Opera Warhorses

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

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Rating San Francisco Opera Productions for 2014

January 5th, 2015

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. 

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. 

Using the criterion that a routine San Francisco Opera performance at the War Memorial Opera House – taking into account casts, staging, sets and costumes, and musical performance –  should be graded an “A”. On those occasions in which the opera company performs at more than a routine level then I award A+.

Based on these criteria, I found that all nine productions, seven in Italian and two in English, that the San Francisco Opera presented in calendar year 2014 to exceed my definition of a “routine performance”.


Grade A+ 

Show Boat (Kern)

Stage director Francesca Zambello is a strong advocate for presenting classic American musical theater in an operatic setting, inspiring an engaging production of Jerome Kern’s late 1920s musical “Show Boat” whose lyrics are by Oscar Hammerstein II.

Zambello’s Show Boat had previously been seen at the Lyric Opera of Chicago (on whose opening night I had reported), Washington National Opera and Houston Grand Opera.

[Below: Queenie (Angela Renee Simpson, center left, with red bandana in hair) congratulates Magnolia Hawkes (Heid Stober, in bridal dress) and Gaylord Ravenal (Michael Todd Simpson, center in top hat) as Captain Andy Hawkes  (Bill Irwin, center right, in blue uniform) looks on; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Utilizing major operatic voices in all the major singing parts added impact to Kern’s melodious score. Basso Morris Robinson was memorable in the role of Joe, delivering an absorbing Ol Man River, the score’s defining song.

Heidi Stober was an elegant Magnolia. Michael Todd Simpson made a strong impression as Gaylord Ravenal, and Patricia Racette provided yet another intensely dramatic character study as Julie LaVerne. Many traditional cuts were opened, delightfully expanding  the role of Queenie (Angela Renee Simpson).

[For my performance review, see: Aboard San Francisco Opera’s “Show Boat”: Showy Cast, Abundant Show-stoppers – June 1, 2014.] 


La Traviata (Verdi)

After an absence of over a decade, John Copley’s classic production of Verdi’s “La Traviata” was revived for two young pairs of singers in the lead romantic roles.

Albanian lyric tenor Saimir Pirgu teamed with American soprano Nicole Cabell for most of the June performances, while the July performances brought together the husband and wife team of Ailyn Pérez and Stephen Costello.

[Below: Violetta (Ailyn Pérez, left) is flattered by the attentions of Alfredo Germont (Stephen Costello, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Two stylish baritones, Bulgarian Vladimir Stoyanov and American Quinn Kelsey shared the role of Alfredo’s father Giorgio Germont. Nicola Luisotti conducted the “Traviatas” of early summer, while his colleague Giuseppe Finzi took the podium for the remainder.

[For my performance reviews, see: Luisotti Leads Triumphant “Traviata” Starring Cabell and Pirgu – San Francisco Opera, June 11, 2014 and Review: San Francisco Opera’s Pérez, Costello, Kelsey Lineup Leads to High Scoring “Traviata” – July 5, 2014.]


Madama Butterfly (Puccini)

The era of David Gockley’s general directorship of the San Francisco Opera has given prominence to the works of Giocomo Puccini, in which the composer’s entire canon of works from “Manon Lescaut” through “Turandot” has been presented, none more often than “Madama Butterfly”, appearing four times in the nine Gockley calendar years in three different productions.

[Below: B. F. Pinkerton (Brian Jagde, front left, in military cap) takes part in a marriage ceremony to Cio-Cio San (Patricia Racette, front right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Perhaps, a decade ago, no one thought of an artistic alliance between the opera companies of San Francisco and Omaha Nebraska, but the ingenious set and costume designs of Omaha-based Jun Kaneko, that proved so enchanting in a 2012 new production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” (with a new English translation by Gockley), that the appetite was whetted for introducing Opera Omaha’s Kaneko production of “Butterfly”.

That the San Francisco company’s circle of Puccini specialists includes the incomparable dramatic soprano Patricia Racette, the strong performance of Elizabeth DeShong (in what in early career has been a signature role),  the sweet-voiced tenor Brian Jagde and sweet-voiced baritone, Brian Mulligan, made it an experience as eye-catching as it was dramatic and melodious.  Morris Robinson’s brief appearance as the Bonze was itself memorable.

Puccini was the most successful composer to combine the Italian melodic tradition with the Wagnerian principle of a large role for the orchestra in an opera’s dramatic story-telling. The War Memorial Opera House, its sonorous acoustics and its open orchestra pit (and core of Italianate conductors led by Music Director Nicola Luisotti) is so conducive to these operas that I have affectionately called the War Memorial the “House of Puccini”.

[For my performance review, see: House of Puccini: Jun Kaneko’s Enchanting “Madama Butterfly” Soars at War Memorial – San Francisco Opera, June 15, 2014.]


