Grading San Francisco Opera Performances for Calendar Year 2023

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.)

Grade A+

Madama Butterfly (Puccini)

Amon Miyamoto’s “Butterfly” production is an international co-production of several opera companies, including San Francisco Opera. Its most obvious departure from traditional productions is that it includes pantomime scenes that take place at Pinkerton’s death bed, when Trouble learns of the history of his parent’s relationship.

[Below: Miachel Fabiano (left) as Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton and Karah Son (right) as CIo-CIo San; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The pantomimes worked. The production was also distinguished by impressive singing by soprano Karah Son (Cio-Cio San), Michael Fabiano (Pinkerton) and Lucas Meachem (Sharpless) and by an effective and illuminating scenic design.

[For my performance reviews, see: Review: Karah Son, Michael Fabiano Lead Brilliant Cast in Amon Miyamoto’s Fascinating Production of “Madama Butterfly” – San Francisco Opera, June 3, 2023 and A “Second Look” Review: Amon Miyamoto’s Insightful Production of “Madama Butterfly” – San Francisco Opera, June 18, 2023.]

Grade A+

Die Frau ohne Schatten (Richard Strauss)

In the late 1950s, San Francisco Opera’s formidable general manager, Kurt Herbert Adler, introduced “Die Frau ohne Schatten”, an operatic masterwork of Adler’s fellow Austrian, Richard Strauss, to American audiences. Adler’s successor as General Manager, Terrence McEwen introduced San Francisco Opera audiences to the beautiful opera productions associated with British artist David Hockney.

“Frau” was performed in several 20th century San Francisco Opera seasons. Hockney scenic designs” have been the focus of several productions over the past four decades. The company has performed Hockney productions of “The Rake’s Progress”, “Magic Flute”, “Tristan und Isolde” and “Turandot”. However, it was not until the second decade of the 21st century that “Frau”, for the first time in Hockney’s magnificent production, was performed in San Francisco.

[Below: the Emperor (David Butt Philip, bottom left) returns to the hunt; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

A dream cast was assembled, comprised of Camilla Nylund as the Empress, David Putt Philip as the Emperor, Linda Watson as the Nurse, Nina Stemme as the Dyer’s wife and Johan Reuter as Barak the Dyer. Recently knighted Sir Donald Runnicles, returning to the company that he served as Music Director between 1992 and 2009, conducted impressively.

[For my performance review, see: Review: A Colorful, Brilliantly Performed “Frau ohne Schatten” – San Francisco Opera, June 4, 2023.]

[For my reports on two Adler era performances of the work, see: Historical Performances: The Woman Without an Equal: Leonie Rysanek in “Frau ohne Schatten”: San Francisco Opera, September 24, 1960 and Historical Performances: Ella Lee, Dalis, Kuchta, Waechter, Martell in “Frau ohne Schatten” – San Francisco Opera, September 26, 1964.]

Grade A+

Il Trovatore (Verdi)

Sir David McVicar’s theatrically stunning production of “Il Trovatore” returned to the War Memorial Opera House after a 14-year absence, in a dramatically effective revival by director Roy Rallo. The cast was led by tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz in the title role. It was my first opportunity to hear Chacón-Cruz in a spinto tenor role rather than the vocally less wetghty lyric tenor repertory for which he is famous.

[Below: Manrico (Arturo Chacón-Cruz) summons his forces to save his mother; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

As Manrico, Chacón-Cruz sang and acted impressively, and was matched by the vocal and dramatic performances of Angel Blue (Leonora), Ekaterina Semenchuk (Azucena), George Petean (Count di Luna) and Robert Pomakov (Ferrando).

[For my performance review, see: Review: Chacón-Cruz, Angel Blue, Semenchuk and Petean in Rousing, Richly Dramatic Performance of “Il Trovatore” – San Francisco Opera, September 17, 2023.]

\\Grade A+

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs (Bates and Campbell)

One of the most successful new operas of the past six years, “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” focuses on a man who combined futuristic technological accomplishments with a commitment to the precepts of the ancient Zen Buddhist religion. The opera’s composer Mason Bates’ musical palette likewise spans old and new forms, his electronic musical instrumentation embedded in the traditional operatic orchestra.

[Below: John Moore as Steve Jobs extolling the Apple iphone and its many apps; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

For San Francisco, baritone John Moore took on the role of Steve Jobs, while sopranoSasha Cooke and bass Wei Wu, both veterans of the Santa Fe Opera world premiere, were respectively Jobs’ wife Laurene and Jobs’ Zen master, Kobun Chino Otagawa. Maestro Michael Christie conducted authoritatively.

[For my performance review, see: Review: Aural Splendor Permeates Composer Mason Bates’ Revised “(R)evolution of Steve Jobs” – San Francisco Opera, September 24, 2023.]

[For my world premiere performance review, see: World Premiere Review: Ovations for the (R)evolution of Steve Jobs – Santa Fe Opera, July 22, 2017.]

