Review: Zajick is Victor in “Maid of Orleans” – San Francisco Opera, June 18, 2006

Dolora Zajick took no prisoners in a triumphant appearance as Joan of Arc in Tchaikovsky’s “The Maid of Orleans” in San Francisco’s three-opera summer season billed as the ” Return of the Divas”. (Zajick shared Summer Diva-dom with Ruth Ann Swenson, the Countess in Mozart’s “Nozze di Figaro”, and Patricia Racette, performing the title role in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”. [The Mozart and Puccini operas are reviewed on other pages.]

The entire concept of a Return of the Divas theme drips with symbolism to close observers of the turmoil at the San Francisco Opera over the past half-decade. It is also the Summer that all San Francisco Opera performances became the responsibility of the new General Manager David Gockley. Yet, although much of the unmistakably pro-Gockley publicity emphasizes new beginnings or restoration of old values, the Summer celebration of divas transcended all.

The cognoscenti recognized the double meaning of “Return”. The official explanation in the accompanying literature emphasized that each one of this set of Divas had started in San Francisco Opera’s Merola program and/or its Adler fellowships for young artists, launching their international careers. Thus, identifying the summer’s Joan of Arc, Cio Cio San and Countess as Divas was a way of celebrating the Merola and Adler programs. That explanation seems a bit defensive. The very obvious message being transmitted was that the several seasons of Gockley’s predecessor Pamela Rosenberg scheduling controversial productions without popular international opera stars had ended. Gockley not only promised to deliver big names in the future, he gave several examples of who would be coming.

The Return of the Divas theme probably was made easier by the absence of divos who claim the first rank. What if, say, Roberto Alagna or Rolando Villazon (the latter himself an alumnus of the Merola program) had been cast as Pinkerton? But promoting the three dissimilar operas as the Summer of the Return of the Divas was a coup de theatre. And, Zajick, who wore the Diva mantle very comfortably, was the shining star of the Summer. Tchaikovsky wrote the opera for a dramatic mezzo, and Zajick, who has championed this relatively unknown major work of the most popular Russian composer, dominated the many scenes in which she appeared. As a vehicle for Zajick, it was confirmation of her international prominence in the mezzo repertoire, and her power to introduce a major nineteenth century work to new audiences.

[Below: Dolora Zajick (Joan of Arc); edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

As a vehicle for proselytizing for Tchaikovsky’s lesser-known operatic works on the West Coast, “The Maid of Orleans” was a mixed success, owing largely to a flawed (and probably hastily conceived) production. As the guide to French history that the production designer Chris Alexander was purported to have envisioned, it was, if not a total failure, a weak presentation of an odd idea. As musical drama, it was an absorbing, although, in this production, a sometimes disconnected experience.

One notes that, as late as first week in December, 2005, the San Francisco Opera’s official cast lists showed that the production would be that of the Teatro Regio Torino, the same production that in Spring, 2006 would be performed by the Washington National Opera. A week later, without explanation, it was announced that Alexander’s new production would be mounted rather than the sets from Turin. It is one thing to substitute another existing production only a few weeks before rehearsals for a performance are to begin. Developing a wholly new production of a previously unperformed work, at the very cusp of the transition point between the Rosenberg and Gockley eras, was without precedent.

That the production was not a total wreck (San Francisco Opera’s most recent prior new production being an impossible and poorly received presentation of Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino”) was likely both a relief and bit of luck for Gockley. Spinning the opera as a vehicle for an esteemed Diva, rather than as something that would not be performed were Zajick not in the cast, may have helped lower expectations of the production itself.

[Below: Rod Gilfry as Lionel; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photographs, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

As a milestone in the transition between the strange years of Pamela Rosenberg’s stewardship of the San Francisco Opera and what is to be the post-Rosenberg future, “The Maid of Orleans” was a fascinating subject for analysis. It was the only one of the three operas in the Summer of Divas, that truly deserved the Diva association. As impressive as Racette was as Butterfly and Swenson was the “Nozze” Countess, they were great performances in serious productions with international caliber ensemble casts that one expects of world class opera companies.

What would the San Francisco production of “Maid of Orleans” been like without Zajick? A triumph for conductor Donald Runnicles and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, perhaps, since Tchaikovsky was an unparalleled orchestrator and the “Maid” is an excellent example of his work. But as an opera production dependent on a major voice, it would have been devastation without Dolora.

[Below: Dolora Zajick as the Maid of Orleans; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

There are a few examples of super-star careers having started after the cover for a major international singer has to take over that singer’s role. Usually, the consequences of a major star, on which an operatic production depends, becoming unavailable are disconcerting.

San Francisco Opera mounted Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux” in 1979 for Montserrat Caballe, who had to withdraw because of illness after the first performance. Disastrously, all of the remaining performances fell to an inadequate understudy. The year prior, enthusiasm for a staged concert version of Massenet’s “Le Cid” planned for Placido Domingo was deflated when personal issues required him to withdraw from the project. (Domingo’s cover was the estimable William Lewis, but that assuaged few of the considerable number of opera fans who had greater interest in seeing Domingo than the unfamiliar works of Massenet.)

Because most operatic productions and casts nowadays have to be signed years in advance of an operatic season, there is a transitional period when a new General Manager takes over, when a previous General Manager’s repertoire and cast choices are more or less set in stone.

In the past, this has not been regarded as a great problem. There were some differences in approaches to repertoire between Kurt Herbert Adler, Terence McEwen, and Lotfi Mansouri, who consecutively ran the San Francisco Opera between 1954 and 2001, but neither McEwen nor Mansouri permitted themselves to be reported as hostile to programmatic decisions made by their predecessor, which, after all, were made in good faith for the benefit of the San Francisco audiences.

Not so with Mansouri’s successor, Pamela Rosenberg, in 2001. She went to the press to say how much she disliked having to mount Saint-Saens’ “Samson et Dalila” (despite world-class performances by Sergei Larin and Olga Borodina, respectively) and Tigran Chukhadjian’s “Arshak II”, a mid-nineteenth century obscurity which had been recently translated from its original Italian to be performed at San Francisco Opera in Armenian(!)

Noting that in the next season (so the rumors go), she had John Cox’ production of Massenet’s “Thais” scheduled with Renee Fleming and Thomas Hampson, she decided to pull the plug on that opera, which apparently she also intensely disliked.

A problem arose. Contracts are contracts, and both parties have to agree to a change. Hampson could be persuaded to take another role (Figaro), but Fleming refused to bow to Rosenberg’s will in order to let her change operas and productions to something she wished to have done.

Taking on a diva, particularly one very popular with San Francisco audiences and Ms Rosenberg’s bosses, the S. F. Opera Board of Directors, turned out to be an unexpectedly painful adventure for Rosenberg. She had the worst of all worlds – rumors (whose verisimilitude seemed quite high) had her paying the substantial fees of one of the World’s most sought after opera stars, while obtaining no performances at all from her and garnering her ill will.

This proved a hefty price to pay for Rosenberg’s decision to shield San Francisco audiences from the agonies of the fated love affair between Thais and Athanael. (The audiences had survived and even enjoyed these agonies in totally sold-out performances of San Francisco Opera’s 1976 production starring Beverly Sills and Sherill Milnes.)

Then, for unrelated reasons, Ruth Ann Swenson bowed out of a San Francisco production of Mozart’s “Abduction from the Seraglio”. Rosenberg felt compelled to share with the San Francisco press the news that even though board members might think otherwise (and she did refer to her inter-relationships with board members in her press interviews), there was no problem between her and Swenson, and that Swenson was being re-engaged for future performances, including the “Nozze” Countess in 2006.

But these were not Rosenberg’s only problems. As part of her “Animating Opera” idea, Rosenberg had announced many of the operas to be performed over the next several seasons. But she took over the reins of the company as the bursting of the tech-stock bubble and the inauguration of the War on Terror, lessened the interest of either business or casual travelers to come to San Francisco and pay the high ticket prices for the Opera. And “high ticket price” came to be redefined upward season after season, increasing upwards of 80% during the Rosenberg years.

She found it financially impossible to mount some of the productions she had already announced, and had to severely retrench what the opera company was doing. Unlike many European opera houses, American opera companies have very little in the way of government subsidies, if at all. San Francisco Opera has enjoyed the support of some corporate and individual donors, but, compared to other American cultural centers, their numbers are relatively sparse. And, if a corporation’s headquarters moves from San Francisco to, say, Charlotte, it becomes a tougher sell to encourage large donations for the cultural institutions in the former headquarters city that the corporation left behind.

Thus, the Opera came to depend ever more so on the regular subscribers, many of whom have held their season tickets for decades. That creates a real problem for opera general directors and production designers who want to perform opera in non-traditional ways, because most subscribers tend not to think of themselves as patrons for the avant-garde, but as persons who want to see opera performed by the most accomplished artists of the day and as the opera composers and librettists intended.

Paying several thousand dollars for a season ticket, and attending all the productions of the season, are choices made from an infinite array of alternative uses of one’s time and fortune. Those who have chosen to be long-term subscribers consider it their right to express their expectations, to hold the opera management to those expectations, and to participate less generously in the Opera’s eternal fund-raising activities if it believes management has gone awry.

That does not mean most subscribers would wish to micro-manage an opera season. With impresarios of the caliber of Adler, McEwen and Mansouri running things, the reservoir of subscriber support was evident. But Rosenberg’s reservoir of good will with many subscribers started to evaporate as soon as the leading edge of her production choices began to appear in the middle of the 2002-2003 season.

Few subscribers expressed concern at her premiering Messeian’s “Saint Francis”, even if many who praised the production were determined never to see it again. The early operas of the season, surely reflecting Lotfi Mansouri’s choices, went well, except for the inability to secure a healthy lead tenor for Verdi’s “Otello” – not considered Rosenberg’s fault. The production of Janacek’s “Katya Kabanova” raised a red flag or two, when a bizarre scene was inserted into an otherwise understandable production.

But then Richard (Jones the Ripper) Jones’ travesty on Humperdinck’s “Hansel und Gretel” appeared. “Hansel” was followed by the Stuttgart production of Handel’s “Alcina” (see my review of the 2005 San Francisco Opera “Rodelinda” and the DVD of the Stuttgart “Alcina” elsewhere on this website) and the murmuring among the subscribers began. But strange productions of Janacek, Humperdinck, and Handel operas are not what matters to San Francisco Opera subscribers. It is when you savage the Big 5 (Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini and Richard Strauss) that you cross the line.

In the accompanying program notes, Zajick recounted the circumstances that led to the Tchaikovsky’s work (to be retitled “Joan of Arc”) being selected for Summer, 2006. She was performing Azucena in San Francisco Opera’s 2003 mounting of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”. Rosenberg asked her what she might want to do in the future, and she opted for the Tchaikovsky work, which had impressed her as a chorister for the Nevada Opera, the site of the opera’s American premiere.

Zajick did not mention that the “Trovatore” was a disastrous conceptualization of Verdi’s middle period masterpiece from the Seattle Opera. Zajick had been greeted by a thunderous ovation at the Seattle production’s S. F. premiere (far in excess of the applause for her colleagues Richard Margison as Manrico, Marina Mescheriakova as Leonora and Carlos Alvarez as Conte di Luna). But when, the Seattle “Trovatore’s” production designer and stage director were introduced, the loud booing greeting their perfunctory bows led to an immediate dropping of the curtain to abruptly end the curtain calls. Rosenberg later admitted to the San Francisco press that she regretted renting the Seattle production.

So one imagines that Zajick was dealing from a position of strength during those conversations in 2003, with Rosenberg intent on doing whatever it might take to sign her. (My guess is that if Zajick had set as her non-negotiable demand the return of Massenet’s “Herodiade”, which Mansouri had mounted for Zajick, Renee Fleming and Placido Domingo (the DVD of the San Francisco Opera performance is available), Rosenberg would have gulped and agreed to it.)

[Below: Joan of Arc (Dolora Zajick), with King Charles VII (Mischa Didyk, second from right) and Agnes Sorel (Karen Slack, right) observing, rallies the king’ss court to defend France; edited image, based on a photograph by Terrence McCarthy, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

However it came to be, being able to have a serious performance of a Tchaikovsky opera new to San Francisco Opera was a valuable experience. In fact, in three successive seasons we have had Tchaikovsky’s “Yevgeny Onegin” (in a never offensive, sometimes interesting production), his “Pikovaia Dama” (in a disreputable Jones the Ripper production that dishonored the traditions of the house), and his “Orleanskaya Deva” in a production that confirmed that we don’t have a lot of production designers who understand how to present Tchaikovsky’s ideas for the stage.

Alexander observed correctly that characters in the opera represent historical figures – the Maid herself, King Charles VII, and his young playmate, Agnes Sorel (the first of the famous line of politically connected royal mistresses), and Jean Comte de Dunois, the Dauphin/King’s illegitimate half-brother.

Alexander’s further observation that Tchaikovsky was impressed with Mussorgsky’s use of choruses to propel the action of “Boris Godunov”, gave Alexander the idea of using the chorus as supposed commentators on the course of French history. There are fundamental problems with that line of thought, but a lame concept was muddled beyond redemption by deciding that this gaggle of French history dilettantes should be costumed in modern dress.

Another extra-textual element, obviously meant to complement the history lesson, whether or not it made sense on paper, did not work at all in performance. Key orchestral interludes were enlisted to provide accompaniment to a labored “dance of death”, tableaux in which persons of all stations fell before the Grim Reaper. We came to the theatre with the knowledge that everyone alive in the fifteenth century, whether meek or powerful, has passed on, but that is not where Tchaikovsky intended us to focus.

But much of what happens in the opera is unhistorical, even fantastic. Friedrich Schiller’s 1801 play, “Die Jungfrau von Orleans”, was the loosely observed source material for both Tchaikovsky’s “Maid” and Verdi’s “Giovanna d’Arco”. In Schiller and Verdi, Joan dies on the battlefield. Tchaikovsky follows history, and has her captured by the English and burned at the stake.

As far as we know, the only boys in the historical teenage Joan’s thoughts were wearing chain mail and carrying longbows. But Schiller, Verdi and Tchaikovsky shared the conviction that she should have a love interest. Verdi’s opera provides for a romance between Charles the Dauphin and Joan. (Agnes Sorel conveniently is absent from “Giovanna”.) Schiller devises a love affair with an English solder, Lionel, who appears also in Tchaikovsky’s libretto, but as a cross-Channel Burgundian rather than a Brit.

Lionel is a much shorter part than Joan’s, but because his scenes with Joan are invested with passages of overwhelmingly melodious Tchaikovskian love music, a person of the international stature of Rodney Gilfrey, agreed to appear in the role. It is one of the relatively few opportunities for a baritone to be the romantic male lead, and, on-stage romances between lead mezzos and baritones are much rarer.

[Below: Lionel (Rod Gilfrey, left) connects with Joan (Dolora Zajick, right); edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

I am assuming that this will be the only time that San Francisco Opera will perform its “French history lesson” production of “Maid of Orleans”. Some pieces of the idea were not terrible. The costumes, attributed to Walter Mahoney, the retired San Francisco Opera costume shop manager, were impressive displays of late medieval fashion. I liked Alexander’s blocking (and the appropriate costuming), on a raised center stage, for the scenes that took place in Joan’s village; and was impressed, as was most of the audience, with her onstage immolation. Less satisfactory was the use of three young ballerinas onstage as the personification of Joan’s Heaven-directed “voices” compelling Joan’s actions.

[Below: the English burn Joan of Arc (Dolora Zajick) at the stake in Rouen; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

The musical performances of Zajick’s colleagues were impressive. Besides Runnicles’ sumptuous conducting and Gilfrey’s mellifluous Lionel, the other principals (one must guard against describing them as the “supporting cast”) were noteworthy. Ukrainian tenor Misha Didyk (whose musical career began as a soloist for the Red Army, once upon a time in the U. S. S. R.) again proved his mastery of the Tchaikovskian idiom, having performed Ghermann in “Pikovaia Dama” without any discredit to himself, in the ghastly 2005 Jones the Ripper travesty production of that important opera. One looks ahead to his scheduled performances in San Francisco of Des Grieux in Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” to judge his mettle in a rather different style of singing.

[Below: Mischa Didyk is King Charles VII; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The Dunois, Philip Cutlip, whose monkish hairstyle reminds one of the portraits of England’s Henry V, was impressive in his San Francisco debut. Philip Skinner, who has been a 20-year workhorse in the secondo basso roles, was especially notable as Joan’s nemesis — Thibaut, her Dad – one of the most unsympathetic father figures in all of the performing arts. Thibaut accuses his daughter of sorcery and being possessed by demons, thereby leading to her capture and destruction by the English enemy.

Sean Panikkar, another Merola success story, has become an audience favorite, and continued his string of triumphs in comprimario roles as Raymond, the village boy Joan’s father wanted her to marry. Karen Slack, the Agnes Sorel, joined Didyk in beautifully singing the light-hearted music of the Dauphin’s court, whose melodies one might be able to insert into a Lehar or Johann Strauss operetta, without spoiling the mood.

Peter Strummer (Bertrand), has made an international career of juicy “character” roles (see my comments on Strummer in my review of his Antonio in the Summer 2006 “Nozze di Figaro”) that it is worth the extra cost of the Transatlantic airline ticket to bring him from his home base in Europe. Basso Giorgio Giuseppini, whose teachers included Boris Christoff, was a robust Archbishop. Perhaps to save a few dollars after casting so many roles with artists of international reputation, the requirement of one additional cast member was eliminated by assigning the music that was supposed to be sung by the Dauphin’s court minstrel to the chorus of French history-lesson students.

“The Maid of Orleans” abounds in set pieces – Joan’s famous farewell to her village in the Loire Valley, being preceded by an ensemble prayer not unlike the scene at Hornachuelos in Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino”. (Another probably unintended Verdian homage was Joan freezing at the opportunity to dispatch the warrior Lionel, reminding one of the Azucena’s description of the “strana pieta” that led Manrico to spare the Count di Luna in “Il Trovatore”, having no knowledge that his enemy is actually his brother.) A memorable septet occurs after Thibaut’s denunciation of Joan after Charles VII’s coronation at the Cathedral of Reims.

[Below: the “French history lesson” production of Tchaikovssky’s “Main of Orleans”; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Where does this all leave San Francisco and “Maid of Orleans”? Some of the discerning, including those familiar with the wealth of music in it (including one of Tchaikovsky’s finest ballet scores) might agree that it should be mounted again in a serious new production in the French grand opera style (with ballet, of course) perhaps in co-production with the Kirov Opera. One day there will be a modern recording of it, surely with Zajick, and the promotion of that recording might lead to proper performances of this undervalued masterwork.

Those who doubt that we will get another new production of “Orleanskaya Deva” anytime in the next decade, might hope that other Tchaikovsky operas might be tried ( “Mazeppa”, anyone?)

Although this might sound fantastic, San Francisco Opera has produced Glinka’s “Ruslan and Ludmila”, Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Tsar’s Bride”, Borodin’s “Prince Igor”, Prokofiev’s “Betrothal in a Monastery”, “War and Peace” and “Fiery Angel” and has done three separate productions of Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtensk” and two of Mussorgsky’s “Khovanschina”. One should not underestimate the appeal in Northern California of Russian opera beyond the troika of “Boris Godunov”, “Pikovaia Dama” and “Yevgeny Onegin”.

A postscript to this review: when I was composing it, I included examples of smooth and rough transitions between San Francisco Opera directors. Earlier this year, I gave my preliminary thoughts on the ten productions chosen for the 2006-07 San Francisco Opera season that begins in September, and noted the positive impact of changes that Gockley already had made.

My strongest reservations in the essay on the first Gockley season was the continuation of a Rosenberg commitment to what I regard as an unacceptable production of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” from Seattle. We learned subsequent to San Francisco’s 2006 summer season that the praiseworthy David Hockney production of “Tristan”, owned by the Los Angeles Opera (one that I saw there in two different seasons) will be seen instead of the Seattle production. This further confirms that Gockley’s artistic stamp on the company will dominate at a much earlier date than normally would have been expected.

I said in my review of last Fall’s “Fidelio” that the Rosenberg legacy at the San Francisco Opera may in time prove to be no more than the super-sized production of Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” (which is scheduled for this Fall). I think the almost complete eradication of her “non-Barber” legacy is fast approaching.