Opera Warhorses

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

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In Quest of “High Concept Direction” in Opera Performance – June-September 2013

May 16th, 2013

Grand Opera, whose most popular works offer poignant drama, theatrical situations and spectacle, is a favorite of the modern stage directors and production designers. Classic operas from the core repertory are rethought, often shifted in time and place, and presented in unfamiliar contexts.

Sometimes their adventures in regietheater, as the Germans call it, are absurb (see The Singing’s Erste Klasse, but Railroad-Themed “Samson et Dalila” Production Ends in Train Wreck – Deutsche Oper Berlin, May 29, 2011), and have led to the coining of the pejorative “Eurotrash”.

Yet in the hands of the best of the breed, who like and trust the operas they are presenting, the results are insightful and illuminating.

Over the next few weeks, I plan to review and comment upon the products of a French, a British, an American and a Canadian stage director, each of whose work I have praised on this website previously, and whose approaches to the world of opera I regard as both innovative and true to the spirit of the operas they present.


The Tales of Hoffmann (Les Contes d’Hoffmann), San Francisco Opera, June 5, 11, 14, 20, 23(m), 27, 30, July 3 and 6, 2013.

I have reported on Toulouse-based Laurent Pelly’s conceptualizations of  Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore” at the Opera National de Paris and Donizetti’s “Fille du Regiment” at San Francisco Opera, and of Verdi’s “La Traviata” in Santa Fe. His presentations of high-spirited action (clad in Pelly-designed costumes) over jagged surfaces are always interesting and never stray from the spirit of the piece.

He returns as stage director and costume designer to the San Francisco Opera to launch its summer session in a new production of “Tales of Hoffmann” The opera stars Matthew Polenzani in the title role.

Pelly and Conductor Nicola Luisotti will use the newest performance edition of this work, which differs markedly from the version that held the world’s opera stages for over a century (including all previous mountings at San Francisco Opera’s War Memorial Opera House.)

[Below: Antonia (Natalie Dessay, right) expresses her love to Hoffman (Matthew Polenzani, left, prostrate); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Hoffmann’s muse, Nicklausse, will be sung by Angela Brower. The objects of Hoffmann’s disastrously misplaced affections – the doll Olympia, the aspiring singer Antonia and the courtesan Giulietta – are sung by Hye Jung Lee, Natalie Dessay and Irene Roberts. Christian Van Horn sings the Four Villains, Steven Cole the four grotesques.

Pelly’s long-time collaborator Chantal Thomas designed the sets, Christian Rath is the assistant director.

[For my performance review, see: Matthew Polenzani Triumphs in Pelly’s Take on “Tales of Hoffmann” – San Francisco Opera, June 5, 2013 and also  A Second Look: the Pelly-Polenzani “Tales of Hoffmann” at San Francisco Opera, June 23, 2013.]


The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein (Offenbach), Santa Fe Opera, June 28, July 3, 6, 12. 19, 30, August 7. 15. 21 and 24, 2013.

The previous work of Scottish-trained director Lee Blakeley at Santa Fe Opera has focused on the sordid reality of some of the settings of popular operas. Thus he conceives of what the neighborhood would be like in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” for a woman whose sexual favors are “sold” to an American naval officer and on how 19th century colonial Sri Lankans in Bizet’s “The Pearlfishers”, who are engaged in world trade, would dress.

But Blakeley explores the comic as well as the somber. To open this summer’s Santa Fe Opera season, Blakeley has been engaged for an entirely different realm, the imaginary Gerolstein of Offenbach’s comic operetta, governed by its worldly Grand Duchess.

[Below: the Grand Duchess (Susan Graham, center, holding sword) stands with General Fritz (Paul Appleby, thrid from left, in red uniform; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Superstar soprano Susan Graham, who herself hails from New Mexico, is La Grande-Duchesse, who becomes very interested in the military career of Fritz (Paul Appleby), a private second class, who will advance through the ranks to become General Fritz midway through the opera.

Graham’s character, billed by the Santa Fe Opera’s publicists as “the ultimate cougar”, finds great opportunity for comic situations with Kevin Burdette’s General Boum, Jonathan Michie’s Prince Paul and Aaron Pegram’s Baron Puck. Anya Matanovic performs the part of Wanda, the Grand Duchess’ rival for Fritz.

The “Grand Duchess” librettists, Meilhac and Halevy, although now best remembered as the librettists for Bizet’s “Carmen”, at the time made their big money as the librettists for Offenbach’s operettas.

Although the opera will be sung in French, all the spoken dialogue will be in English. Emmanuel Villaume is the conductor. Adrian Linford the Scenic Designer and Jo van Schuppen the Costume Designer.

[For my performance review, see: Susan Graham’s Star Glows in Offenbach’s Sexy, Witty “Grand Duchess of Gerolstein” – Santa Fe Opera, June 28, 2013.]


The Flying Dutchman (Die Fliegende Hollaender), Wagner, Glimmerglass Festival, July 6, 12, 14(m), 18, 27, 30(m), August 4, 10, 12(m), 16, 20(m) and 24.

Francesca Zambello’s extraordinary career as production designer and stage director for both grand opera and musical theater has assured that she is not only one of America’s – but of the world’s – most important and effective figures in the staging of live vocal performance.

Adding the duties of artistic administrator of both the Glimmerglass Festival and the Washington National Opera, her creativity seems boundless.

Whatever projects she takes, one knows that she will often find unexpected relevance to today’s world in the masterpieces of times past. Yet even her most controversial ideas seem to be discoveries of elements existing within the work, rather than artifices imposed from the outside.

[Below: Erik (Jay Hunter Morris, left) pleads for the acceptance of his love by Senta (Melody Moore, right); edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Opera.]


Ryan McKinny is the Dutchman, Melody Moore is Senta, with Jay Hunter Morris as Erik and Peter Volpe as Daland. The sets for the new production are by James Noone, with costumes by Erik Teague. John Keenan conducts.

 [For my performance review, see  Ryan McKinny, Melody Moore, Jay Hunter Morris Soar in “Flying Dutchman” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 18, 2013.]


Mefistofele (Boito), San Francisco Opera, September 6, 11, 14, 17, 20, 24, 29(m) and October 3, 2013.

In 1989 the then 34-year old Canadian production designer Robert Carsen created a stunning new production of Boito’s “Mefistofele” for Grand Theatre de Geneve and the San Francisco Opera. The sets were designed by Michael Levine.

[Below: Mefistofele (Ildar Abdrazakov) in a reflective mood; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


The performances were more or less recorded on a still available DVD (I emphasize the term “more” because the gleefully decadent Dirk Diggler-like prosthetics of the male demons in Hell in the DVD performance are covered by nappies.)

San Francisco Opera’s share in the production disposed of through sale to another opera company, rather than the production being destroyed, as so many of San Francisco Opera’s important productions were by the previous administration, the Carsen-Levine sets have been re-acquired (now co-owned with the New York Metropolitan Opera) and will open the San Francisco Opera’s 2013 Fall season.

Nicola Luisotti will conduct. Ildar Abdrazakov is Mefistofele, Ramon Vargas is Faust and Patricia Racette is Margherita. Laurie Feldman Santoloquido will direct the revival.

[For my performance reviews, see: World Treasure: Carsen’s Magnificent “Mefistofele” Returns to San Francisco Opera – September 6, 2013 and also,

 A Second Look: Abdrazakov, Racette, Vargas, Luisotti Delight in Boito’s “Mephistopheles” – San Francisco Opera, September 29, 2013.]

Tags: Quests and Anticipations