Opera in Live Performance: Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2014

Note from William: this continues my series of “end of the year” thoughts on the live performance of opera. 

My “Thoughts and Assessments” series began at the end of calendar year 2009. Each year since then I’ve discussed a variety of subjects, including the role of philanthropy in opera, the casual destruction by opera companies of operatic productions and costumes that I believe should be considered world treasures, and my thoughts on the composition of the standard operatic repertory.

Within a few days, I will begin a typically full schedule of 2015 performance reviews, I am posting my end of the year thoughts for 2014  before the new series of reviews began.


[Below: Queen Elizabeth I (Sondra Radvanovsky, above) threatens to strike Roberto Devereux (Leonardo Capalbo, below; edited image, based on a Michael Cooper photograph, courtesy of the Canadian Opera Company, Toronto.]


[For my performance review, see: Sondra Radvanovsky’s Astounding Virgin Queen in Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux” – Canadian Opera Company, Toronto, April 25, 2014.]


The depth of talent currently available to North American companies

When, as a young teenager, I first started attending opera (all San Francisco Opera performances), I deliberately chose to attend the performances with the most famous opera stars. I always knew that the tickets carried a phrase to wit that the “casts and opera were subject to change”. In fact, years ago, my ticket to a performance of Donizetti’s “Lucia” transformed itself into Verdi’s “Aida”.

Big name opera singers would become “indisposed” with replacements that usually never lived up to what I had expected from the artist being replaced. Although in a long career of attending live performances there can be a pleasant surprise (once Jon Vickers stepped in to sing Radames in “Aida” when a lesser known Rumanian tenor fell ill), it usually portends disappointment, if not disaster.

(I reviewed a performance on these pages of an opera performance in Europe whose lead soprano fell ill during the performance. The company’s solution was simply to cut out every subsequent scene in which the soprano was to appear.)

However, over the past few years I have been observing an extraordinary trend. Despite the grousing of some critics who (as critics have done throughout history) state that their era is marked by an obvious decline in singers of quality, my observations are quite different. What I believe is happening is that we are producing far more excellent opera singers than their are performances to accommodate them.


[Below: Yonghoon Lee is Manrico and Stephanie Blythe is Azucena in the 2014 Lyric Opera revival of Sir David McVicar’s production of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”; edited image, based on a Robert Kusel photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]


[For my performance review, see: Review: Golden Age Verdi Singing for Lyric Opera’s “Il Trovatore” – Chicago, October 27, 2014.]


There are several consequences. Tiny parts are often now assigned to singers who have the vocal power and training to take over the lead roles and perform them with distinction. Thus, just because an important artist has to withdraw from a performance or performance run,  it need not be a disaster.

I recall four instances in 2014 where changes were accommodated with all appearance of smoothness. (I have no doubt that there were apoplectic moments when an opera’s management first heard of the necessity of a change.)

In Toronto’s “Roberto Devereux” of late April, the title role tenor withdrew. The Santa Fe Opera suffered the loss of its original Norina in Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” and, what would have appeared as an insurmountable problem, the title role tenor in their American debut premiere of Ruo’s “Doctor Sun Yat-Sen” (which is performed in Mandarin!)  Finally, the San Francisco Opera had to replace its originally scheduled Dandini, with all its comic patter, in Rossini’s “Cenerentola”.

In the Toronto incident, the solution is perhaps reflective of what I argue has become a comfortably large pool of Donizetti lyric tenors.

However, in the Santa Fe and San Francisco cases, the “last minute” replacements were built into the production’s planning. Singers had been recruited into the Young Artists’ programs in Santa Fe and San Francisco, with specific plans for them to learn both the roles and staging. How this all works is a subject worthy of exploration.

Over the past several months, I’ve interviewed persons such as David Holloway at the Santa Fe Opera and Michael Heaston at the Glimmerglass Festivals who lead the teams that have decided even before their processes of national auditions begin, exactly what types of voices they need to recruit to perform and cover the roles needed. Those interviews are the beginning of a future series of conversations on how opera companies recruit and train singers so as to minimize the impact of losing a lead artist.

The “problem” of critics liking opera performances too well

I suspect another subject to address is one that I discussed in my “end of 2011” remarks – a defense against a charge (now from more than one person) that I like the productions and performances offered by the San Francisco Opera too much. Some may recall that I printed excerpts from another critic who stated  “I cannot fathom how you deemed all of those productions to be of such high caliber. . . Preposterous. It makes you look like a shill for the company.


[Below: Don Giovanni (Marius Kwiecien, right) offers to take the bride Zerlina (Andriana Chruchman, left) under his protection in the 2014 Robert Falls production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” for the Lyric Opera of Chicago; edited image of a Michael Brosilow photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]


[For my performance review, see: Review: Mariusz Kwiecien Excels in Robert Falls New “Don Giovanni” Production – Lyric Opera of Chicago, October 29, 2014.]


I’ve explained my letter grades are not graded on a curve. Just like in a graduate course, I expect to give an “A” to any performance that I consider to meet the expectations of a world class company. I give pluses and minuses and lower grades depending on whether a performance exceeds or fails to meet what I would expect for a performance of that work.

(I am not assessing whether Kern’s “Show Boat” is a lesser or greater work than Wagner’s “Siegfried”, but only if the performance met or exceeded the international expectations of a world class company presenting the work.)

Incidentally, in 2014, I did review at least one work at the invitations of the major opera companies of San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Fe, Saint Louis, Chicago, Houston, Toronto, Washington DC, Glimmerglass NY, Paris, Geneva, Zurich, Turin and Marseilles, and have some confidence (perhaps shared by companies that invite me to review) that I can assess what constitutes a world class performance.


