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 2013

December 31st, 2013

At various times in Calendar year 2013, I have posted remembrances of each of the 11 live opera performances that I saw (all at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco) 50 years ago in 1963.

Remarkably, all but two of these 11 live performances were of operas that I reviewed 50 years later in 2013. It occurred to me to devote this year’s “Thoughts and Assessments” feature to the nine operas that I saw in productions both in 1963 and 2013 and to discuss the similarities and differences in approach to each opera over the five decades.


Aida (Verdi)

In 1963, San Francisco Opera “refreshed” the company’s old sets for “Aida”, for a cast including Leontyne Price, Regina Resnik and Sandor Konya in the three principal roles.

Many of the massive opera productions built in the early 20th century required large stage crews to move sets and a pause in the music to change from scene to scene. In recent years, there has been a move towards lighter productions of such Verdi operas as “Aida” and “Rigoletto” that permit rapid scene changes without interruption of the music.

[Below: Aida (Lyudila Monastyrska, right) begs Amneris (Dolora Zajick, left) for mercy; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


Such a production is this “Aida” by Zandra Rhodes, owned by the Houston Grand Opera (that has been reviewed by me on four separate occasions in Houston, San Francisco and San Diego). It is an eye-catching production, in which costumes of psychedelic color and exotic sets reflect Rhodes’ famous Carnaby Street fashions of a long ago London.

Although I treasure memories of the 1963 cast, I simply do not agree with those who argue that the Golden Age of Verdi singing is past, as evidenced by strong casts in this year’s San Diego and Houston mountings of the work.

[For my reviews of 1963 and 2013 performances of “Aida”, see: 50 Year Anniversaries: “Aida” with Price, Konya, Resnik, Shaw and Tozzi – San Francisco Opera, September 21, 1963 and Latonia Moore, Jill Grove Outstanding in the Zandra Rhodes Mounting of “Aida” – San Diego Opera, April 20, 2013 and Liudmyla Monastyrska, Issachah Savage Lead Strong “Aida” Cast – Houston Grand Opera, November 1, 2013.]


Barber of Seville (Rossini)

Fifty years ago, most opera-goers were only familiar with this one Rossini opera, which has eternally held the title of world’s most popular operatic comedy.

The role of Rosina has been one of the mainstays of the coloratura soprano repertoire since Rossini’s time, but the tenors who sang the role of Almaviva in the later 19th and 20th century had heavier and less flexible voices than Rossini would have expected. To accommodate the vocal weight of these tenors, of whom Rossini would doubtlessly have disapproved, being cast as Almaviva, the tenor’s big flourish at opera’s end – the aria Cessa di piu resistere – was always cut.

[Below: Figaro (Lucas Meachem, far left) helps Count Almaviva (Javier Camerana, center) locate his barber shop on  a map of Seville; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


One by one, Rossini’s other operas have been revived. Over the past 20 years, an international effort has been made to develop authentic editions of his operatic works. Concurrently, a group of artists have developed expertise in a much more authentic style of Rossini singing.

The San Francisco Opera sponsored important new productions of “Barber of Seville” in both 1963 (the classic Gunther Rennert three story house) and 2013 (a newly conceived Emilio Sagi production). For the first times in San Francisco Opera history, Almaviva’s Cessa di piu resistere was heard an operatic performances, by both of this seasons’ Almavivas, Javier Camerana and Alek Shrader.

[For my reviews of the 1963 and 2103 performances of “Barber of Seville”, see: 50 Year Anniversaries: Grist, Valletti, Prey in “Barbiere di Siviglia” – San Francisco Opera, September 28, 1963 and 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.]


Cosi fan Tutte (Mozart)

The last 60 years or so has seen long term trends in the composition of the operatic repertory [see Expanding 1955’s Standard Repertory], During this period, Mozart’s crisscross tale about two men agreeing to wager whether each can seduce the other’s lover has moved from relative obscurity to “opera warhorse” status.

In the last 60 years, opera artists and managements gave more attention than had occurred in over a century to early 19th century Italian works, discovered Handel and other baroque composers, and began to take seriously 20th century works, especially by Janacek and Britten, as well as some American works from the 1990s and 21st century.

Expanding the repertory to these previously neglected works meant that space allotted to late 19th century French works and Italian verismo works has been squeezed. Although the French repertory is reviving a bit and Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci” still have discernible pulses, what on earth has happened to Montemezzi’s “L’Amore dei Tre Re”?

[Below: Guglielmo (Philippe Sly, left) and Ferrando (Francesco Demuro, center), both disguised as Albanian sailors, act as if they are dying from poison, as Don Alfonso (Marco Vinco, right) pretends to be grief-stricken; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


The San Francisco Opera had never performed either Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” nor “Cosi fan Tutte” before 1950. Since then, the company has sponsored the creation of three distinguished productions each, the beautiful Robert Perdziola “Cosi” sets, pictured above, continuing to enchant audiences.

