Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2016

Over 11 years ago, I began the series of reviews, interviews and essays that constitute the content of the website. Later in 2017, I expect to post my 500th opera live performance review.

At the end of each of the past eight years, I’ve posted essays that I call “thoughts and assessments”, in which I discuss issues relating to the live performance of opera.

What Should an Opera Review be About?

I have used these year-end essays in part to explain the criteria I employ for my own reviews. Most important, I believe an opera performance review should concentrate on the performance – the principal singers, orchestra, chorus, staging, set designs and the overall experience. A world premiere or revival of a little known opera will usually require a more detailed discussion of the opera itself.

All of my reviews are opera performances. I attend a lot of operas (including “musicals” performed by opera companies) each year both in the North America and abroad, and write occasional essays about the operas themselves (which my reviews might hyperlink). But I don’t review ballets, or chamber music or symphonies, or theater outside of opera. This allows more time to prepare for any performance I am scheduled to review.

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[Below: Ezekial Cheever (Ian Koziara, center) takes the testimony of Giles Corey (Chaz’men Williams-Ali) as Judge Danforth (Jay Hunter Morris, right) listens skeptically, in the 2016 Francesca Zambello Glimmerglass Festival production of Ward’s “The Crucible”; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

[For my performance review, see: Review: Mulligan, Barton, Zambello, Paiement Make the Case for “The Crucible” – Glimmerglass Festival, August 5, 2016.]

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Regardless of who is writing, all performance reviews are subjective, and may or may not be helpful to persons attempting to learn about a performance they attended, to confirm their own reaction to that performance and perhaps to find an explanation of why the opera was performed in a particular way.

Others might read the review to decide whether to invest the time and money to attend a later performance. Some may wish to read reviewers’ comments on how a particular artist performed and what the reviewer thought about the production.

What Should Not be in a Performance Review?

Any critic who regularly reviews operatic productions likely wishes privately that certain operas would be performed more often and other operas less often, if at all. In the past couple of years, I’ve cited unfair comments by lead critics of local “newspapers of record”, one excoriating the local opera company’s management for mounting Verdi’s “La Traviata”, another newspaper critic blasting his company for mounting Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” too often.

These are hardly performance reviews, but messages to the opera company’s management that the reviewer dislikes seeing familiar fare too often and wishes that some other work would have been performed instead. In both cases the negative reviews were unfair to the artists. The casts were of international caliber in intelligent productions, the musical and dramatic performances well done.

The lead time for a major company choosing an opera for its repertory begins years before the performance, and once the final decision on the opera is made, virtually irrevocable contracts are signed. The economics of running a leading opera company do not permit the company to avoid scheduling at least some of the most popular works as part of a season.

Embedding destructive comments in a performance review that decry opera company management’s repertory choices cannot have a constructive outcome. Such comments, if the critic feels a shot across management’s bow is warranted, would be more appropriate in a separate essay, perhaps discussing the opera season just completed, or the upcoming season just announced.

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[Below: Women arrange the bier of Juliette in Santa Fe Opera’s Stephen Lawless production of Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

[For my performance review, see: Review: A Surprise at Santa Fe Opera – Joshua Guerrero joins Pérez, Aceto in Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette”, July 29, 2016.]

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Preserving the Operatic Performance Legacy

One of my areas of interest, that I’ve discussed in this annual series of “Thoughts and Assessments” is what I have regarded as a lack of adequate investment by opera companies, libraries or institutions founded in support of the arts, music or drama in the archiving the history of operatic performance.

I think few people appreciate how much work goes into an operatic production – often years of preparation costing hundreds of thousands of dollars for a work that might be performed five or six times. Some of these productions will be fortunate enough to be revived by the company and/or used by other companies, and production rentals might even be a source of opera company revenues.  In too many cases, however, an opera company, having insufficient space or and inadequate rental budget to store past productions will cart them off to the junkyard.

More often than not, I suspect, there is not even what I would regard as a proper photographic record of what the production looked like. (Here performance DVDs may be useful, although the DVD is a movie of the performance, showing what the DVD producers and editors wish us to see, rather than a mechanism for recording the details of the set design or the costumes.)

