Last night in Herbst Theatre, the 2016–17 season of the San Francisco Opera (SFO) “officially” began with the first SFO Insight Panel. These are preview events through which those interested can listen to what members of both the case and the creative team have to say about one of the operas being produced. They are free for SFO members, subscribers, and students with valid identification. The admission charge for anyone else is a nominal $5.
The topic for last night’s Insight Panel was the opening night production, Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier. Only one member of the cast participated, baritone George Gagnidze, who sings the role of Carlo Gérard, the servant who rises to become a leading figure in the French Revolution. The creative team was represented by SFO Music Director Nicola Luisotti, Stage Director David McVicar, and Costume Designer Jenny Tiramani. The discussion was chaired by Jon Finck, Director of Communications and Public Affairs.
Panel discussions, as a rule, tend to be dicey affairs. Bringing together the right mix of participants makes all the difference in whether the gathering produces the light of insight or the heat of contentious argument. Things started to heat up when Finck chose to lead his engagement with McVicar with a question about fidelity to the period in which the narrative was set. Seeking to provide an example of departing from such fidelity, he cited McVicar’s recent staging of Hector Berlioz’ Les Troyens from the SFO Summer 2015 season. McVicar gave a disdainful reply that any opera based on history must be true to the historical setting, while, because Les Troyens was based on myth, one could take greater liberties in how both places, characters, and actions were depicted. He did not try to hide his annoyance that the question should even have been raised; and that annoyance triggered a series of rants (including one directed at a question from the audience and another addressing the “idiots” in the community of critics writing about opera performances) that permeated the rest of the event.
Nothing is to be gained from further description of how the heat drove away the light. However, it is worth raising the fact that, whether or not McVicar’s premise about the distinction between opera and myth is a valid one, San Francisco recently witnessed him breaking his own rule. Finck would have had a sounder case had his example been McVicar’s staging for last season’s production of Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. That production explicitly discarded the “historical setting” of the Nuremberg of the elder Hans Sachs (the middle of the sixteenth century), choosing, instead, to set the opera in Nuremberg at the time Wagner’s opera was first performed, the middle of as his choreographer, much of whose work was disruptively anachronistic in either a sixteenth-century or a nineteenth-century setting.
To be fair, Meistersinger focuses on a major character in the history of German music, rather than historical events. One might almost say that Wagner’s libretto anticipates the Annales School of writing history (bearing in mind that Wagner's ghost may haunt me for the rest of my life as a result of my associating him with such a characteristically French institution). More important is the point that the opera is anything by mythic. Indeed, it is the only one of the major Wagner operas that is not mythic; and those who have taken the time to study the history of Germany in the sixteenth century will find Wagner’s libretto filled with details that resonate with what we know about day-to-day life at that time in that city. Let us hope that a bit more thought goes into France at the end of the eighteenth century than went into the “historical record” behind Die Meistersinger.