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 2019 – the 14th year of these grades.
Calendar year 2006 began the general directorship of David Gockley. Calendar Year 2016 was split between the general directorships of Gockley and his successor, Matthew Shilvock. Calendar year 2019 is the first year in which the repertory choices are solely Shilvock’s.
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 2019:
Sir David McVicar’s stunning production of Dvorak’s “Rusalka” provided the setting for a powerful, beautifully sung performance by Rachel Willis-Sorensen or the water-nymph Rusalka who dreams of becoming part of the human world.
[Below: Rachel Willis-Sorensen as Rusalka; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Willis-Sorensen and her co-stars – Brandon Jovanovich as the Prince, Jamie Barton as Jezibaba, Sarah Cambidge as the Foreign Princess and Kristinn Sigmundsson as Vodnik – were dramatically persuasive as well as vocally resplendent.
The performance was the San Francisco Opera debut of Maestra Eun Sun Kim, on whose American debut at the Houston Grand Opera I had reported earlier. Later in the year, Maestra Kim would be appointed as San Francisco Opera’s new Music Director.
[For my performance review, see: Review, “Rusalka”: Beautiful Singing, Insightful Drama – An Opera “Not to be Missed” – San Francisco Opera, June 16, 2019.]
Billy Budd (Britten)
Michael Grandage’s 2010 Glyndebourne Festival production of Britten’s “Billy Budd”, was a visually effective scenario for the drama unfolding on His Majesty’s Ship Indomitable.
Debuting baritone John Chest gave an affecting performance of the doomed sailor Billy Budd, the personification of goodness. William Burden demonstrated his mastery of the role of the conflicgted Captain Vere, and Christian Van Horn was the sinister master-of-arms, John Claggart.
[Below: Captain Vere (William Burden, top center) looks down the deck where Billy Budd (John Chest, front center, below) inspires his shipmates; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Maestro Lawrence Renes presided over a powerful performances by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus.
[For my performance review, see: Review: An Indomitable “Billy Budd”, San Francisco Opera, September 7, 2019.]
Manon Lescaut (Puccini)
Olivier Tambosi’s production of “Manon Lescaut”, Puccini’s first enduring hit, returned to the San Francisco Opera after a 13 season absence.
Strong vocal performances were had from the principal leads – Lianna Haroutounian as Manon and Brian Jagde as the Chevalier des Grieux – and from their colleagues Anthony Clark Evans as Lescaut and Philip Skinner as Geronte.
[Below: the courtyard of the women’s prison in Olivier Tambosi’s production of “Manon Lescaut”; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
A lustrous orchestral performance took place under the baton of Maestro Nicola Luisotti, who had served between 2009 and 2018 as the San Francisco Opera’s music director.
[For my performance reviews, see: Review: A Passionate “Manon Lescaut” Led by Luisotti, Haroutounian and Jagde – San Francisco Opera, November 8, 2019 and Review: San Francisco Opera’s Magnificent “Manon Lescaut”: A Second Look – November 24, 2019.]
Hansel and Gretel (Humperdinck)
San Francisco Opera and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden share the new Antony McDonald co-production of “Hansel and Gretel”, which provided the vehicle for enchanting performances by Sasha Cooke as Hansel and Heidi Stober as Gretel. The opera and production proved a worthy operatic choice for the holiday season.
[Below: Gretel (Heidi Stober, left) and Hansel (Sasha Cooke, right) are excited at the prospect of finding food; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
McDonald’s production was lovingly conducted by Maestro Christopher Franklin. There was a fine performance by Robert Brubaker as the Witch: strikingly original costuming for Ashley Dixon’s Sandman and Natalie Image’s Dew Fairy; and a charming pantomime that included characters from several iconic fairy tales.
In the performance I reviewed, Robert Walker’s well-sung Father was joined by Mary Evelyn Hangley, who replaced an ailing colleague with distinction in the role of the Mother.
[For my performance review, see: Review: A “Must See” San Francisco Opera Production of “Hansel and Gretel”- November 17, 2019.]
The San Francisco Opera mounted Francesca Zambello’s 2006 production of “Carmen” created for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, featuring mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges in a physically demanding performance of the opera’s iconic title role.
[Below: Don Jose (Matthew Polenzani, left) pleads with Carmen (J’Nai Bridges, right) to return to him; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Zambello’s showy directing brought new insights into the relationships of these famous characters. The role of Don Jose was beautifully sung by tenor Matthew Polenzani. Anita Hartig gave a sympathetic performance as Micaela. Kyle Ketelsen returned to San Francisco Opera as the bullfighter Escamillo, a role for which he is internationally famous. Maestro James Gaffigan was the conductor.
[For my performance review, see: Review: Francesca Zambello’s Theatrically Compelling “Carmen” – San Francisco Opera, June 5, 2019.]
For Handel’s “Orlando” British director Harry Fehr time-shifted the opera to early World War II and place-shifted it to Britain.
Sasha Cooke performed the title role, reconceptualized as a shell-shocked aviator. The other four major roles were Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen’s Medoro (a wounded soldier), Heidi Stober’s Angelica (a wealthy American in love with Medoro), Christine Gansch’s Dorinda (a military hospital nurse) and Christian Van Horn’s Zoroastro (a hospital physician). Each cast member sang brilliantly.
[Below: Orlando (Sasha Cooke, in chair) is under a hospital’s care; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The San Francisco Opera Orchestra, supplemented by baroque instruments, was led by Maestro Christopher Moulds.
[For my performance review, see: Review: A Finely Sung “Orlando” Melds Handel’s Seductive Music with Harry Fehr’s Surreal Staging – San Francisco Opera, June 9, 2019.]
Roméo et Juliette (Gounod)
The season opening opera marked the return of Gounod’s setting of the Romeo and Juliet story to the San Francisco Opera after an absence of 32 seasons.
Samoan-born New Zealand tenor Pene Pati, stepping in for colleague for the entire run of Roméos, quickly became a San Francisco favorite, in a passionately lyrical performance opposite the Juliet of Nadine Sierra.
[Below: Roméo (Pene Pati, left) caresses Juliet (Nadine Sierra, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Distinguished performances by James Creswell as Frere Laurent and Lucas Meachem as Mercutio complemented the artists in the title roles. French opera specialist Maestro Yves Abel conducted.
[For my performance review, see: Review: Pene Pati and Nadine Sierra Brilliant in Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet” – San Francisco Opera, September 6, 2019.]
The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart)
A new Michael Cavanagh production of Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” is the opening production in a planned trio of Mozart operas based on Lorenzo da Ponte libretti (with “Cosi fan Tutte” and “Don Giovanni” to follow in the next two San Francisco Opera seasons.
[Below: Susanna (Jeanine DeBique) and Figaro (Michael Sumuel, right) demonstrate the spirit of the American revolution to Cherubino (Serena Malfi, center); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Conducted with effervescence by Maestro Henrik Nánási, the engaging cast starred Michael Sumuel as Figaro, Jeanine DeBique as Susanna with Levente Molnár and Nicole Heaston, respectively, as the Count and Countess Almaviva. Other memorable performances included Serena Malfi (Cherubino), Catherine Cook (Marcellina) and Greg Fedderly (Don Basilio)
[For my performance review, see: Review: Strong Cast, Arresting New Production for “Marriage of Figaro” – San Francisco Opera, October 13, 2019.]
For my previous production grades, see: