co-production with La Scala, conducted in both Milan and San Francisco by Nicola Luisotti, this opera was the vehicle for the return to San Francisco of Basso Ferruccio Furlanetto after an absence of 31 seasons.

“Attila” is one of Verdi’s operas most directly associated with the Italian Risorgimento, during which the nation of Italy coalesced and expelled the European nations that had split it into small principalities.

[Below: The Roman General Ezio (Quinn Kelsey, left) renews an old friendship with the “barbarian” Attila (Ferruccio Furlanetto, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

This new production linked the quasi-historical events of 5th century Europe with other “invaders” of Italy in modern times (the devastation of postwar Italy likely a metaphor for imposed austerity measures by the wider European community on the Italian government’s budget.)

Lucrecia Garcia was the Odabella, Diego Torre the Foresto. Quinn Kelsey’s most prominent San Francisco Opera role to date was as the Roman General Aetius (Ezio).

For my performance reviews, see:  “Attila” in Italy with a Phenomenal Ferruccio Furlanetto – San Francisco Opera, June 12, 2012 and  A Second Look: “Attila”, Verdi and Italian Opera in the Luisotti Era – San Francisco Opera, July 2, 2012


Grade A+ 

The Magic Flute (Mozart)

No performance of Mozart’s “Magic Flute” at the San Francisco Opera prior to 1985 had been sung in any other language but English. Over the next two decades it was performed in German, but with mostly English native speakers.

[Below: Papageno (Nathan Gunn, right) is unsure that the being that says she is to be his mate (Nadine Sierra, who will become Papagena, left) is really what he had wished for; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

For a new production, David Gockley himself authored a new hip and witty, highly performable English translation, created especially for American audiences.

The new production’s bright and colorful sets and costumes are by Jun Kaneko, and were complemented by spectacular projections. Kaneko, who had established an artistic relationship with Opera Omaha, proved to be so popular with San Francisco audiences that the Opera’s future schedule was shuffled to bring Opera Omaha’s Kaneko-designed  production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” into the 2013-14 San Francisco Opera lineup.

Nathan Gunn would have completely stolen the show as Papageno, if he did not have star-blazing competition from Albina Shagimuratova’s Queen of the Night. Rounding out an excellent cast was Alek Shrader’s Tamino and Heidi Stober’s Pamina. Icelandic basso Kristinn Sigmundsson returned as Sarastro.

For my performance reviews, see: Perfect Game: Gunn, Shagimuratova Shine in New Kaneko-Designed “Magic Flute” – June 13, 2012 and  A Second Look: the Kaneko-Gockley Production of “Magic Flute” – San Francisco Opera, June 24, 2012.


Grade A+ 

I Capuleti e i Montecchi [The Capulets and the Montagues] (Bellini)

Exquisite singing by Kansas mezzo Joyce DiDonato (Romeo) and California soprano Nicole Cabell (Giulietta) made this production of Bellini’s version of the Romeo and Juliet story one of San Francisco Opera’s most satisfactory musical performances of early Italian opera within recent memory.

Conducted by bel canto specialist Riccardo Frizza, it was the occasion for the San Francisco (and role) debut of lyric tenor Saimir Pirgu as Tebaldo, with Eric Owens (Capulet) and Ao Li (Lorenzo) as the opera’s other two principal singers.

[Below: Romeo (Joyce DiDonato, left) tries to convince Giulietta (Nicole Cabell, right) that their only hope for happiness is to escape from Verona; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Not every concept in this co-production with Bayerische Oper in Munich worked (although none of the production’s idiosyncracies spoiled the evening), but Vincent Boussard’s essential idea to concentrate on the psychological fragility of Cabell’s Giulietta was essentially sound.

If Giulietta cannot reconcile herself  to abandoning her family nor to living without Romeo, then Lorenzo’s strange “potion to create sleep resembling death” – whether it worked as planned or resulted in her death – promised a resolution. In a surreal, brilliant end, the lovers walk hand and hand into the afterlife.

For my performance reviews, see: Joyce DiDonato, Nicole Cabell Sing Beautifully in Bellini’s Bel Canto “Capulets and Montagues” – San Francisco Opera, September 29, 2012 and A Second Look: “Capulets and Montagues” at San Francisco Opera, October 14, 2012.


Grade A+ 

Moby Dick (Heggie)

In my estimation, Heggie’s “Moby Dick” has the best chance of any recent opera of taking its place in the standard repertory. It combines an effective libretto, a lushly accessible musical score, with brilliantly conceived projections and other theatrical effects.

