Grading San Francisco Opera Performances for Calendar Year 2017

Since my junior high school years, I have been attending performances of the San Francisco Opera.

Beginning with calendar year 2006, I have given letter grades to each of San Francisco Opera’s productions during that calendar year. These are my grades for the 12th 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, these are the ratings for 2017.

Grade A+ 

Rigoletto (Verdi)

For the 50th anniversary of San Francisco’s “Summer of Love”, the San Francisco Opera mounted Verdi’s “Rigoletto”, whose title role lies high in the baritone range and requires a highly dramatic style of singing.

San Francisco Opera has been one of the world opera companies that has promoted the rising career of Hawai’ian baritone Quinn Kelsey, for whom Rigoletto is a signature role. Kelsey’s masterful performance was supported by an beautifully sung Gilda by the Republic of Georgia soprano Nino Machaidze. “Rigoletto” was also the occasion for the impressive role debut as the Duke of Mantua of Kelsey’s fellow Pacific Islander, New Zealander Pene Pati.

[Below: a scene from Michael Yeargan’s production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Italian-born American bass Andrea Silvestrelli was a formidable, deep-voiced Sparafucile, with Latvian soprano Zanda Švede appropriately seductive as Sparafucile’s amoral sister Maddalena.

For my performance review, see: Review: Quinn Kelsey a World Class Verdi baritone in “Rigoletto” – San Francisco Opera, May 31, 2017.

Don Giovanni (Mozart)

The highlight of 2017’s summer season of operatic favorites was a strongly cast revival of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” heralding the San Francisco Opera debuts of four first rank opera singers and a world class conductor.

Previously, I had to travel to Europe or other U. S. cities to see Ildebrando d’Arcangelo and Erwin Schrott perform, but June’s revival of a reworked “Don Giovanni” production brought together Italian bass-baritone d’Arcangelo in the title role and Uruguayan bass-baritone Schrott as the Don’s beleaguered companion, Leporello. The two artists, who have alternated the roles at other opera companies, were masterful performers, both dramatically and vocally.

[Below: Don Giovanni (Ildebrando d’Arcangelo, on steps, left) instructs his servant Leporello (Erwin Schrott, right) to invite the Commendatore’s stone effigy (Andrea Silvestrelli, seated as a statue, above) to dinner; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

It was the occasion for the San Francisco Opera debuts of Maestro Marc Minkowski, the esteemed French conductor who memorably led the San Francisco Opera Orchestra in an extraordinary performance. Other San Francisco Opera debuts included an elegantly performed Donna Anna by Canadian soprano Erin Wall and a stylish Don Ottavio from French lyric tenor Stanislas de Barbeyrac. Sarah Shafer was a charming Zerlina.

Three artists who performed their roles together in Robert Falls’ updated 2014 Lyric Opera of Chicago production, repeated them in San Francisco: Ana Maria Martinez was a tempestuous Donna Elvira,  Italian-born American bass Andrea Silvestrelli was an imposing Commendatore, and Michael Sumuel showed the comic potentialities of the role of Masetto in the hands of a talented artist.

Director Jacopo Spirei fidgeted with Gabriele Lavia’s 2011 production, including introducing some outsized projections by German videographer Tommi Brem, yet the quality of the singing and acting overwhelmed my reservations about the production’s idiosyncrasies.

For the summer’s final two performances, including a community simulcast between the War Memorial Opera House and an assembled audience at AT&T Stadium, American bass-baritone Erik Anstine took on the role of Leporello.

For my performance review, see: Review: “Don Giovanni” – D’Arcangelo, Schrott Lead Stellar Cast; Mozart Magic from Maestro Minkowski; – San Francisco Opera, June 4, 2017.

La Boheme (Puccini)

British director John Caird’s dramatically persuasive production of Puccini’s “La Boheme” was revived with a talented young cast of singing actors led by the Rodolfo of Mexican tenor Arturo Chacon-Cruz and the Mimi of Italian soprano Erika Grimaldi. Norwegian baritone Auden Iversen was Marcello and Minnesota Ellie Dehn a vibrant Musetta.

[Below: Rodolfo (Arturo Chacon-Cruz (left) and Marcello (Auden Iversen, right) discuss the women in their lives; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

As winsome as the vocal performances, were the fascinating transformations of the Bohemian’s garret into a the Cafe Momus scene and the transformation of the Parisian barrier scene back into the garret, thanks to the skillful set designs of David Farley.

For my performance review, see: Review: John Caird’s Magical “La Boheme” Production – San Francisco Opera, June 10, 2017.

Turandot (Puccini)

Esteemed British painter/artist David Hockney turned 80 in 2017, inviting retrospectives of his accomplishments by art museums. The San Francisco Opera celebrated his birthday by reviving his spectacular production of Puccini’s “Turandot”, with 12 performances divided between September and November/December.

I have described Hockney’s “Turandot” (with Ian Falconer’s superbly conceived costumes) as a “world treasure” – performance art that can best be enjoyed in the visual and acoustic surroundings of the War Memorial Opera House.

[Below: Prince Calaf (Brian Jagde, below) shows a remarkable facility for solving riddles proposed by the Princess Turandot (Nina Stemme above, in headdress and second from left); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

For the season-opening September performances, the San Francisco Opera Orchestra was resoundingly led by Maestro Nicola Luisotti, in his final weeks as music director of the San Francisco Opera.

The September performances were the occasion for the role debut as Calaf of New York spinto tenor Brian Jagde and the return of Austrian soprano Martina Serafin to the War Memorial Opera House as the Princess Turandot.  Pennsylvania soprano Toni Marie Palmertree was Liu (role debut) and Ohio bass Raymond Aceto was Timur.

The December performances featured Swedish soprano Nina Stemme in the title role, Michigan soprano Leah Crocetto as Liu and auspicious debuts by Maestro Christopher Franklin leading the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and bass-baritone Soloman Howard as Timur. Brian Jagde (Calaf), Joo Wan Kang (Ping), Julius Ahn (Pang) and Joel Sorensen (Pong) sang in all 12 performances.

For my performance reviews, see: Review: San Francisco Opera’s “Turandot” – Sonic Splendor, Visual Delight – September 8, 2017 and A Second Look: San Francisco Opera’s “Turandot” – September 24, 2017 and Review: San Francisco Opera’s Treasured “Turandot” – Stemme, Crocetto, Howard Join Cast, November 18, 2017.

Elektra (Richard Strauss)

San Francisco Opera audiences were introduced to the company’s imaginative co-production (with the Czech National Opera in Prague where it debuted) of Richard Strauss’ “Elektra”, created by English director Keith Warner.

The extraordinary vocal performances, led by the Elektra of New York dramatic soprano Christine Goerke and the Chrysothemis of Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, were presided over brilliantly by the debuting Hungarian Henrik Nánási, leading an augmented San Francisco Opera Orchestra (the largest in company history)

[Below: Elektra (Christine Goerke, left) and Chrystothemis (Adrianne Pieczonka, right) hold a battle-axe; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The production’s central theme – of a character who has hidden in a museum at closing time, after which the museum exhibits come alive – has been seen in American comic movies (Shawn Levy’s “Night at the Museum”) and British television (Stephen Moffatt’s “Doctor Who”). Applying the concept to the adventures of a character hidden in a museum (Elektra) to Strauss’ operatic adaptation of Sophocles’ play proved to be stunningly effective.

Of all the productions new to me that I reviewed in San Francisco or elsewhere, I found Warner’s “Elektra” to be the most engrossing.

For my performance review, see: Review: San Francisco Opera’s “Elektra” – Goerke, Pieczonka in a Gory, Gloriously Sung Night at the Museum – September 9, 2017.

La Traviata (Verdi)

The revival of John Copley’s magnificent “La Traviata” production was the final opera conducted by Maestro Nicola Luisotti in his position as Music Director of the San Francisco Opera. It proved to be a glorious evening musically as he led the San Francisco Opera orchestra in an affectionate performance of Verdi’s most-beloved opera.