Both San Francisco’s David Hockney and Jun Kaneko productions of “Flute” co-exist. Alas, both the George Jenkins and the Jean-Pierre Ponnelle “Cosi” were discarded.

[For my reviews of 1963 and 2013 performances, see: 50 Year Anniversaries: “Cosi fan Tutte” with Schwarzkopf, Vanni, Valletti, Prey, Wolovsky, Grist – San Francisco Opera, October 19, 1963 and  A Beautifully Sung, Engaging “Cosi fan Tutte” at San Francisco Opera – June 9, 2013.]


La Forza del Destino (Verdi)

Verdi’s sprawling work – whose intermixture of the angst of noble families with the affairs of the common folk, inspired Mussorgsky to compose the opera “Boris Godunov” –  has challenged production designers and stage directors. Over the half-century, for example, the San Francisco Opera engaged the distinguished production designers Leni Bauer-Ecsy, Pier Samaratini and Zack Brown to try their hand at the work, never with totally satisfying results.

(Any favorable memories of a nonsense-filled 2005 Eurotrickster production relate solely to the San Francisco debut of Conductor Nicola Luisotti, who, in time, was appointed the San Francisco Opera’s Music Director [See: Zurich and San Francisco: A Tale of Two “Forzas”].)

Francesca Zambello created a new production for the Washington National Opera that resolved the opera’s ambiguities. (How do several of the opera’s characters leave Spain and show up at an Italian battlefield?).

[Below: Leonora (Adina Aaron, center, on platform) bids farewell to the assembled monks as she enters her hermitage; edited image, based on a Scott Suchmann photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]


In true Zambello fashion, she discovered dramatic relevance (that makes sense). She concentrated all action in Seville and surrounding Andalusia, removed all reference to historical time, and shifted the battlefield to the urban guerrilla street fighting that is a Zambello trademark.

What audiences were left with was a theatrically valid experience to accompany some of the most glorious of Verdi’s music. (If some of the District of Columbia’s press corps didn’t “get” what was happening, it was not the Zambello production that was the problem.)

[For my reviews of 1963 and 2013 performances of “La Forza del Destino”, see: 50 Year Anniversaries: “Forza del Destino” with Leontyne Price, James McCracken – October 24, 1963 and A New Force of Destiny: Adina Aaron, Monsalve, Delavan Shine in Zambello’s Remake of Verdi’s “Forza” – Washington National Opera, October 12, 2013.]


Sams0n et Dalila (Saint-Saens)

When San Francisco Opera revived Saint-Saens’ exotic “Samson et Dalila” for heroic tenor James McCracken and his wife Sandra Warfield in 1963, the company used sets dating back to the Opera’s 1925 season. When in 1980 a new production and telecast was created for Placido Domingo (who has sung more performances in French than in Italian at the San Francisco Opera), the company enlisted Nicolas Joël as production designer with sets realized by Douglas Schmidt.

The production Joël designed is a world treasure that has escaped the fate of many of the beautiful San Francisco Opera productions created during the era of General Director Kurt Herbert Adler. Much of Adler’s legacy of great productions was destroyed by his successors without regard for their artistic merit or the interest of future generations in opera’s late 20th century heritage.

[Below: Samson (Clifton Forbis, front, right) gazes at Dalila (Nadia Kresteva, center, on steps); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


San Diego Opera, a venue where French works are respectfully presented, has mounted this production, so popular with the audiences who get to see it, twice in six years.

[For my reviews of 1963 and 2013 performances of “Samson et Dalila”, see: 50 Year Anniversaries: James McCracken is the Star of “Samson et Dalila” – San Francisco Opera, September 26, 1963 and San Diego Opera Offers Saint-Saens’ Sensuous “Samson and Delilah” – February 16, 2013.]


La Sonnambula (Bellini)

As the early Italian opera repertory of Bellini and Donizetti continues its newfound popularity with modern audiences, performances of “La Sonnambula” – which rivaled “Lucia di Lammermoor” in popularity a century and a half ago – regrettably has become a bit of a rarity.

The opera’s plot – a village’s wedding plans are disrupted when the would-be bride, Amina, sleepwalks into the bedroom of a noble stranger, causing village tongues to wag, until the details of her sleep disorder come to be known – is no more implausible than plot points of some of the Bard’s plays, but just as those plays are esteemed as masterpieces of poetry and prose, so too “Sonnambula” is a masterpiece of vocal music.

A famous Amina of a half-century ago, Renata Scotto, created an engaging new production for Florida Grand Opera in 2007 which was revived with great success in 2013.

[Below: Amina (Rachele Gilmore, left) is exultant as she prepares to marry Elvino (Michele Angelini, right center); edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Florida Grand Opera.]


Like Rossini’s operas, a new generation of Bellini singers, including this year’s Miami (and Fort Lauderdale) cast, suggests that there is much more to like in this opera than some critics might imagine.