In my reports on excellent productions of Boito’s “Mefistofele” [Review: “Mefistofele” Impressively Performed by Schrott, Castronovo, Penda and Blue in New Philipp Himmelmann Production – Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, May 16, 2016] and Wagner’s “Das Liebesverbot” [Review: Mariame Clément Mounts Wagner’s “Liebesverbot”: Opéra du Rhin, Strasbourg, May 17, 2016], I praised the inventiveness of the costumes the Baden-Baden and Strasbourg choruses wore (each individualized to represent a different character).

There is no way these costumes could have produced without the collaboration of the creators of the production working with perceptive costume designers and extraordinary craftsmen who realized the designs.

In my ongoing conversations with British director John Pascoe, he has detailed the complex processes required to develop a single new costume for soprano Renée Fleming for a Metropolitan Opera production of Verdi’s “La Traviata” [see Dressing Renée Fleming’s Violetta: A Conversation with John Pascoe, Part 7].

One imagines there was great satisfaction from the Baden-Baden and Strasbourg costume staffs in their products for the new “Mefistofele” and “Liebesverbot” productions. But there were no production photos of the choral costumes in the detail that I would have wished to accompany my performance reviews available when I needed them.

If I discover that a photograph record of those costumes has been made, I offer as much space on the website as would be needed needed to share them with a larger audience.

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[Below: Amneris (Ekaterina Semenchuk, right) seeks the attention and love of Radames (Brian Jagde, left) in Francesca Zambello’s 2016 San Francisco Opera production of Verdi’s “Aida”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

[For my performance review, see: Review: Zambello’s Spectacular “Aida”, San Francisco Opera, November 5, 2016.]

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What should be done to preserve the operatic performance heritage, so much of which is lost each year? There are some promising green shoots.  At the San Francisco Opera, an institution that will be celebrating its centennial year early in the next decade, and the opera company with whose performances I have the longest association, preservation of its history and legacy has become a major concern.

That company has hired professional archival staff and has provided that staff with resources to collect and organize the myriad of residual materials – programs, recordings, photographs, testimonials, props, costumes – whatever can be located and preserved.

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[Below: Edward Kynaston (Ben Edquist) performs the role of Desdemona in The Bard’s “Othello” in the world premiere of Carlisle Floyd’s “The Prince of Players”; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

[For my performance review, see: World Premiere: A Triumphant “Prince of Players” for Composer Carlisle Floyd, Baritone Ben Edquist – Houston Grand Opera, March 5, 2016.]

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The “50 Year Anniversary” Features

The new San Francisco Opera investment in its archives meshes with one of this website’s activites.

Each of the San Francisco Opera performances I attended five or more decades ago are (or will soon be) the subject of my “50-year anniversary” observances. The list of opera stars I was able to see is live performance through 1967 includes Licia Albanese, Ettore Bastianini, Sesto Bruscantini, Boris Christoff, Regine Crespin, Mario del Monaco, Victoria de los Angeles, Sir Geraint Evans, Leyla Gencer, Tito Gobbi, Reri Grist, Hans Hotter, Marilyn Horne, Dorothy Kirsten, Alfredo Kraus, Cornell MacNeil, Jolanda Meneguzzer, Birgit Nilsson, Luciano Pavarotti, Leontyne Price, Leonie Rysanek, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Cesare Siepi, Giulietta Simionato, Joan Sutherland, Renata Tebaldi, Jess Thomas, Richard Tucker, Jon Vickers and Leonard Warren.

There were historic reasons (probably unduplicatable) why such an illustrious and famous list of opera stars all performed in San Francisco in the late 1950s and 1960s. I believe that discussing those historic reasons will yield insights into how the San Francisco Opera became one of the world’s most important opera companies.

My work with the San Francisco Opera archival staff and on these remembrances have inspired me to begin yet another website feature –  occasional essays about the significance and importance of the San Francisco Opera in the evolution of opera performance in the mid-20th century and beyond.

These will begin later this year, and will include one of the memorable events that occurred in San Francisco 50 years ago – the beginning of the San Francisco Opera director Kurt Herbert Adler’s association with a 32-year old Italian tenor, Luciano Pavarotti.


For my previous year-end essays, see:

Opera in Live Performance: Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2009, Part One

Opera in Live Performance: Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2009, Part Two

Opera in Live Performance, Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2010, Part One

Opera in Live Performance, Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2010, Part Two

Opera in Live Performance, Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2010, Part Three

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

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

Opera in Live Performance: Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2012, Part One

Opera in Live Performance: Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2012, Part Two

Opera in Live Performance: Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2013,

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

Opera in Live Performance: Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2015.