Beginning with calendar year 2006, 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, “B” and “C” grades have been rare.
(I do not use the performance review to discuss whether the company’s management should have chosen a different opera, different director, or different cast, but review whatever opera performances the company has chosen to present.)
Based on these criteria, I found that the musical performance of each of the productions exceeded my definition of a “routine performance”, as did the physical production of all of the operas mounted.
Bizet’s “Carmen” is a thoroughly French opera whose Parisian composer, librettists and author of the source material romanticized the Spanish world of gypsies, soldiers, smugglers and bullfighters. Spanish director Calixto Bielto in 2004 created a new production of the opera for Madrid intended to portray the opera’s characters from a “Spanish” viewpoint that reflected the roughneck world in which the characters would have existed.
Bielto moved the action across the Straits of Gibraltar into the isolated town of Cueta in North Africa, moving the opera into the 20th century. The shifts in time and place proved dramatically effective, with the wild behaviors of the underclass characters as staged by Bielto, restoring to the opera the “shock” value intended by its French creators.
[Below: Carmen (Irene Roberts, center) is restrained by Don Jose (Brian Jagde, right) on the orders of Zuniga; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
I had previously reported on the British debut of Bielto’s original production [Ruxandra Donose, Adam Diegel Are Dramatically Convincing in Calixto Bieito’s Sexy, Edgy “Carmen” – English National Opera, November 21, 2012].] The San Francisco Opera, in cooperation with the Boston Lyric Opera, created a new production that followed Bielto’s original production very closely.
I reviewed two of the San Francisco Opera performances, permitting me to report on alternate casts in the roles of Carmen (Irene Roberts and Ginger Costa-Jackson), Don Jose (Brian Jagde and Adam Diegel), Micaela (Ellie Dehn and Erika Grimaldi and Escamillo (Zachary Nelson and Michael Sumuel). Each of the principals and the supporting casts had praiseworthy performances.
[For my performance reviews, see: Review: A Spanish “Carmen” from Calixto Bielto, May 28, 2016 and Review: Roberts, Jagde and Dehn in “Carmen” – May 29, 2016.]
Don Carlo (Verdi)
The San Francisco Opera has historically been known as a “singer’s opera company”. That reputation was further advanced with what, in time, will be considered a legendary cast for Verdi’s “Don Carlo”.
Led by tenor Michael Fabiano in the title role, the impressive cast included Ana Maria Martinez as Elisabetta di Valois, Marius Kwiecien as Rodrigo Marquis da Posa, Rene Pape as King Philip the Second, Andrea Silvestrelli as the Grand Inquisitor and Nadia Krasteva as the Princess Eboli.
[Below: Michael Fabiano as Don Carlo; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Emilio Sagi’s 1998 production with Zack Brown’s sets and costumes provided an impressive setting for the dramatically effective work. The San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus, under the baton of Maestro Nicola Luisotti, performed spectacularly.
[For my performance reviews, see: Review: A Legendary Performance of “Don Carlo” at the San Francisco Opera, June 12, 2016 and Review: A Second Look – “Don Carlo” at the San Francisco Opera, June 18, 2016.]
Strong performances by Malin Byström and William Burden as Laca, and an arresting performance by Karita Mattila as Kostelnicka were among the delights of this mounting of Janacek’s most famous opera.
The principal singers, ably supported by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus, under the leadership of Maestro Jirí Belohlávek, memorably performed Janacek’s soaring melodies and exotic harmonies.
[Below: The villagers react to the discovery of a child’s corpse; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The production, created by director Olivier Tambosi and his frequent collaborator, set designer Philip Schlössmann, was from the Hamburg Opera.
Tambosi (and composer Janacek) emphasized the closed community of Jenufa’s Moravian village, that led Kostelnicka to commit a horrific act in an attempt to shield Jenufa from being judged by her neighbors.
[For my performance review, see: Review: A Beautifully Performed “Jenufa” by Byström, Mattila and Burden, San Francisco Opera, June 19, 2016.]
Andrea Chénier (Giordano)
Sir David McVicar’s productions of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”, Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”, Berlioz’ “Les Troyens” and Wagner’s “Die Meisteringer” have displayed the British director’s theatrical genius.
Opening the 2016-17 season was McVicar’s production of Giordano’s “Andrea Chénier”, that had been absent from the San Francisco Opera repertory for 24 years. It is an important co-production with London’s Royal Opera House Covent Garden (already performed there) and Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts.
[Below: Yonghoon Lee as Andrea Chénier, in the company of French revolutionaries; edited image of a production photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
McVicar’s revolutionary France was cinematic, with sets and costumes that reflected the both the ironic splendor of the last days of the ancien regime and the vibrant and dangerous energy of the Revolutionary masses.
Opening night was the occasion for important San Francisco Opera debuts, including South Korean spinto tenor Yonghoon Lee as Chénier, Italian soprano Anna Pirozzi as Maddalena di Coigny, Georgian baritone George Gagnidze as Gérard and J’Nai Bridges as Bersi. Maestro Nicola Luisotti conducted.
[For my performance reviews, see: Review: Yonghoon Lee is an Eloquent Andrea Chénier in McVicar’s Cinematic Staging – San Francisco Opera, September 9, 2016 and A Second Look: Sir David McVicar and “Andrea Chénier” at the San Francisco Opera – September 25, 2016.]
The Dream of the Red Chamber (Sheng)
The San Francisco Opera commissioned a new opera, based on and named after the treasured 18th century Chinese cultural classic The Dream of the Red Chamber.
Chinese composer Bright Sheng joined California librettist David Henry Hwang in extracting from the sprawling epic’s first 80 chapters a theatrically absorbing operatic evening.