[Below: Violetta (Aurelia Florian, right) suggestively offers Alfredo (Attala Ayan, left) a camelia; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The performance marked the San Francisco Opera debuts of Romanian soprano Aurelia Florian, Brazilian tenor Attala Ayan and Polish baritone Artur Rucinski, who collectively gave a world class performance of Verdi’s famous music.

Florian’s Violetta was an elegant Violetta, whose moving death scene was especially memorable.

For my performance review, see: Review: an Engaging “La Traviata” in John Copley’s Classic Production – San Francisco Opera, September 23, 2017.

Manon (Massenet)

Vincent Boussard’s production of Massenet’s “Manon” (co-produced by the Lithuanian National Opera and Israeli Opera) was the vehicle for role debuts of Minnesota lyric-coloratura soprano Ellie Dehn as Manon and New Jersey lyric tenor Michael Fabiano as the Chevalier des Grieux.

Superb singing by the two romantic leads was complemented by the authoritative Comte des Grieux of James Creswell, the wily Lescaut of David Pershall and the licentious Giullot of Robert Brubaker. The San Francisco Opera Orchestra was conducted by Massenet specialist Maestro Patrick Fournillier.

[Below: Manon (Ellie Dehn), distressed about the idea of entering a nunnery, is quite prepared to consider any suggested alternatives; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The second Boussard production to be mounted by San Francisco Opera (after Bellini’s “The Capulets and Montagues”) in 2012, it featured Boussard’s idea of mixing costumes from various time periods to highlight the universality of “Manon’s” story of a young woman who attempts to pursue both love and riches at whatever cost – the cost being her life.

Each of “Manon’s” six scenes were effectively staged, with the Saint Sulpice scene in which des Grieux’ commitment to a monastic life is undone by the unexpected appearance of Manon was particularly memorable.

Review: An Exquisitely Sung “Manon” with Ellie Dehn and Michael Fabiano – San Francisco Opera, November 4, 2017  and A “Second Look” Review: “Manon” – San Francisco Opera, November 19, 2017.

Grade A (Vocal performances) 

Girls of the Golden West (Adams)

The San Francisco Opera was the scene for the world premiere of John Adams’ opera “Doctor Atomic” and its General Director Emertius David Gockley, while head of the Houston Grand Opera, hosted the world premiere of Adams’ most successful opera to date, “Nixon in China”.

The legacies of these two world premieres and of San Francisco’s urban beginnings in the aftermath of 1849’s discovery of Gold, made it a natural choice for the premiere of Adams’ latest opera, “Girls of the Golden West”, to take place at the San Francisco Opera.

Adams and librettist Peter Sellars proposed a different viewpoint on California’s Gold Rush from the similarly titled works of playwright David Belasco and composer Giacomo Puccini, creating an idea-filled opera about the intertwined lives of three women and four men in a Northern Sierra mining community.

[Below: The miner (Ryan McKinny center, is brown outfit), Joe Cannon (Paul Appleby, front right on floor) and bartender Ramón (Elliot Madore, right, standing, in white) surrounded by patrons of the Empire Hotel’s bar; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Neither critical reviewers nor audience members agreed (although many reviewers and audience members expressed strong opinions for or against the work) on how successful Adams’ and Sellars’ efforts were, but it is beyond dispute that San Francisco Opera offered the new work as dramatically and vocally effective a cast as could be imagined for its send-off.

The seven principals included San Francisco Opera debuts by California baritone Ryan McKinny as Clarence, Missouri soprano Julia Bullock as Dame Shirley and Virginia bass-baritone Davóne Tines as Ned Peters. The other principals were Indiana lyric tenor Paul Appleby as Joe Cannon, Canadian baritone Elliot Madore as Ramón, Washington mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges as Josefa Segovia and South Korean coloratura soprano Hye Jung Lee as Ah Sing.

Los Angeles Opera’s Maestro Grant Gershon conducted.

For my performance review, see: World Premiere Review: Adams’ “Girls of the Golden West”, San Francisco Opera, November 21, 2017.

For previous year-end summaries in this series, see: