Friday, January 18, 2008

San Francisco Opera: The New Season

San Francisco Opera held their press conference to announce their 2008–09 season, which was reported in yesterday morning's San Francisco Chronicle. Most subscribers have probably received the new Season Subscription Brochure by now. Those of us with electronic mail have also been notified through the latest "E-newsletter," which also included a link to the new homepage for the San Francisco Opera Web site. It offers (probably through Flash) a sequence of the color photos for each opera used in the brochure, with a caption that names the opera, gives the dates of its run, and provides a "LEARN MORE" button. There is also a convenient row of thumbnail images underneath the main display and a list of all the operas in hyperlinked text on the right. It is all very attractive. However, what may be more interesting while the powers that be play their language games over whether or not we are in a recession is the final sentence of Joshua Kosman's Chronicle article:

[General Director David] Gockley also announced a nearly 50 percent reduction in the price of side orchestra seats and discounts on full and half series subscriptions.

In other words, in the midst of times when people are going to be more careful how they spend their money, Gockley is mounting a full-court press (not the best metaphor to go with his San Francisco Giants baseball cap) to make his offerings more affordable without compromising the quality of those offerings. Since the Opera is a business, there is no avoiding worrying about the bottom line; and while most businesses focus on cutbacks that will reduce expenses (often in the context of that absurd cliché about working smarter rather than working harder, recently picked up in the script for The Wire), Gockley would rather look at the other pan of the balance and take on the problem of increasing revenue. Will it work? The only legitimate answer is another cliché, the one about "the opera ain't over," which, ironically, I also tend to associate with basketball.

For my part I am very picky about what I like in any opera production, and I have now seen enough San Francisco Opera productions to know better than to anticipate my reactions. For now, then, let me just walk through the list of productions, offering some personal reflections. Since I, too, would like to see more people going to the Opera, I hope this will be of help to those wondering whether or not this will be the season for getting a first taste:

  • Simon Boccanegra (Giuseppe Verdi): As unfamiliar as this opera may be to most folks, a strange twist of fate made it the source of one of my earliest exposures to opera in general and Verdi in particular. The reason is that my parents owned an album of 78s called A Night at Carnegie Hall, which consisted of most of the music from a little-known film called Carnegie Hall. One of the records in the album had Ezio Pinza singing "Il lacerto spirito," from the Prologue to Simon Boccanegra. This remains the high point of the opera for me, partly because there was a profundity to Pinza's voice that I have never heard equaled (admitting that this may just be the exaggerated memory of a first impression) but also because, even at a very young age, the soulfulness of that music really got to me; and I have not heard that equaled in any other part of the Verdi canon. I have always found it ironic that this aria is not sung by the title character, but by Jacopo Fiesco, who seeks vengeance against Boccanegra. However, what he sings is not the usual blood-and-guts revenge aria but a meditation on his grief which is almost elegiac in nature. The whole opera is deeply embedded in fourteenth century Genoese politics, which would not make the best of plot lines for a beginner. Boccanegra will be sung by Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who was made to look very silly as Don Giovanni in a production here that was about five years ago. This production is shared with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, where it was conceived by Elijah Moshinsky, who did not make any of it look silly at all. I am looking forward to seeing Hvorostovsky under the more favorable circumstances. Donald Runnicles will be conducting; and I have been consistently happy with how he negotiates his Verdi (even when I am not all that happy with what Verdi has composed).
  • The Bonesetter's Daughter (Stewart Wallace): This is a world premiere being co-produced with the Dallas Opera. I know Wallace only as the composer of Harvey Milk, which, for me at least, made more interesting political statements than musical ones. However, I am not sure what I would have wanted out of an opera about the life and times of Harvey Milk, except that, unless I am mistaken, the documentary about Milk did not use any music at all. The title of the new opera, of course, comes from the novel by Amy Tan, who has assumed the task of librettist for this work. I am no big fan of Tan's. I know The Joy Luck Club only from the film version (for which Tan collaborated with Ron Bass on the script); and I am afraid I found it excessive along just about every possible dimension. However, having seen Judith Weir's A Night at the Chinese Opera in Santa Fe in the summer of 1989, I am fascinated with the idea of dealing with cross-cultural issues through a synthesis of the musics of the two cultures. Therefore, I cannot help but be curious about what both the music and the production will be like.
  • Die Tote Stadt (Erich Wolfgang Korngold): This is the first opera of the season that I am really excited about seeing. I was first exposed to Korngold's "dead city" through one of Ted Shawn's pioneering efforts in modern dance; but that had virtually nothing to do with the opera. I heard a New York City Opera performance of the opera one afternoon in my car back when I was in Los Angeles; and shortly thereafter I bought the RCA CD recorded in Munich in 1975, with Erich Leinsdorf conducting such voices as René Kollo, Carol Neblett (whose father was my piano technician in Los Angeles), Benjamin Luxon, and Hermann Prey. This is another opera with a musical high point that comes early, "Glück, das mir verblieb," known more familiarly as "Marietta's Lied," even though it is not a solo aria, towards the end of the first act. Korngold does not receive as much attention as his early twentieth-century contemporaries in either opera houses or concert halls, possibly because he tends not to be regarded as a particularly disciplined composer. As I recall, his own father, who was a music critic, reacted to one of his scores by yelling at him, "Compose, don't bathe!" The Korngold sound is nothing if not opulent, which is probably why when he emigrated to the United States in order to escape Hitler in 1935, he ended up making an enormous name for himself as a film composer. Those days have long past for just about everyone other than faithful viewers of the Turner Classic Movies channel; but "Glück, das mir verblieb" has been incorporated into the soundtrack of three films over the last twenty years: Aria (where it kept its most profound company), Slaves of New York, and, my personal favorite, The Big Lebowski. This is, alas, the only German opera of the season; but I am really curious about how the production will be realized. The story has been compared to Vertigo, because it involves the confusion of a woman who has died in the past with a woman living in the present; but it is a far cry from a typical Hitchcock suspense narrative. Runnicles will be conducting again, hopefully putting his best Wagner foot forward in Korngold's interests.
  • Idomeneo (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart): This is the only Mozart opera in the season. When I was growing up, this was dismissed as long and dull; but the last time San Francisco Opera presented this (there own "home-grown" production, directed by John Copley), it was a gripping slam-bang affair. Runnicles knew exactly how to deliver Mozart's command of both tension and energy, and there is no reason to assume that the lightning will not strike in exactly the same place. Productions like this one make it clear that this is not an opera to be dismissed. If anything, it is an opera that is not performed enough!
  • Boris Godunov (Modest Mussorgsky): I have not seen this opera since my days as a Metropolitan Opera subscriber, back when the late Martti Talvela sang Mussorgsky's original version, rather than subsequent revisions by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Dmitri Shostakovich. I suppose there are any number of nits one can pick with the original version, but as in the seldom-performed original version of "Night on Bare Mountain," one can just as easily view those nits as features, rather than bugs. So I am only too happy that Gockley has decided to go with an original-version production. This one is by Julia Pevzner (her first appearance in San Francisco) and comes from the Grand Théâtre de Genève, and Samuel Ramey will be singing Boris.
  • The Elixir of Love (Gaetano Donizetti): I really enjoyed this the last time San Francisco Opera did it a few years ago, but this does not appear to be a revival of that production. This one is a product of many partners: Opera Colorado, Boston Lyric Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, Michigan Opera Theatre and Fort Worth Opera. Nevertheless, since James Robinson has decided to transplant the story into the Italian-American community of Napa Valley in the early twentieth-century, San Francisco seems like the most appropriate "home." This was the opera that taught me that Donizetti could do more than wallow in bel canto tragedies, where high-strung sopranos would sing mad scenes in Italian induced by dark times in the British Isles. We shall also get to hear Ramón Vargas sing "Una furtiva lagrima," which reminds us that even a romantic comedy can allow a serious reflective moment or two.
  • La Bohème (Giacomo Puccini): Last November I expressed disappointment that, after waiting for so many years for Angela Gheorghiu to come to the San Francisco Opera, she should come with La Rondine, described by one jaundiced critic as "the poor man's La traviata." This time we shall get to hear her sing Mimi, supported in the pit by Runnicles' appointed successor, Nicola Luisotti. This is an old San Francisco Opera production without any revisionist frills, and that is the way I tend to like my Bohème. My guess is that this production will attract a lot of attention as a sign of things to come, and I shall be there among the curious.
  • Last Acts (Jake Heggie): This will be the second co-production with Cal Performances and will be performed at Zellerbach Hall on the Berkeley campus (just like The Little Prince this May). It is a chamber opera, and it remains to be see if even Zellerbach will be too large for it. Houston Grand Opera also shared in commissioning this work, which is based on a play by Terrence McNally, who has a serious love for and understanding of opera. This may not be my cup of tea, particularly since I came away from Dead Man Walking (Heggie's large-scale operatic effort) feeling that the music was the weakest link in the chain. However, this is clearly a different manner of beast; and I may decide that it deserves the effort of a BART ride across the Bay for an alternative view of what can be done in the name of opera.
  • Tosca (Giacomo Puccini): I suppose that, where Puccini is concerned, the box office numbers tend to favor Madama Butterfly and La Bohème; but my own tastes run to Tosca and Turandot. Perhaps I just have a thing for blood-thirsty women! Whatever the reason may be, I have been very fortunate to be in a city with an opera company that has mounted excellent productions of both of these operas; and Tosca will lead off the June mini-season. There is a tendency to focus on the second and third acts, since those are the acts where all the torture and killing take place; but the result is that the end of the first act, with a choir singing a Te Deum while Scarpia delivers that great line, "Tosca, you make me forget God," is often neglected. Nevertheless, this one episode collapses everything that this opera is about into a single moment. After that, everything else just plays out with tragic inevitability; but I never seem to be able to get enough of it. Marco Armiliato will be conducting. He is a familiar face in the pit, particularly where the Italian repertoire is concerned; so this revival is likely to be as much fun as it was the last two times I saw it.
  • Porgy and Bess (George Gershwin): Correctly or not, I tend to associate the Houston Grand Opera, under the direction of David Gockley, with restoring Porgy and Bess to the "legitimacy" of the opera stage. Houston mounted a serious, faithful, and, by many accounts, "authentic," production that was successful enough to be taken on tour. This is how I got to see it in New York at (of all places) Radio City Music Hall. However, this is not the production that San Francisco will see this time. Rather, it is a Washington National Opera production staged by Francesca Zambello, who will soon be a "presence" here with her "Gold Rush" staging of Rheingold for the new "San Francisco Ring;" but we shall get our first taste with her staging of The Little Prince at Zellerbach in May. Her biography is all over the map, literally as much as figuratively; and, given the beating that her recent Carmen for Covent Garden took, she must have a pretty thick skin. Consider the "core" of her resume:

    An American who grew up in Europe, she speaks French, Italian, German, and Russian. She attended Moscow University in 1976 and graduated cum laude from Colgate University in 1978. She began her career as an Assistant Director to the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. From 1984-1991 she was the Artistic Director of the Skylight Music Theater. She has been guest professor at Harvard and Berkeley Universities.

    Ponnelle also had a thick skin, given his tendency to choose controversy over fidelity. I know him best in San Francisco for his decision to put the rape of Gilda in Rigoletto on the stage: It was concealed behind the curtains of a four-poster bed; but those curtains endured a lot of energetic kicking. This was also the production in which all the men in the first act festivities indulged in a chorus-line kick. Zambello will thus come to us as a "high risk" property; but the thing to remember is that, when those properties deliver, they do so in significantly enlightening ways. So, since this production of Porgy and Bess was favorably received in Los Angeles, it may well "deliver" when it gets here.

  • La Traviata (Giuseppe Verdi): This is likely to be the major "power cast" item for the season: Anna Netrebko, Charles Castronovo, and Dwayne Croft, all familiar to San Francisco opera fans. Runnicles will once again deploy his Verdi skills in the pit, meaning that the wild card of the production will be stage director Marta Domingo, who has decided to set the opera in the Jazz Age. This is a production of the Los Angeles Opera, now under the general direction of her husband Plácido. I have absolutely no idea what to expect. When Franco Zeffirelli decided to interpret this opera as a film (Teresa Stratas, Plácido Domingo, and Cornell MacNeil, with James Levine conducting the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra), he got everything right in terms of both a dramatic conception and the translation of that conception to cinema. On the other hand the last time I actually saw a Traviata at the Met, it got everything wrong, the worst part being a Nicolai Gedda too far past his prime who could only look silly. As a result I have come to believe that there is no middle ground for Traviata; so Domingo's production is likely to be another "high risk" property.

So there is the whole ball of wax. There is a lot of risk there; but in opera there is never any "sure thing." If risk is inevitable, then Gockley is certainly taking some interesting ones. If they are also good ones, then they will be good for his revenue-building strategy. For what it is worth, he will have my feeble voice rooting for him. My only serious question is: What happened to Walküre? Weren't we suppose to get the new Ring operas at a rate of one per season?

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