Francisco Opera really has three seasons.
The main portion occurs in the fall, pauses
while San Francisco Ballet takes over the
hall in December for a run of "The Nutcracker,"
and resumes briefly in January before the
ballet occupies War Memorial Opera House through
the spring. There's a final run of opera in
June. The company has staged as many as 13
productions, but recent economic setbacks
and shortfalls have pared the season down
to nine operas. As this stop-and-start season
reaches its first resting point following
the autumn's six productions, this is a natural
point to reflect on what the San Francisco’s
opera-going public has seen and heard.
far, it's been mixed. Only one of the six
productions -- the wonderfully lurid Shostakovich
opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk -- can
qualify as an unalloyed success. Among the
others, nothing ranked as a disaster, but
neither will anything burn itself into the
memory. Don't blame the orchestra, which played
magnificently under music director Donald
Runnicles, or the chorus, which remains one
of the company's strengths. The problem, more
than anything else, was low wattage casting.
is the company that nurtured such big-time
current stars as Renée Fleming, Ruth
Ann Swenson and Dolora Zajick. They and others
like them returned here often under previous
general directors Terry McEwen and Lotfi Mansouri.
Rolando Villazon, who has just made a huge
impression in La Traviata at the Met,
and John Relyea, this year's Richard Tucker
Award winner, to name just a few, first tasted
success as members of the company's Merola
program for young artists. None of the aforementioned
is on this year's roster. The biggest star
this season is Thomas Hampson, scheduled for
five performances of Il Barbiere di Siviglia
in January. They're all singing at the Metropolitan
Opera in New York. This season Lyric Opera
of Chicago has the likes of Olga Borodina,
who made her U.S. debut in San Francisco,
and James Morris, who sang his first Wotans
here. Los Angeles Opera goers get Placido
Domingo, Denyce Graves and Anna Netrebko,
another singer who made her U.S. debut at
not that the singing has been bad this season.
Supporting casts have generally been strong.
But the leads have been adequate when they
could have been exciting, a state of affairs
that seems to reflect general director Pamela
Rosenberg's penchant for casting singers she
knows well from her previous job running the
opera company in Stuttgart, in preference
to singers San Francisco audiences know from
their work here. Occasionally, she delivers
a real gem, such as this season's Papageno,
Johannes Martin Kränzle. More often,
audiences are left underwhelmed by singers
who look great in the roles, and though they
may sound great in small European houses their
vocal charms are lost in a 3,000-seat hall.
Il Barbiere di Siviglia, for example,
heard October 16, Helene Schneiderman looked
lovely as Rosina but sang Rossini with smudgy
coloratura and undifferentiated sound. Strapping
Nathan Gunn looked fabulous as Figaro, but
he's not a true Rossini singer, either. The
other roles fared much better both dramatically
and musically, especially Paul Plishka (as
Bartolo) and Philip Ens as Basilio, whose
"La calunnia" rocked the house. The production
was long on style and wit and Stefan Soltesz
conducted with much Rossinian charm.
of casting cut the legs from under Don
Carlos (heard November 4). Violeta Urmana
sang Eboli's arias with sensational abandon
and Bo Skovhus invested Posa with more than
the usual emotional conflict, but Mark Duffin
was a weak Carlos and Marina Mescheriakova
as Elisabeth, Stephen Milling as Philippe
II and Attila Jun as the Grand Inquisitor
will not live long in my memory. Runnicles
conducted brilliantly, however.
unevenness plagued the Pagliacci half
of a Cav/Pag double bill (heard October 8).
Andrea Gruber's powerful Santuzza made Cavalleria
Rusticana exciting, and Antonio Nagore's
Turiddu wasn't too far behind. Anthony Michaels-Moore
was an inoffensive Alfio and fared similarly
as Tonio in Pag, but Jon Frederic West
was unidiomatic as Canio and Catherine Naglestad
surprisingly bland as Nedda.
earnest season opener was a gutsy decision.
Instead of something by Puccini or Verdi Rosenberg
gave us the seldom-performed American curio
The Mother of Us All (heard September
10). A large, uniformly good cast,
led by veteran soprano Luana De Vol in the
title role of the American suffragette Susan
B. Anthony, lavished great care on Gertrude
Stein's quirky libretto and Virgil Thompson's
easy-listening music, a pastiche of American
folk and popular forms of the 19th and early
20th centuries. In the end, though, it's a
lightweight work. I'm glad I saw it; now I
need not do so again.
cuts ditched a planned new production of Rimsky's
Le Coq d'Or, replaced by the umpteenth
airing of the David Hockney Zauberflöte.
That would have been OK, but they should have
renamed it "Papageno," because in the entire
cast (heard September 18) only Kränzle
rose above mediocrity. Charles Castronovo
sang stylishly but acted woodenly, while Anna
Maria Martinez missed all the beauty in Pamina's
music, Suzanne Ramo was defeated by some of
the Queen of the Night's formidable challenges,
Paata Burchuladze just sounded woolly as Sarastro
and Philip Skinner lacked the low notes for
entire cast of Lady Macbeth lit up
the stage with their vocal presence in a performance
heard November 20. Staged by Johannes Schaaf
(who also staged Barbiere) with simple,
suggestive, geometric sets by Nina Ritter,
the production proved a great vehicle for
a muscular group of singing actors. Solveig
Kringelborn, seen here previously as the Countess
in Nozze di Figaro, showed an almost
verismo-like fire, interrupted by gorgeously
sung quiet passages. She was totally believable
as a beleaguered wife turned adulteress, then
murderess, by the unthinking and bullying
men around her.
Veneev wielded an intoxicatingly rich and
secure bass, and his big stage presence made
Boris into a complex and menacing figure.
Tenor Vsevelod Grivnov, like Veneev making
a company debut, sang Zinovy's music with
remarkable assurance and flexibility, but
the surprise star turn among the men turned
out to be Christopher Ventris as Sergei, the
womanizing hired hand. Known for his Wagnerian
tenor roles, Ventris handled this Russian
bad guy with idiomatic flair.
only the other casts were so deep and so thoroughly
committed to the music and their roles.
season resumes in January with a new cast
of Barbiere (including Hampson as Figaro)
and a run of La Bohèmes with
Vinson Cole as Rodolfo and Olga Guryakova
as Mimi making her company debut. In June,
there will be more Bohèmes,
but the tastiest treat should be Janacek's
The Cunning Little Vixen with Dawn
Upshaw in the title role. It's anyone's guess
whether the company will be able to make much
of Busoni's Doktor Faust, starring
Rodney Gilfrey. Runnicles will conduct both.