Grade A+

Lohengrin (Wagner)

Maestra Eun Sun Kim presided over a musically magical performance of Wagner’s “Lohengrin”, whose cast included Simon O’Neill in the title role, Julie Adams as Elsa, Judit Kutasi as Ortrud, Brian Mulligan as Telramund, Kristinn Sigmundsson as King Heinrich and Thomas Lehman as the Herald.

[Below: Elsa (Julie Adams, left) has become concerned about the mysterious obligations that her marriage to Lohengrin (Simon O’Neill, center) impose upon her; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photographm courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

David Alden’s production incorporates imposing sets and costumes from recent times, but Wagner’s story-line remained unchanged.

[For my performance review, see: Review: A Musically, Visually Satisfying “Lohengrin” – San Francisco Opera, October 15, 2023.]

Grade A+

L’Elisir d’Amore (Donizetti)

Daniel Slater’s production moved “The Elixir of Love” to a “La Dolce Era” resort on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. Here, a coy Adina (Slávka Zámecníková) toys with the affections of her ardent suitor, Nemorino (Pene Pati), by means of her flirtations with Belcore (David Bizic).

Trusting in a “love elixir” manufactured by the charlatan, Doctor Dulcamara (Renato Girolami), Nemorino’s pursuit of Adina’s love not only triumphs, but is accompanied by a surprising outcome.

[Below: Nemorino (right) and Adina (Slávka Zámecníková (second from right) wish Doctor Dulcamara (Renato GIrolami, front left) as he prepares to depart in his hot air balloon; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

As the fates shift in Nemorino’s favor, Pati celebrated by singing one of the greatest arias in Italian opera, Nemorino’s Una furtiva lagrima, memorably. Maestro Ramon Tebar conducted with cheer.

[For my performance review, see: Review: Donizetti’s Delightful, ‘Must See’ “Elixir of Love” Starring Pene Pati and Slatka Zamecnikova – San Francisco Opera, November 19, 2023.]

Grade A

El Último Sueño de Frida y Diego (Frank and Cruz)

The often uneasy relationship between Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and her husband, Diego Rivera, is explored in Frank’s and Cruz’ “El Último Sueño de Frida y Diego”, the first opera to be performed in Spanish in San Francisco Opera history. Daniela Mack and Alfredo Daza were Frida and Diego, while Yaritza Veliz portrayed the supernatural being Catrina.

[Below: Frida Kahlo (Daniela Mack, third freom left) joins Spaniards, Mexicans and indigenous people from different periods of Mexico’s history; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The colorful production gave an important role to the San Francisco Opera Chorus, which performed magnificently. Maestro Roberto Kalb, who had conducted the opera’s world premiere performances at the San Diego Opera, was also at the podium for the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

For my performance review: see: Review: Daniela Mack, San Francisco Opera Chorus Shine in “El Último Sueño de Frida y Diego ”, San Francisco Opera, June 17, 2023

Grade A

Omar (Giddens and Abels)

A little known autobiography by Omar ibn Said, an early 19th century West African Muslim scholar who had been captured by slave traders and sold to plantations in the Carolinas of the American South, was transformed into a extraordinary opera.

Two “co-composers”, Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels, created a musical score with a much wider range of musical influences than is usually encountered in opera – including lively folk dances, and music with West African and American slave era roots.

The vocal score was performed by a brilliant cast led by James McCorkle as Omar, Brittany Renee as Julie, Taylor Raven as Fatima and Daniel Okulitch and Barry Banks, each with two roles each. Much of the action involved an impressive guest chorus.

Maestro John Kennedy, who conducted the opera’s world premiere at the Spoileto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, presided over the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

[For my performance review, see: Review: Ovations for “Omar”, Giddens’ and Abels’ Remarkable Opera – San Francisco Opera, November 5, 2023.]

These are the operas performed (and my grades) in the San Francisco Opera seasons of calendar years 2006 through 2022: 

Grading San Francisco Opera Performances for Calendar Year 2022

Grading San Francisco Opera Performances for Calendar Years 2020 and 2021,

Grading San Francisco Opera Performances for Calendar Year 2019,

Grading San Francisco Opera Performances for Calendar Year 2018,

Grading San Francisco Opera Performances for Calendar Year 2017,

Grading San Francisco Opera Performances for Calendar Year 2016.

Grading San Francisco Opera Performances for Calendar Year 2015,

Grading San Francisco Opera Productions for Calendar Year 2014,

Grading San Francisco Opera’s Productions Of Calendar Year 2013,

Grading San Francisco Opera’s Productions Of Calendar Year 2012,  

San Francisco Opera’s Calendar Year 2011 – Another Year of High Caliber Performances,

San Francisco Opera’s Calendar Year 2010 – Straight “A” Average Trending Higher   

Grading Gockley’s San Francisco Opera 2009: Another Straight A Average,

Gockley’s San Francisco Opera in 2008 – A Straight “A” Average,

Gockley’s San Francisco Opera in 2007 – Improving Already High Grades,

Grading David Gockley’s First Year at San Francisco Opera