The opera’s story is about a flower and a stone that had co-existed together for three millennia. Imagining that if they were reborn as human beings, they would be able to physically realize their love for one another. Instead, they are born into aristocratic families engaged in dynastic struggles, in the time of Chinese Emperor who is determined to strip of both families of their wealth and power.
[Below: A scene from “The Dream of the Red Chamber”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Performing the opera’s richly melodic score was an attractive cast led by Chinese leggiero tenor Yijie Shi and South Korean soprano Pureum Jo, respectively as the fated lovers Bao Yu and Dai Yu, with strong vocal performances in supporting roles by South Korean mezzo-soprano Hyona Kim and California mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts.
Taiwanese director Stan Lai’s staging was fast-moving and clear. The production was by Chinese designer Tim Yip, who won an Academy award for the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Yip, who has also designed a television series based on The Dream of the Red Chamber, created beautfully conceived and visually effective sets and costumes.
[For my performance review, see: World Premiere Review: “The Dream of the Red Chamber” Transforms into a Fascinating Opera – San Francisco Opera, September 10, 2016.]
Don Pasquale (Donizetti)
Donizetti’s famous comic opera “Don Pasquale” has rarely been included in the San Francisco Opera, with only a handful of performances in the early 1980s its only representation at the War Memorial Opera House in the past 60 seasons.
The two Pasquales in the 1980s were two great mid-20th century buffo artists – Welsh bass-baritone Sir Geraint Evans and Italian basso Paolo Montarsolo. Deserving to be associated with this illustrious pair is Italian bass-baritone Maurizio Muraro, who provided a sympathetic portrait of the cantankerous Don.
[Below: Maurizio Muraro as Don Pasquale; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Laurent Pelly’s zany production, created for the Santa Fe Opera, was the occasion for the San Francisco Opera debut of lyric tenor Lawrence Brownlee as Ernesto. Soprano Heidi Stober and baritone Lucas Meachem rounded out the impressive cast.
[For my performance review, see: Review: Maurizio Muraro Leads An Appealing “Don Pasquale” Cast – San Francisco Opera, October 2, 2016.]
The Makropulos Case [Vec Makropulos] (Janacek)
Fifty seasons ago, the San Francisco Opera presented the American premiere of Janacek’s “Makropulos Case”. One of the most dramatic of 20th century operas, it marries Janacek’s exotic harmonies, set to a libretto based on a mysterious story by science fiction writer Karel Capek.
[Below: Emilia Marty (Nadja Michael) visits a law office in her pursuit of her objective; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The role of Elena Makropulos, a woman who has lived for centuries but who needs to find the formula to extend her life, is one of the great roles for a dramatic soprano. The Olivier Tambosi production, last performed here in 2010, was the vehicle for the return of German dramatic soprano Nadja Michael, who gave an arresting performance in this iconic role.
[For my performance review, see: Review: Nadja Michael’s Arresting Performance in “Makropulos Case” – San Francisco Opera, October 14, 2016.]
The season’s new production of standard repertory opera was “Aida” conceived by director Francesca Zambello. It provided the opportunity for role debuts by two international artists, soprano Leah Crocetto (Aida) and tenor Brian Jagde (Radames) whose early careers were importantly advanced by the San Francisco Opera.
A supporting cast that included Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk as Amneris, Georgian baritone George Gagnidze as Amonasro and Ohio bass-baritone Raymond Aceto as Ramfis assured an evening of memorable singing.
Much of the attention was given hieroglyphic inspired artwork by Los Angeles artist Marquis Duriel Lewis (who uses the name RETNA) and the brilliant choreography by Jessica Lane, whose ballets on paramilitary themes integrated these dance showpieces into Zambello’s total concept.
[Below: Leah Crocetto as Aida, stands in front of the San Francisco Opera Chorus; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Any Zambello production focuses on the human drama, and “Aida” despite all its Ancient Egyptian color is about two people whose love for each other is “at odds” with the wider society in which they exist.
Nowhere is the Zambello touch more evident that the opera’s famous final scene, in which her Aida and Radames sit on the bare stage floor floor cross-legged in front of the stage scrim singing O terra addio with only Amneris’ face seen through the scrim at opera’s end.
[For my performance review, see: Review: Zambello’s Spectacular “Aida”, San Francisco Opera, November 5, 2016.]
Madama Butterfly (Puccini)
Jun Kaneko’s colorful production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” and Lianna Haroutounian’s sensational debut in the title role of Puccini’s “Tosca” were highlights of San Francisco Opera’s Fall 2014 season, so no one should have been surprised that the Kaneko “Butterfly” became the vehicle for yet another Haroutounian appearance as a Puccini heroine, this time with Italian tenor Vincenzo Costanzo in his American debut as Lieutenant Pinkerton.
[Below: Lieutenant Pinkerton (Vincenzo Costanzo, left) greets Madama Butterfly (Lianna Haroutounian,, right) on their wedding day; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
I have long regarded the War Memorial Opera House, with its open orchestra pit and brilliant acoustics as a felicitous venue for those operas (such as those by Wagner and Puccini) in which the opera’s orchestration is integral to the opera’s dramatic flow.
I’ve often referred to the War Memorial as a “House of Puccini” and a brilliant performance of “Madama Butterfly” in this house, as was achieved this year, demonstrates once again that this familiar opera is a musical and dramatic masterpiece.
[For my performance review, see: Review: A Transcendent “Madama Butterfly”, San Francisco Opera, November 6, 2016.]
For previous commentaries in this series, see:
Grading San Francisco Opera Performances for 2015, and also,
Grading San Francisco Opera Productions for 2014, and also,
Grading San Francisco Opera’s Productions Of Calendar Year 2013, and also,
Grading San Francisco Opera’s Productions Of Calendar Year 2012, and 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,