Since the year 2006, I have reviewed each of the opera productions mounted by the San Francisco Opera in the War Memorial Opera House, providing each with a letter grade.
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.)
Don Giovanni (Mozart and Da Ponte)
Director Michael Cavanagh created a new production of “Don Giovanni”, the third part of a trilogy of productions of the three Mozart operas with libretti by Lorenzo da Ponte. The setting, a large house that had served as a colonial American estate for “Nozze di Figaro” and a counry club contemporaneous with the Great Gatsby for “Cosi fan Tutte” served as the whereabouts for “Don GIovanni’s” characters in what Cavanagh described as a dystopian future.
[Below: Don GIovanni (Etienne Dupuis, left) attempts the seduction of Zerlina (Christina Gansch, right); edited image of a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
French conductor Bertrand de Billy chose the rarely performed original Prague version of the opera, which is devoid of Don Ottavio’s aria Il mio tesoro, but includes a brief scene in which Zerlina captures and ties up Leporello.
The singing, acting, and staging were uniformly excellent. The encounters between Canadian baritone Etienne Dupuis as Giovanni and Italian baritone Luca Pisaroni as Leporello (Pisaroni’s fourth Mozart role for the San Francisco Opera) were especially noteworthy.
[For my performance review, see: Review: Dupuis and Pisaroni Lead International Cast for Michael Cavanagh’s New “Don Giovanni” Production – San Francisco Opera, June 12, 2022].
The Dream of the Red Chamber (Sheng and Hwang) Grade A+
The first San Francisco Opera world premiere to be mounted by the company in a subsequent season, Sheng and Hwang’s “The Dream of the Red Chamber” returned to the San Francisco Opera after a successful tour of China. The opera’s story, distilled from the 18th century Chinese epic for which the opera was named, inspired Sheng’s impressive vocal and orchestral music. The elegant, lavishly costumed production is one of the most ambitious endeavors in the opera company’s history.
[Below: A scene from “The Dream of the Red Chamber”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photographm courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
For the revival, several major roles were taken over by debuting artists. These include South Korean tenor Konu Kim as Dao Yu (the stone), Chinese soprano Meigui Zhang as Bai Yun (the flower) and Chinese mezzo-soprano Hongni Wu as Bao Chai. Returning artists included South Korean mezzo-soprano Hyona Kim as Lady Wang. Singaporean Maestro Darrell Ang led the San Francisco Opera and Chorus in a spirited performance.
[For my performance review, see: Review: A Pleasing Revival of “Dream of the Red Chamber” at San Francisco Opera, June 14, 2022.]
Eugene Onegin (Tchaikovsky)
Tchaikovsky’s most famous opera, “Eugene Onegin” was revived by the San Francisco Opera with a pleasing cast that included four artists new to the company in the roles of four young adults – Onegin (sung by Gordon Bittner), Tatiana (Evgenia Muraveva), Lensky (Evan LeRoy Johnson ) and Olga (Aigul Akhmetshina) – whose impulsive acts have far-reaching consequences.
Also on board was Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto as Prince Gremin. Furlanetto,43 years after his 1979 San Francisco Opera debut, became the latesst rewcipient of the prestigious San Francisco Opera Medal.
[Below: Gordon Bittner as Eugene Onegin; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
To stage Tchaikovsky’s opera, the company secured Robert Carsen’s famous production. In my earlier account of an opera performance elsewhere [Review: A Praiseworthy “Eugene Onegin” in Robert Carsen’s “World Treasure” Production – Houston Grand Opera, November 1, 2015], I gave high praise to Carsen’s “Onegin” .
[For my performance review, see: Review: Robert Carsen’s Production of “Eugene Onegin”, Admirably Performed – San Francisco Opera, October 9, 2022.]
La Traviata (Verdi)
Director Shawna Lucey and designer Robert Innes Hopkins, the team responsible for the San Francisco Opera’s beautiful production of Puccini’s “Tosca”, created an elegant new production of Verdi’s “La Traviata”.
[Below: Violetta (Pretty Yende, center) and her new acquaintance Alfredo (Jonathan Tetelman, left) toast Violetta’s party guests; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The new production provided an attractive backdrop for the debuts of three important new artists – Pretty Yende (Violetta), Jonathan Tetelman (Alfredo) and Simone Piazzola (Giorgio Germont).
Antony and Cleopatra (Adams)
The San Francisco Opera mounted the world premiere of a new opera, based on Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra”. The opera was the company’s third world premiere of a work composed by John Adams (after “Doctor Atomic” and “The Girls of the Golden West”) and fifth Adams opera it performed.
[Below: Cleopatra (Amina Edris, left) displays affection for the Roman general, Antony (Gerald Finley, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The attractive, well-cast production by director Elkhana Pulitzer emphasized parallels between the consolidation of imperial power by Caesar Augustus and the early 20th century despotism of Benito Mussolini, as part of the production’s obvious anti-fascism message.
[For my performance review, see: World Premiere Run Review: Adams’ “Antony and Cleopatra” – San Francisco Opera, September 18, 2022.]
Dialogues of the Carmelites (Poulenc)
The San Francisco Opera has had a special relationship with Poulenc’s 1957 opera “Dialogues of the Carmelites”. Mounting it in San Francisco later in the year of its Milanese world premiere, it helped launch the operatic career of Leontyne Price as a Carmelite convent’s prioress.
The opera centers on a community of faith who accepted religious martyrdom in the social upheaval of the French Revolution. Its central figure is the religious Blanche de la Fort, who, although from an aristocratic family, is drawn to the discipline of the Carmelite order.
[Below: the Carmelite nuns come to the aid of the Chaplain (Brenton Ryan, right front center) , a victim of Revolutionary mobs; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Soprano Heidi Stober excelled as Blanche and tenor Ben Bliss as Blanche’s chevalier brother. The aged Prioress Madame deCroissy and her replacement Madame Lidoine were performed with distinction by sopranos Michaela Shuster and Michelle Bradley.
Orfeo ed Euridice (Gluck)
Director Matthew Ozawa and his creative team conceived a new production Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice”, an opera rarely performed by the San Francicso Opera during its first century, The production found parallels with the ancient Greek Orpheus story and Swiss pyschiatrist Doctor Kübler-Ross’ “stages of grief”. Such a theme for “Orfeo” seemed appropriate to Ozawa’s team in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic’s disastrous impact.
The presence of debuting Polish countertenor Jacub Józef Orlinski, who is renown for his acrobatic dancing, and Gluck’s incorporation of abundant dance music in his opera, provided the elements for Ozawa to conceptualize a dazzling reinterpretation of Gluck’s ideas.
[Below: Jacub Józef Orlinski (center) as Orfeo; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Orlinski’s vocal performance was hauntingly beautiful, and his dancing, which included a leap into the air and a one-armed handstand, was memorable. Chinese soprano Meiguin Zhang (Euridice) and Texas mezzo-soprano Nicole Heaston (Anor) were impressive as the opera’s two other pincipal singers, Irish baroque specialist Maestro Peter Whelan presided over the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. The San Franicsco Opera Chorus and Dancers added to the lively stagecraft.
[For my performance review, see: Review: Orlinski’s Astounding, Acrobatic Orfeo: “Orfeo ed Euridice”, San Francisco Opera, November 20, 2022.]
These are the operas performed (and my grades) in the San Francisco Opera seasons of calendar years 2006 through 2021: