Grading David Gockley’s First Year at San Francisco Opera

David Gockley assumed the general directorship of the San Francisco Opera in the middle of the 2005-06 season, when three operas were still do be performed in the 2006 “summer season”. This was earlier than originally announced, but his predecessor, the embattled Pamela Rosenberg, announced that she “missed her grandchildren in Germany” and would depart at the end of 2005.

Gockley asked the Bay Area opera patrons to give him the benefit of the doubt for the 2006 summer operas and the entire 2006-07 season, since so much of it reflected production and casting decisions made by Ms. Rosenberg. This article will give letter grades to each of the ten productions seen in 2006, but it is, of course, recognized that this is rather like a student taking over the place of another student in the class, but having part of one’s grades based on term papers the other student wrote. (The inclusion of grading criteria over which the person being graded had no control actually seems to happen to mutual fund managers.) I saw all productions except the second cast of “Carmen”. (Even that statement has to be qualified, since the second cast’s Carmen herself was shifted to the first cast.)

That said, it has proven to be a high grading curve. Gockley managed to make some effective changes in the Rosenberg season that almost certainly helped his score. The ten operas are ranked, first by letter grade, then by order in which they were performed.

Grade A+

Manon Lescaut (Puccini) – Gockley changed the production, but kept cast and opera. An extraordinary cast was led by Karita Mattila in the title role, with Mischa Didyk, Eric Halfvarson and John Hancock. Attractive sets from the Chicago Lyric Opera, magical conducting by Donald Runnicles, insightful stage direction by Olivier Tambosi and production design by Frank Philipp Schlossman, made this a memorable performance.

[Below: Mischa Didyk is Des Grieux and Karita Mattila is Manon Lescaut; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

For my performance review, see:  World Class “Manon Lescaut” – S. F. Opera November 19, 2006.

Carmen (Bizet) – The ensemble cast of Hadar Halevy, Marco Berti, Ana Maria Martinez and Kyle Ketelson, and the still fresh staging based on concepts developed 25 years ago by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, made this as good a “Carmen” as has been seen in many years.

[Below: Hadar Halevy is Carmen, edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

For my review, see: Halevy Triumphs in Ponnelle “Carmen” – S. F. December 3, 2006.

Grade A

Nozze di Figaro (Mozart) – Revived with Zack Brown’s 1982 sets for Ruth Ann Swenson, assaying the role of Countess Almaviva, in the other key parts it boasted a youthful cast (John Relyea, Peter Mattei, Claudia Mahnke and Camilla Tilling) who connected with the audience and each other.

[Below: Ruth Ann Swenson (left) is the Countess Almaviva and Camilla Tilling is Susanna; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

For my review, see: S. F. “Nozze di Figaro” – July 2, 2006.

Die Fledermaus (J. Strauss) – An addition to the Fall Season by Gockley, rousingly led by Conductor Donald Runnicles it provided the vehicle for Christine Goeke’s company debut as Rosalinde, for Wolfgang Brendel’s return to California as Eisenstein, and for Eugene Brancoveanu to assume his first “starring” role as Frank.

[Below: Prince Orlofsky’s ball, whose guests include (from left) Ida (Melody Moore), Rosalinde (Christine Goeke, Gabriel von Eisenstein (Wolfgang Brendel), Dr Falke (Brian Leerhuber), Frank (Eugene Brancoveanu) and Adele (Jennifer Welch-Babidge); edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Other notable cast members were Gerald Thompson as a hilarious Count(ertenor) Orlofsky, Brian Leerhuber, Vale Rideout and Jennifer Welch-Babidge. This production by Thierry Bosquet would have received an A+, except for Stage Director Lotfi Mansouri’s overexposure of the Broadway actor Jason Graae, excellent in Act III’s Frosch role, in two acts which did not call for his over-the-top antics.

For my review, see: “Die Fledermaus” in S. F. – September 16, 2006.

Tristan und Isolde (Wagner) – Donald Runnicles’ awe-inspiring presentation of his favorite opera, with two artists he is mentoring – Christine Brewer and Thomas Moser – in the title roles and the extraordinary talents of Jane Irwin and Kristinn Sigmundsson as Brangaene and King Marke.

[Below: Thomas Moser is Tristan and Christine Brewer is Isolde in second act of David Hockney’s production; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Wisely, Gockley scuttled a commitment to a controversial Seattle production and substituted David Hockney’s colorful sets from the Los Angeles Opera, with Thor Steingraber’s welcome stage direction.

For my review, see:  The Runnicles, Hockney “Tristan” in S. F. – October 22, 2006.

Grade A-

Madama Butterfly (Puccini) – Michael Yeargan revised a previous production, seen in two prior seasons, and this time got it right – helping us to see over a century later, how merging the dramatic effects of Belasco’s dated play with Puccini’s post-Wagnerian verismo style would create one of the most profound dramatic experiences in 20th century opera. Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio-San and Zheng Cao as Suzuki were peerless in these roles.