Bellini (Norma)

There are two plausible reasons to revive Bellini’s “Norma”. One is a soprano available for the role of Norma with the ability to master both Norma’s coloratura and lyric passages and to sing close coloratura harmony with a world class seconda donna who would be playing Adalgisa. An alternate reason is to unlock the emotional drama that is inherent in the piece’s exploration of a love triangle between a secretly married druid priestess, her husband (the Roman proconsul) Pollione and the young novitiate Adalgisa.

[Below: Norma (Sondra Radvanovsky, center) convinces Pollione (Marco Berti, right) to join her in a human sacrifice; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Of course, an even better reason is when one can meet both objectives, as did Sondra Radvanovsky, aided by the stunningly effective San Francisco Opera debut of Jamie Barton as Adalgisa.

Marco Berti, looking trim and acting persuasively, sang Pollione in the early performances, replaced later by Russell Thomas. Christian Van Horn was the Oroveso.

A new production by Kevin Newbury, with sets by his frequent collaborator David Korins (the production traveling subsequently to the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona and Lyric Opera of Chicago) caused much intermission chatter about its Druid imagery. Giving serious thought and considerable research to what Druid practices might be like, the imaginative staging resonated with me.

Nicola Luisotti, San Francisco Opera’s Music Director, emphasized the score’s drama with appropriately fast-paced conducting for much of the opera while his San Francisco Opera Orchestra dreamily accompanied Radvanovsky for the opera’s megahit Casta Diva.

[For my performance reviews, see: Review: Sondra Radvanovsky’s Stunning Season Opening “Norma” – San Francisco Opera, September 5, 2014 and A Second Look: “Norma” at the San Francisco Opera – September 14, 2014.]


Susannah (Floyd)

The War Memorial Opera House, exactly 50 years previously, was the scene of two legendary performances of Carlisle Floyd’s most famous work, the opera “Susannah”, for the company’s Spring Opera Theater. However, until this season, “Susannah” had never been performed by the main company.

There seemed no doubt that David Gockley, so closely associated with composer Floyd and his opera at the Houston Grand Opera, would break the opera’s dry spell at the War Memorial.

The opera company mounted a superb cast for the three principal roles. Dramatic soprano Patricia Racette sang the role of Susannah Polk, basso cantante Raymond Aceto was Reverend Olin Blitch, whose misunderstandnig of Susannah and struggle with his repressed sexual passions, destroys Susannah’s home life and future.

[Below: Susannah Polk (Patricia Racette) reflects on her life; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Heldentenor Brandon Jovanovich showed San Francisco audiences why the role of Sam Polk, Susannah’s likable brother is itself such a hochdramatische role, as a kind of angel of vengeance who kills the repentant Blitch and is himself lynched. Rustic chivalry in the Eastern Tennesse mountains!

The staging was by Michael Cavanagh, who had earlier directed another work Adams’ “Nixon in China” (of whom Gockley is also a passionate advocate.) The visual designs, incorporating the stage sets and projections by Erhard Rom, were spectacular.

[For my performance reviews, see: Review: Racette, Aceto, Jovanovich in Brilliant New Production of “Susannah” – San Francisco Opera, September 6, 2014  and A Second Look: Patricia Racette Medals in “Susannah” at the San Francisco Opera – September 21, 2014.]


Ballo in Maschera (Verdi)

Verdi’s “Masked Ball” had been absent absent from the San Francisco Opera repertory for eight years, it being the official “opening night” of David Gockley’s first season as general director, with little time to assemble the cast and crew he might have wished to have had to mount it.

For the revival he assembled a cast popular with San Franciscans consisting of lyric tenor Ramon Vargas as Gustavo, mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick as Madame Arvidson (Ulrica) and Thomas Hampson as Count Anckarstrom. Replacing a colleague for the run was Juliana di Giacomo, who, as Amelia, proved an effective Verdian. Heidi Stober was an excellent Oscar.

[Below: Amelia (Juliana di Giacomo, center right, on lowest step) warns King Gustavo (Ramón Vargas, center, left on lowest step) of a plot to assassinate him; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


As stage director, Gockley turned to Jose Maria Condemi, whose stage direction is dependable in its believability and integrity to the composer’s vision, qualities that Verdi would find missing in much that elsewhere is often presented in his name. Maestro Luisotti conducted yet another Verdi masterpiece masterfully. Gary Marder’s lighting, particularly of the “gibbet” scene was worthy of special notice.

[For my performance review, see: Review: A Stylishly Sung and Intelligently Staged “Masked Ball” at San Francisco Opera – October 4, 2014.]


Partenope (Handel)

Christopher Alden’s insouciant staging of Handel’s “Partenope” was imported from Europe, with an all star cast led by Danielle DeNiese as Queen Partenope, with counter-tenors David Daniels and Anthony Ray Costanzo, lyric tenor Alek Shrader, mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, and baritone Philippe Sly comprising the cast.

Partenope’s classical association with the founding of Italy, not a big point in Handel’s storyline, was even more obscured by moving the opera’s plot to 1920s Paris in the salon of steamship heiress Nancy Cunard, enlivened by photographer Man Ray, whose presence is approximated by Partenope’s suitor (and rival), Emilio, played by Schrader.

[Below: Queen Partenope (Daniel De Niese, center) and Emilio (Alek Shrader, left) look in on Arsace (David Daniels, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera]


San Francisco Opera patrons can be quite resistant to indefensible changes in familiar operas, but, with this Handel opera with no  performance tradition in San Francisco, in all its wackiness, it proved to be a popular hit.

Alden’s staging was always interesting, often engaging and sometimes outlandishly appealing to the audience’s sense of humor, with a showstopping tapdance while singing from Costanzo. A succession of seductive melodies from Handel sung by an incomparable cast added to the audience’s good cheer.

In yet another unexpected no-show in San Francisco, the baroque specialist who was to conduct the opera  was unable to participate, delaying orchestra rehearsals. Yet the opera, under the baton of Boston conductor Julian Wachsner worked so smoothly one could have been persuaded that they had worked for months preparing it.

For my performance reviews, see: Review: An Engaging Cast, Handel’s Seductive Music, and Christopher Alden’s Surreal Staging Enliven San Francisco Opera’s “Partenope” – San Francisco Opera, October 15, 2014 and A Second Look: “Partenope” at the San Francisco Opera – October 24, 2014


Tosca (Puccini)

In the month of Halloween San Francisco Opera suffered yet another trick (the indisposition of a European artist who was to sing Tosca), but the treat (the debut of Armenian soprano Lianna Horoutounian, who had never sung the role before), was one of the highlights of San Francisco’s “highly lit” season.

[Below: the Baron Scarpia (Mark Delavan, left) insists that Tosca (Lianna Haroutounian, right) succumb to his sexual desires if she is to save the life of her lover; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


The historic set designs, the staging of Jose Maria Condemi and solid perofmrances of Mark Delavan as Baron Scarpia and Brian Jagde as Cavaradossi, made this one of the great “Toscas” in an opera house with a special reverence for Puccini’s work.

For my performance review, see: Review: Lianna Haroutounian Triumphs as Tosca – San Francisco Opera, October 23, 2014.


La Cenerentola (Rossini)

The oldest physical production in the San Francisco Opera repertory, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s classic production of Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” starred French mezzo-soprano Karine Deshayes and Cinderella and Texas leggiero tenor Rene Barbera as her Prince Charming, Ramiro.

[Below: Prince Ramiro (Rene Barbera, right, disguised as his valet) meets Cenerentola (Karine Deshayes, left) at her hearth; resized image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Ponnelle’s beautifully conceived sets (touched up with some new paint) glistened. Deshayes and Barbera are unquestionably part of the Rossini Royalty – a term I use for the extraordinary growth in singers adept at Rossini’s florid vocal style. Carlos Chausson was a hilarious (and magnificent) Don Magnifico.

In yet another example of San Francisco Opera’s ability to replace an indisposed artist on a dime and succeed, California baritone Efrain Solis (a San Francisco Opera Adler Young Artist) took over the buffo role of Dandini with great success.

Maestro Jesus Lopez-Cobos, absent from the San Francisco Opera for four decades, conducted with joy.

For my performance review, see: “Cenerentola” Review: San Francisco Opera’s Splendidly Sung, Sumptuously Staged Cinderella Story – November 9, 2014.


Puccini (La Boheme)

Director John Caird’s production of “La Boheme”, already seen in Toronto, was introduced to San Francisco with two successful casts alternating.

Michael Fabiano sang Rodolfo (the debut role at San Francisco Opera for Luciano Pavarotti in 1967, Placido Domingo in 1969 and Jose Carreras in 1973). Those in the audience with long memories appreciated that yet another superstar Rodolfo has set foot on the War Memorial stage.

But there’s more!. The Rodolfo in the alternate cast Italian tenor Giorgio Berrugi proved also to be a talent worth watching closely. The other principals in both casts were major league as well (Alexia Voulgaridou and Leah Crocetto as Mimi, Nadine Sierra and Ellie Dehn as Musetta, Alexey Markov and Brian Mulligan as Marcello).

[Below: Parisians crowds gather near the Cafe Momus; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


The individual scenes in the Caird production were as attractive as any seen in recent years in San Francisco, but had a feature of more than routine interest. As is usually done, the first and second acts are performed together without an intermission, as are the third and fourth acts.

But within each pair of acts the first and third acts transformed as if by magic (certainly by complex computerized stage machinery) into, respectively, the second and fourth acts.

Maestro Giuseppe Finzi conducted the eternally popular score with affection.

For my performance reviews, see: Review: Michael Fabiano, Alexia Voulgaridou are Vocally Splendid in John Caird’s Cleverly Conceived “La Boheme” – San Francisco Opera, November 14, 2014 and Review: Crocetto, Berrugi, Dehn, Mulligan Star in Well-sung, Intelligently-Acted “La Boheme” – San Francisco Opera, November 15, 2014.


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

Rating San Francisco Opera’s Productions Of Calendar Year 2013, and also,

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.

Tags: 2005-2016 William's Commentaries