[Below: the monk Athanaël (Placido Domingo, left) seeks to convert Thaïs (Nino Machaidze, right) in the Los Angeles Opera performances of Massenet’s “Thaïs”; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

ìThaisî Final Dress - May14, 2014

[For my performance review, see: Placido Domingo, Nino Machaidze In a Triumphant “Thaïs” – Los Angeles Opera, May 17, 2014.]


Unfortunately for any prospect of repairing my reputation with my critic colleague, when it came to assessing my letter grades for the San Francisco Opera productions mounted in 2014, not only was I unable to find any of the nine productions the company offered deserving of a grade lower that an A, I couldn’t find any that did not exceed my definition of a routine performance by an internationally ranked opera house.

Thus, assured of derision (You’re cheerleading! That’s not reviewing!), with some great reluctance I had to admit to myself that every one of the nine productions were superbly done. Thus the unprecedented nine A pluses.

I’m sometimes asked why I limit my grades to San Francisco Opera productions. The answer is simply that when the website was created in 2006, I had expected to concentrate my energies on the one company. (There are many opera critics who review only a single company preponderantly, sometimes exclusively.)

However, if I were to give A pluses to performances I saw at other companies, if you peruse the photographs that accompany this post, you would know some (but not all) of those which also would have received such a grade.


[Below: Rusalka (Ana Maria Martinez, above) and the Prince (Brandon Jovanovich, below) seek to understand each other’s worlds in Sir David McVicar’s 2014 production of Dvorak’s “Rusalka” for Lyric Opera; edited image, based on a Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]


[For my performance review, see: Martinez, Jovanovich Lead Brilliant Cast for McVicar’s Exotic “Rusalka” Dreamworld – Lyric Opera of Chicago, March 10, 2014.]


However, the visits to other North American and European cities do not change the fact that there is an obvious relationship between this website and the San Francisco Opera.

I am a multi-decade subscriber to that institution. (This, of course, means rather than the company paying me as a “shill”, instead I support the company financially), Further, my 50-year anniversary “reviews” of each performance I ever saw approximately trace the tenure of the company’s second general director, Kurt Herbert Adler, whereas my reviews from 2006 on cover every production offered by the company during the tenure of the sixth general director, David Gockley.

Even granting such idiosyncracies that a student of San Francisco Opera history will detect in my opinions, I suspect these chronicles of the Adler and Gockley eras will perhaps prove useful to future students of opera and of that opera company, and, for that reason, I do not plan to cease doing either 50-year anniversary ‘reviews’ nor the annual ratings of productions offered.

In fact, although I’ve not devoted space to DVD reviews, other than the special case of the John Pascoe production of Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia” [See: Dramatically, Visually Exciting EuroArts DVD of San Francisco Opera Performance of Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia”], I note that each of the five DVDs in this series released so far are San Francisco Opera productions that I rated A+.


[Below: Mylio (Florian Locani, front center, with sword) pledges his love to Rozenn (Inva Mula, front left) as the King of Ys (Nicolas Courjal, right) looks on; edited image, based on a Christian Dresse photograph, courtesy of the Opéra National de Marseille.]


[For my performance review, see: A Rousing “Le Roi d’Ys” at Opéra de Marseille – May 10, 2014.]


A DVD review is not exactly like a live performance review. A DVD is like a movie in the sense that the team preparing the DVD selects the points of view, unlike a live performance where you, as an audience member, decide what you will look at. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, does the technology allow for the acoustics of the opera house to be heard on the DVD in the same way that they are heard in live performance.

But, as I think about it, the process of reviewing the live performance and rating it highly, may be given additional credence when that review is supplemented by a review of a DVD of the same performance. I’ll spend some time on such an endeavor in 2015.


[Below: Amelia (Krassimira Stoyanova, left) tries to warn Gustavo (Piotr Beczala, right) of an assassination attempt; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


[For my performance review, see: A Star-bright “Ballo in Maschera” – San Diego Opera, March 8, 2014.]


Opera as a Community Affair

The opera world internationally was startled to learn that the General Director and Board of Directors of the well-regarded San Diego Opera announced that they cease operations after 49 years at the end of their performances of Masssenet’s “Don Quichotte” and close down forever.

The community’s reaction to the decision appears not to have been expected by the opera board, and the majority of board members resigned and senior management departed amid what could be described as a quite savage dialogue with the opera’s community partisans. There certainly were issues to sort through, and I do not know if every issue that seemed to spell doom to the former board has been resolved in a way to assure the company’s long-term future.


[Below: Fiordiligi (Rachel Willis-Sorensen, standing, left) and Dorabella (Melody Moore, standing right) are amused at the idea that they would become enamored of the Albanians, who are, in fact, Ferrando (Norman Reinhardt, seated on floor, left) and Guglielmo (Jacques Imbrailo, seated on floor, right) in disguise; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


[For my performance review, see: Review: Classy Cast in Classic “Cosi fan Tutte” – Houston Grand Opera, October 31, 2014.]


However, the San Diego community push-back against tbe board’s original decision was impressive. So too was the rallying of the larger opera world to help those forces who intended to assure that San Diego (whose metropolitan area population well exceeds three million, not even counting the large population across the U. S. – Mexican border, nor populous Orange, Riverside and Los Angeles counties within driving distance) continues to have a world-class opera company of its own.

I will be reporting on the three mainstage operas of their 50th anniversary season. I will also be following what ideas for channeling the enthusiasm into a workable plan to assure the company’s future are implemented and prove successful.

 For those interested in previous posts in this series, they may be accessed throught the  “William’s Thoughts and Assessments” category link in the upper right corner of this website’s front-page.