[Below: Patricia Racette is Madama Butterfly; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Franco Farina, who never will achieve hearthrob status in the Bay Area, was o.k. playing the unsympathetic character, Pinkerton. Philip Skinner was a likeable Bonze. Conductor Runnicles and Stage Director Ron Daniels, both made crucial contributions to this great performance. The loss of the straight A was an inadequate Sharpless, who has too much beautiful music and dramatic importance for any company to undercast this role.

For my review, see: Puccini, Daniels, Yeargan and Racette Team for Masterful S. F. Butterfly – June 18, 2006.

Rigoletto (Verdi) – Gockley abandoned Rosenberg’s plans for mounting an offbeat production of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”, and replaced it with the Yeargan sets for “Rigoletto”, also seen in two previous years. For most of the performances, the formidable baritone Paolo Gavanelli was secured for the title role, and he was triumphant. Mary Dunleavy, his Gilda, also deserves praise as well as the stunning achievements of a group of Adler fellows in the comprimario roles, led by Brancoveanu’s Marullo.

[Below: Paolo Gavanelli is Rigoletto; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

The tenor playing the Duke of Mantua arrived at an opera house too big for his voice and that cost the loss of the Straight A. Yeargan’s production had its good points, but S. F. Opera and Yeargan should return to the drawing board for the production’s scenes in Rigoletto’s house and Sparafucile’s iniquitous den.

For my review, see: Gavanelli Dominates Strongly Cast S.F. “Rigoletto” – October 15, 2006.

Grade B

The Maid of Orleans (Tchaikovsky) – Concept Director Chris Alexander demonstrated that you can amass a great international cast, with Donald Runnicles and the San Francisco Opera orchestra at the top of their game, introducing Tchaikovsky’s lush score to an audience that has shown great appreciation for Russian opera, and still screw things up. Approaching it as if he neither liked nor understood the opera, nor how to present it, he invented the lame idea of a “French history lesson” where the chorus wandered about the 16th century settings in modern dress.

[Below: the coronation of Charles VII of France (Mischa Didyk, center), as Joan of Arc (Dolora Zajic) and choristers in modern dress being taught French history look on; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

The incomparable mezzo Dolora Zajick showed that there is extraordinary music in Tchaikovsky’s operas beyond the two that currently have secure places in the dramatic repertoire. Rodney Gilfrey, Mischa Didyk, Philip Cutlip, Philip Skinner, Peter Strummer and Sean Panikkar are some of the names that helped us see a masterpiece that needs to be presented as Tchaikovsky intended (with one of the two best ballets in all of opera).

For my review, see: Zajick is Victor in S. F. Opera “Maid of Orleans” – June 18, 2006.

Grade B-

Ballo in Maschera (Verdi) – The opening night opera for the 2006-07 season, it was a vehicle for Deborah Voigt, returning to a friendly place after her much-publicized break with Covent Garden. Several things went wrong. John Conklin’s intelligently conceived 1977 “Ballo” sets had been destroyed by the previous management for unfathomable reasons, and one of Zack Brown’s more pedestrian sets purchased from the Florida Opera (and that second hand from the Washington National Opera), highlighted the fact that San Francisco Opera is missing many of its glorious past productions.

[Below: the Swedish Court of Gustavus III, in disguise, appears at the den of the fortune teller Ulrica; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Ms Voigt dominated a small-voiced Gustavo (Riccardo). Stage direction by Gina Lapinsky was often sappy. However, in its defense, compared with the Rosenberg productions of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” (2002) and “Forza del Destino” (2005), this production seemed not designed to anger the audience. The Gavanelli “Rigoletto”, rather than this mounting, leads to hope that high standards in Verdi productions will be restored at this house.

For my review, see: Missing “That 70’s Show”: S. F. “Ballo” — September 17, 2006.

Grade C

The Barber of Seville (Rossini) – There have been 24 performances over two seasons of a truly curious way of presenting Rossini’s great opera buffa. My review literally ripped the production apart (well, deconstructing is the term I use in the longer essay). That much of the audience found it enjoyable is tribute to very funny performances by Howard Ens and Ralph de Simone, and the high-spirited contributions of Nathan Gunn’s Figaro and John Osborn’s Almaviva (and two smaller roles by Brancoveanu).

[Below: confusion, some of it intended by composer Gioacchino Rossini, is in evidence at the home of Doctor Bartolo; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

For those that like the look of the classic Vespa motorcycle, there is that too. Beneath the merriment I would argue, however, is the indestructible genius of Rossini, rather than the perpertrations of Herr Schaaf and Herr Schaal, respectively concept director and set designer.

For my review, see Deconstructing S.F. Opera’s Super-sized “Barber” – November 12, 2006