[For my reviews of 1963 and 2013 performances of “La Sonnambula”, see: 50 Year Anniversaries: Sutherland, Cioni in Bellini’s “Sonnambula” – San Francisco Opera, September 14, 1963 and “Sonnambula” Reawakened: Rachele Gilmore’s, Michele Angelini’s Artistry, Vocal Fireworks Enliven Bellini’s Masterpiece – Florida Grand Opera, February 9, 2013.]


Tales of Hoffmann (Offenbach)

No opera’s fortune has changed so dramatically over the past half-century than this posthumous work by the comic-opera genius Jacques Offenbach.

Intending to create a serious opera, based on the works of German novelist E. T. A. Hoffmann, Offenbach completed the score, but died before he could edit the massive work to stage for Parisian audiences.

[Below: Dappertutto (Christian Van Horn, right) is exultant as Giulietta (Irene Roberts, left front center, on floor) lies dead to the dismay of Hoffmann (Matthew Polenzani, center, above Giulietta); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


To salvage Offenbach’s work and memory, others stepped in to create a performance edition, but lacked access to many pages of Offenbach’s score. Over the past couple of decades missing pages of the score have been found through the scholarly work of Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Koch. A new performance edition by Kaye and Koch was created (whose performances in New Mexico I reported on recently [Groves, Wall, Lindsey Excel in Christopher Alden’s Harrowing, Hallucinatory “Hoffmann” – Santa Fe Opera, July 17, 2010]).

The brilliant production designer Laurent Pelly used the Kay3-Koch edition as the point of departure for a new production for the opera companies of Barcelona and San Francisco. Although the Internet buzzed about where Pelly deviated from the new “orthodox” version, Pelly’s results – which have been referred to as the “Barcelona version” – were spectacular.

(For my reviews of 1963 and 2013 performances of “Tales of Hoffmann”, see: 50 Year Anniversaries: SPOT’s “Tales of Hoffmann” – San Francisco Opera, May 3, 1963 and 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.]


Tosca (Puccini)

A half-century ago a University of California Berkeley professor wrote a textbook about what constituted good opera in which he predicted that Puccini’s “Tosca” would disappear from the core opera repertory and would only sporadically be revived, like Meyerbeer’s “L’Africaine” (his example of its future performance frequency). There is not the slightest indication that his prediction will ever come to pass.

Like a Greek tragedy following Aristotelian principles of drama, the opera “Tosca” presents the events that occur within a few blocks of Rome on a specific day in the year 1800 in which a chance meeting between a church painter and an escaped convict directly results in the next few hours in their deaths and those of the painter’s lover and Rome’s chief of police.

[Below: Tosca (Sondra Radvanovsky, left) is grabbed by the Baron Scarpia (Lado Ataneli, right); edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]


With three of the most dramatically and vocally luscious roles in opera, abundant melody, and Puccini’s sense of how to grab an audience’s heartstrings, its position as one of the world’s most popular operas seems unassailable, even on the Berkeley campus.

[For my reviews of 1963 and 2013 performances, see: 50 Year Anniversaries: Leontyne Price, Konya, Shaw in “Tosca” – San Francisco Opera, October 3, 1963 and Sondra Radvanovsky is a Radiant, Transcendent Tosca – Los Angeles Opera, May 18, 2013.]


Die Walkuere (Wagner)

One of the spectacular changes over the past half-century is the growth in popularity of the idea of attending cycles of the four operas of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs”. I have met persons who attend no other operas than those of the “Ring” and proudly accept the title of “Ring-head” as they travel the globe to attend its performances.

A half-century ago opera goers still were likely only to have seen the second opera of the cycle, “Die Walkuere”, whose third act opens with the Ride of the Valkyries, an operatic passage that one would expect the world’s teenagers (and those who were former teenagers) to know.

[Below: Greer Grimsley as Wotan; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Seattle Opera.]


A half-century ago, one would expect designers of “Ring” productions to emphasize abstract concepts, simple unornamented  costumes, abundant use of light imagery and scrims, all meant to obliterate the stereotype of Teutonic figures in horned helmets.

Then, as the 21st century dawned, Seattle Opera turned “Ring” production on its head by creating their lushly verdant, naturalistic “Green Ring”, locating the story in cinemascopic mountains and meadows, river depths and hollows. In this world treasure, the Valkyries’ Ride occurs on the landing on a steep mountain slope that is even traversed by Grane, Bruenhilde’s mount, who appears in the horse flesh onstage.

[For my reviews of 1963 and 2013 performances of “Die Walkuere”, see: 50 Year Anniversaries: Vickers, Shuard, Resnik in “Die Walkuere” – San Francisco Opera, October 10, 1963 and Wagner’s “Walkuere” Victoriously Revived at Seattle Opera – August 5, 2013.]


For the most recent previous commentaries in this series, see: Opera in Live Performance: Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2012, Part One  and Opera in Live Performance: Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2012, Part Two, and also,

Opera in Live Performance, Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2011, Part One and Opera in Live Performance, Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2011, Part Two.


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