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 2013

December 23rd, 2013

Beginning with calendar year 2006 (the year that the current San Francisco Opera general director David Gockley assumed his post), I have given letter grades to each of San Francisco Opera’s productions during that calendar year. I have only done this for San Francisco Opera productions, because I have attended at least one performance of each production mounted by the company during each of those calendar years, and because I have had long experience (dating back to my junior high school days) in attending productions from that company.

Like the seminars associated with Ph.D. programs, I do not grade “on a curve”, but, instead expect that a San Francisco Opera performance of any opera, like a seminar grade for a doctoral student, should be an “A”. In those cases in which I believe the performance was of more than routine interest (and excellence) I give an A+. In previous calendar years, I have given grades as low as a “C”, but in the most recent years, lower grades have been rare. Obviously, I regard this as a result of high standards on the part of the opera company, rather than “grade inflation” in my rating system.


Grade A+

The Tales of Hoffmann – Les Contes d’Hoffmann (Offenbach)

Laurent Pelly’s new production of “Tales of Hoffmann”, introduced to North America after being launched in Spain at the end of last year, was a tour de force. Taking the new Kaye-Koch performing edition as a point of departure, Pelly created a theatrically valid, brilliantly staged exposition of Offenbach’s posthumous masterpiece, imagining the hallucinatory love affairs of poet E. T. A. Hoffmann.

[Below: Hoffmann (Matthew Polenzani, left) expresses his concern about the health of his lover, Antonia (Natalie Dessay, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


The highlight of the show, beyond Pelly’s characteristic jagged surfaces and oddly shaped images, was the ringing lyric tenor of Matthew Polenzani, joined by effective performances of Nicklausse by Angela Brower, Antonia by Natalie Dessay, Olympia by Hye Jung Lee, and Irene Roberts as Giulietta.

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


Grade A+

Cosi fan Tutte (Mozart)

San Francisco Opera’s music director Nicola Luisotti, who had previously conducted San Francisco Opera productions of two of Mozart’s three operas with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte – “Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni”, showed tender loving care to the third Mozart-Da Ponte masterpiece, “Cosi fan Tutte” – the creative pair’s monument to the inconstancy of women.

Each of the sets of characters were given their own “voice” with pianoforte, harpsichord, or theorbo accompanying their recitatives. The staging was the province of Jose Maria Condemi, who substantively revised John Cox’ original staging from the 2004 production.

[Below: Robert Perdziola’s Cote d-Azur sets for “Cosi fan Tutte” are inhabited by, from left, Dorabella (Christel Loetzch), Guglielmo (Philippe Sly), Despina (Susannah Biller), Don Alfonso (Marco Vinco), Ferrando (Francesco Demuro) and Fiordiligi (Ellie Dehn); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


An attractive young cast sang the six roles: the sisters Ellie Dehn and Christel Loetzch; Francesco Demuro and Philippe Sly as the fiancés who tricked the women into betrayal; and Marco Vinco and Susannah Biller as the schemers against the stability of the original relationships.

For my performance review, see: A Beautifully Sung, Engaging “Cosi fan Tutte” at San Francisco Opera – June 9, 2013.


Grade A+

Mefistofele (Boito)

I have described Robert Carsen’s 1989 production of Boito’s “Mefistofele”, originally co-produced by the Grand Theatre de Geneve and the San Francisco Opera as a World Treasure. Composer Boito gave the forces of Heaven and Hell their own special musical language, which Carsen visualizes to stunning effect.

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


The celestial hosts, bedecked in white and gold, inhabit a multi-storied realm of splendor, the denizens of hell revel in orgiastic abandon, the latter presided over by the charmingly sinister Mephistopheles (Ildar Abdrazakov).

Ramon Vargas was a lyrical Faust, Patricia Racette chillingly effective as Margherita, the woman whose earthly life, Faust, under Mephisto’s spell, unintentionally destroys. Nicola Luisotti conducted brilliantly.

For my performance reviews, see: World Treasure: Carsen’s Magnificent “Mefistofele” Returns to San Francisco Opera – September 6, 2013 and A Second Look: Abdrazakov, Racette, Vargas, Luisotti Delight in Boito’s “Mephistopheles” – San Francisco Opera, September 29, 2013.


Grade A+

Falstaff (Verdi)

Conductor Nicola Luisotti’s conducting of “Falstaff” was one of the many highlights of San Francisco Opera’s memorialization of the bicentennial of the birth of Giuseppe Verdi.

The opera’s title role was assigned to the ranking Falstaff of our age, Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel, supported by a cast that included Heidi Stober as Nannetta, Ainhoa Arteta as Alice, Meredith Arwady as Mrs Quickly, Francesco Demuro as Fenton, and Mario Capitanucci as Ford.

[Below: a double wedding takes place at Herne’s Oak, but with unexpected results; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


For the occasion of Terfel’s return to San Francisco Opera after a long absence, a production from Lyric Opera of Chicago, long associated with him, was imported.

