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.]

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