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

This Thoughts and Assessments Feature dates from the end of 2009, in which I add some thoughts outside of such other posts as my live performance reviews, my memorializations of the 50 year anniversaries of performances I attended, and my interviews with artists who sing, play, conduct, stage, design or write operas.

Each year, I invite readers to join me in a dialogue (via my e-mail address, which is [email protected]). The responses have been generous in their words of support for the material covered on this website.

However, I did receive a response from a detractor, who is an opera reviewer for an electronic media site with which I had had no previous (or subsequent) familiarity. The reviewer objected to my high letter grades for the San Francisco Opera performances of three of the ten operas offered in the calendar year 2010.

Since for this sixth year of David Gockley’s General Directorship, and I have reviewed and at year’s end awarded letter grades to at least one performance of each opera mounted during the previous five calendar years, I plan to do so again. (When you start doing something like this, you discover that people expect you to keep doing it. As I have mentioned before, I do it only for the San Francisco Opera, because that is the only company whose every production over the past six years I have attended and reviewed at least once.)


[Below: Romeo (Vittorio Grigolo, above) and Juliet (Nino Machaidze, below) spend a night of love before Romeo’s banishment; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

[For my performance review, see: Vittorio Grigolo, Nino Machaidze Sublime in Ian Judge’s Romantic, Erotic “Romeo et Juliette” – Los Angeles Opera, November 9, 2011.]


I thought it would be useful to review my e-mail correspondent’s critique of the letter grades I assigned to San Francisco Opera’s productions in 2010, before I post my on grades on the 10 opera productions performed on the San Francisco Opera mainstage in 2011.

This was the communication: “I cannot fathom how you deemed all of those productions to be of such high caliber. Faust, Aida and Werther all get As? Preposterous. It makes you look like a shill for the company.

I would imagine a reviewer is supposed to ignore such comments, but, on reflection, it does seem that some of his points do warrant further discussion. My first reaction was to wonder why a person who holds himself out as an opera critic would feel it preposterous that another reviewer  recognizes the San Francisco Opera, with its world famous reputation, as producing “high caliber” performances of Gounod’s “Faust”, Verdi’s “Aida” and Massenet’s “Werther”. In fact, if you can’t get high caliber performances of these standard repertory works at the San Francisco Opera, where do you go? Chicago? London? Paris? Berlin?

If one reads the criteria on which my grades are based, they are quite specific that an “A” means that I judge the performance, production and cast as one that is consistent in quality with with what one should expect at the first rank opera houses of the world, such as the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London, the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, the Opera National de Paris, or the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

I certainly am not arguing that it is impossible for the San Francisco Opera to fail, and “bad reviews” from me of San Francisco Opera productions exist on this website, although I am pleased to note that the virtually everything I disliked intensely was associated in one way or another with the previous management.


[Below: Count Octavian (Anke Vondung, right) has presented a rose made of silver to Sophie (Patrizia Ciofi, left); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

[For my performance review, see: San Diego’s Solo Celebration of Strauss’ “Rosenkavalier” Centennial – April 3, 2011.]


My correspondent did not state why he did not like the “Faust”, “Aida” and “Werther”, but sent me the grades of yet another reviewer, also one with whom I was unfamiliar, whose wide ranging grades for the season averaged out to a C. But, as I state each year, my published criteria neither require me nor allow me to grade on a curve. A low grade would mean that something has gone terribly wrong. If it were the case that a significant number of the productions were going awry, it wouldn’t be just myself who was taking notice of that fact.

In the case of the “Faust”, I reviewed Lyric Opera’s Perdziola production seen in San Francisco four separate times, including performances at Lyric Opera and San Diego Opera. All four of my reviews can be accessed here. The two San Francisco Opera reviews Racette Ravishing, Relyea Riveting in San Francisco “Faust” – June 5, 2010, and also, A Second Look: A Visually, Aurally Praiseworthy “Faust” at San Francisco Opera – June 20, 2010, are the most relevant, although my reviews of the sets and production used in the other cities are offered in evidence as well:  Lyric Opera Revives Inventive Corsaro-Perdziola “Faust”: Chicago November 3, 2009 and Costello, Perez, Grimsley and Mulligan Brilliant in Spectacularly Staged “Faust” – San Diego Opera, April 23, 2011.

In the case of the “Aida”, see Brilliant Cast, Colorful Production, Luisotti’s Masterful Conducting Enliven San Francisco “Aida” – September 19, 2010 and in the case of the “Werther”, see: “Werther” Re-invented, Yet Again – Francisco Negrin’s New Production at San Francisco Opera, September 15, 2010.

Opera performance is a complicated endeavor, both for the performers and the audience. At most times the senses of each audience member are simultaneously bombarded with sight and sound images from the orchestra, chorus, opera principals and comprimario artists, in which story-telling, and dramatic interactions between characters is occurring. Such elements as the lighting also affect the operatic experience.

Additionally, during this whole process, some audience members bring to the theater, their long memories of past live performances, and/or their familiarity with studio recordings or DVDs or YouTube experiences. As well, every member of the audience sits in a unique part of the auditorium.

There is simply no objective way of grading a performance that could possibly satisfy everyone, even if it were designed for the most sophisticated opera goers. The best that one can do is for the reviewer to propose a set of criteria for judging whether a performance is very, very good or very, very bad or something in between. Not that many critics, alas, take that step, but the discourse about the performance may be clearer.

For an example, the reader of a review should know beforehand if the reviewer believes that a good performance requires that the offering be a contemporary opera written in a serial, twelve-tone scale and mounted in a surrealistic avant-garde production.  Then the reader will better understand why that reviewer would then conclude that the San Francisco Opera – by those criteria – performed dismally in 2011, and the whole season, therefore, must be regarded as a failure.


[Below: Annie Oakley (Deborah Voigt) is finally alone with the man she loves, Frank Butler (Rod Gilfry); edited image, based on a Julieta Cervantes photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Opera.]

[For my performance review, see: Deborah Voigt, Rod Gilfry Romp in Irving Berlin’s “Annie Get Your Gun” – Glimmerglass Festival, August 12, 2011.]


Interestingly, the three operas whose productions offended my e-mail correspondent lead me into another point that I would wish to make before posting the 2011 San Francisco Opera grades. All three operas have well-established performance traditions. In the case of “Faust”, I have reviewed several productions on the website, in Houston, Chicago, San Francisco, London, San Diego and Santa Fe. The San Francisco Opera “Werther” was an imaginative production, with a surreality that I found immensely insightful, yet relevant to both Goethe’s original novella and to Massenet’s treatment of the story.

There was lots to chat about in the reviews based on experiences with the operas over a long period of time. One shouldn’t be reviewing (I don’t think) whether one likes or approves of “Aida”. One should be discussing whether this is a good performance of “Aida” – well sung, well staged, and, if staged non-traditionally, whether the departure from tradition works, and yields new insights into the opera.

But there is another kind of performance review – the first impressions that come from a world premiere. Since there is no performance tradition, one must approach it in a different way, especially when grading it as I have promised to do. Thus, in the case of Theofanides’ “Heart of a Soldier”, I have chosen to approach the grade by considering that opera in relationship to the other San Francisco Opera world premieres that I have graded – Glass’ 2007 “Appomattox” and Wallace’s 2008 “The Bonesetter’s Daugher”.

The grade sheets will be posted before too long. In the meantime, please take advantage of my invitation to share your opinions with me.

For those who wish to comment on this post, or any other item on this website, please contact me at [email protected].