For my performance reviews, see: Bryn Terfel Triumphs in an Authoritative “Falstaff” – San Francisco Opera, October 9, 2013 and A Second Look: Luisotti, Terfel Teamed in Musically Brilliant, Well-Crafted “Falstaff” – San Francisco Opera, October 20, 2013.


Grade A+

The Barber of Seville – Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Rossini)

Spanish director and production designer Emilio Sagi is known for his brilliant opera and zarzuela productions. A master of the Spanish-themed operas, he shows a special affinity for Rossini’s most famous of all operatic comedies, “The Barber of Seville”, evidenced by a lively production well-known to audiences in Madrid and Los Angeles. For San Francisco Opera he created a new production, substantively different from his previous “Barber”, yet reminiscent of some of its elements.

[Below: Rosina (Isabel Leonard, center) banters with the white-uniformed members of the local police; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Company.]


The San Franciso Opera presented two admirably balanced casts. One cast included Lucas Meachem as Figaro, Isabel Leonard as Rosina, Javier Camerata as Almaviva and Alessandro Corbelli as Bartolo. Those roles in the other cast were, respectively, Auden Iversen, Daniella Mack, Alek Shrader and Maurizio Muraro. Andrea Silvestrelli joined both casts as Basilio.

For my performance reviews, see Lucas Meachem, Javier Camarena and Isabel Leonard Romp in Sagi’s Sprightly New “Barber of Seville” – San Francisco Opera, November 13, 2013 and Daniela Mack, Alek Shrader, Auden Iversen and Maurizio Muraro Sparkle in San Francisco Opera “Barber of Seville” – November 14, 2013.


Grade A

The Gospel According to Mary Magdalene (Adamo)

The San Francisco Opera, reflecting general director David Gockley’s commitment to contemporary American opera, committed to a world premiere of a new work by Composer Mark Adamo, whose two previous operas had premiered at Gockley’s previous home company, the Houston Grand Opera.

A lavish new production was mounted for “Mary Magdalene’s” world premiere, staged by Kevin Newbury, with sets by David Korins. A Wagnerian size orchestra was enlisted conducted by debuting conductor Michael Christie. Artists Sasha Cooke, Nathan Gunn, William Burden and Maria Kanyova were cast in the principal roles.

[Below: Nathan Gunn (left) as Yeshua with Sasha Cooke (right) as Mary Magdalene; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Although taking on religious orthodoxy in an operatic setting raises inevitable controversies, repeated hearings of the work suggested that there is substance and value in the ambitious work.

For my performance reviews, see Warm Reception for Adamo’s “Mary Magdalene” – San Francisco Opera, June 19, 2013 and A Second Look: San Francisco Opera Mounts Adamo’s “Mary Magdalene” Magnificently – July 7, 2013.


Grade A

Dolores Claiborne (Picker)

In an extraordinary testament to the artist’s professionalism, dramatic instincts and vocal stamina, soprano Patricia Racette, who already had a crowded September schedule, with less than a month’s notice, stepped into the lead role in the world premiere of a new Tobias Picker opera based on Stephen King’s popular novel, Dolores Claiborne.

[Below: Dolores Claiborne (Patricia Racette, center right, in front of table lamp) stands over the body of Vera Donovan (Elizabeth Futral, lying at bottowm of staircase) as Selena (Susasanah Biller, seated left) gazes elsewhere; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


The opera proved to be a gripping, theatrically effective drama, differing in substance from both King’s novel and the Hollywood movie based upon it, yet retaining the message that it is possible for battered wives to take matters into their own hands and get away with it.

For my performance review, see: World Premiere Review: Patricia Racette’s Gritty “Dolores Claiborne” at San Francisco Opera – September 18, 2013.


Grade A

The Flying Dutchman – Die Fliegende Hollaender (Wagner)

In the process of transporting a co-production first staged by a Belgian company in a smaller venue to the War Memorial Opera, unexpected things can happen. Having fired the originally announced stage director and having its originally announced Senta withdraw, the new production of “The Flying Dutchman” was launched in San Francisco, with Greer Grimsley as the Dutchman and Lise Lindstrom, making an auspicious debut as Senta.

[Below: Greer Grimsley (front left) is the Dutchman and Lise Lindstrom (front right) is Senta in San Francisco Opera’s new production of “The Flying Dutchman”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Kristinn Sigmundsson was Daland and Ian Storey Erik. Principl Guest Conductor Patrick Summers conducted.

The most remarkable feature of the new production were lavish projections that enveloped the audience in a visual and sonic treat.

For my performance review, see: Grimsley, Lindstrom Launch a Sonically Lavish, Visually Dazzling “Flying Dutchman” – San Francisco Opera, October 22, 2013.


For my San Francisco Opera production grades from the seven previous calendar years, see:

Rating San Francisco Opera’s Productions Of Calendar Year 2012and also,

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  and also,

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

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

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

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 a future date.


Tags: 2005-2016 William's Commentaries