[Below: Captain Ahab (Jay Hunter Morris, on deck below), Queequeg (Jonathan Lemalu, at top of riggings) and the Greenhorn, Ishmael (Stephen Costello, below Queequeg on riggings); resized image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

I was fortunate to be at the opera’s World Premiere at Dallas Opera and at the West Coast premiere in San Diego, and my admiration for the work and production grows each time I experience it.

The original Dallas Opera cast was mostly present for the opera’s San Francisco premiere, notably including Morgan Smith as Starbuck, Stephen Costello as the Greenhorn (Ishmael), Jonathan Lemalu as Queequeg and Talise Trevigne as Pip, but San Francisco Opera’s Ahab was heldentenor Jay Hunter Morris, whose insightful characterization of the mad whaler is impressive.

For my performance reviews, see: Another Opera House Conquered: Ovations for Heggie’s “Moby Dick” at San Francisco Opera, October 10, 2012 and A Second Look: A Bright Future for Heggie’s Magnificently Melodious “Moby Dick” – San Francisco Opera, October 21, 2012.


Grade A+ 

Lohengrin (Wagner)

There was so much to admire in San Francisco Opera’s mounting of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” that I referred to it as a War Memorial Opera House “Lohengrin Experience”. I admired the augmented San Francisco Opera Orchestra, fervently and reverently led by Music Director Nicola Luisotti.

I also admired Brandon Jovanovich in the title role, his third Wagnerian role debut in San Francisco (following Froh in “Das Rheingold” and Siegmund in “Die Walkuere”), and, as well, the performances of his colleagues Camilla Nylund as Elsa, Petra Lang as Ortrud and Gerd Grochowski as Telramund.

[Below: Lohengrin (Brian Jovanovich, left) agrees to champion Elsa (Camilla Nylund, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The sonic experience (that included brass instruments located in various parts of the opera house beyond the open orchestra pit) was complemented by the visual experience of the large, stage-filling sets by set designer Robert Innes Hopkins.

Even though the sets were designed to be mid-20th century Eastern Europe, Daniel Slater’s direction included all of “Lohengrin’s” mythic elements.

For my performance reviews, see: Jovanovich is a Joy in Luisotti’s Luminous “Lohengrin” – San Francisco Opera, October 20, 2012 and A Second Look: The “Lohengrin” Experience at the War Memorial – San Francisco Opera, October 28, 2012.

 Grade A

Rigoletto (Verdi)

Alternating casts of important international artists performed Verdi’s great “middle period” masterpiece throughout the month of September.  Particularly memorable was the combination of Marco Vratogna as Rigoletto, Arturo Chacon-Cruz as the Duke of Mantua and Albina Shagimuratova as Gilda.

[Below:  Rigoletto (Marco Vratogna, left) swears vengeance for the rape of his daughter Gilda (Albina Shagimuratova, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Nicola Luisotti’s conducting, as always, resulted in superb performances from the principal singers, including the alternating opening night cast that featured baritone Zeljko Lukic and soprano Aleksandra Kurzak and the  San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

For my performance reviews, see: Lucic, Kurzak, Praiseworthy in Season Opening “Rigoletto” – San Francisco Opera, September 7, 2012 and  Vratogna, Shagimuratova, Chacon-Cruz, Luisotti: “Rigoletto” Magnifico – San Francisco Opera, September 8, 2012.


 Grade A

Tosca (Puccini)

I have given high marks to the San Francisco Opera in its mountings of Puccini operas, and “Tosca” in particular, referring affectionately to the War Memorial Opera House as the House of Puccini.

As with the “Rigoletto” two casts alternated performances. Although travel conflicts prevented me from seeing both casts in this run, I previously have reviewed this production and the reconceptualized staging by Jose Maria Condemi at the War Memorial Opera House and am convinced that anyone attending either cast saw a first rate performance of “Tosca”.

[Below: Tosca (here, Angela Gheorghiu, center) prepares to jump to her death; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Curiously, the one performance I reviewed was one in which the prima donna, Angela Gheorghiu, fell ill during the first intermission and was replaced for the last two acts by Melody Moore.

Even so, Condemi’s staging, good performances from both Toscas and the Scarpia, Roberto Frontali, and a memorable San Francisco Opera debut by tenor Massimo Giordano assured the great melodrama that “Tosca” is designed to be.

For my performance review, see: A “Tosca” Surprise in San Francisco – Angela Gheorghiu, Melody Moore Split Role of Tosca, Massimo Giordano Excels as Cavaradossi- November 15, 2012.


For my summaries and ratings of the past two years (and hyperlinks to earlier years), see: San Francisco Opera’s Calendar Year 2011 – Another Year of High Caliber Performances, and also,

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


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 a future date.


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