Thursday, January 18, 2018

Thoughts on SFO’s 2018–19 Season Repertory

Yesterday afternoon San Francisco Opera (SFO) General Director Matthew Shilvock announced plans for the 2017–18 repertory season. This year the announcement was streamed live over the Internet. However, as a result of my Medallion status, I chose to “pull rank” and wait until an evening event, which included not only a generous account of the season itself but also musical previews sung by the current crop of Adler Fellows, accompanied at the piano by John Elam (also an Adler Fellow).

What is most important is that all eight of the productions in the 2017–18 season will be new to the stage of the War Memorial Opera House. Even the most familiar of the operas will be given new stagings. In addition, for those of us who are as interested in the orchestra pit as the stage, six conductors will be making their respective debuts with SFO. Also important was that Shilvock chose to present the new season by organizing seven of the eight operas under two unifying themes.

The larger category was that of fairy tales. The operas in this category were Arabella (Richard Strauss), It’s a Wonderful Life (Jake Heggie, being given its West Coast premiere), Orlando (George Frideric Handel), and Rusalka (Antonín Dvořák). Of these the only one whose classification I would question would be Arabella.

Angels and Mortals in Jake Heggie’s It’s a Wonderful Life (photography by Lynn Lane, courtesy of SFO)

Fairy tales tend to entail at least some level of intervention with powers beyond those of ordinary mortals. Arabella, on the other hand, is set in the Vienna of the 1860s and involves a man of lesser nobility with a major debt problem. Indeed, he cannot afford dowries for his two daughters and has disguised the younger one as a boy. Admittedly, the arrival of a wealthy Croatian friend, who is very much out of touch with Viennese refinement, is basically a deus ex machina; and the opera will end with daughter Arabella marrying him with the promise that they will both live happily ever after.

Nevertheless, this is a story of ordinary mortals having ordinary problems and dealing with them through ordinary means. I would even submit that Strauss is at his best in getting such characters to express themselves through the music they sing. Each of the other three operas, on the other hand, ventures into the supernatural in one way or another; although the critical plot element in Rusalka concerns all-too-human behavior.

Shilvock described the other category as dealing with raw emotion. This covered three productions encompassing four operas. The first of these is the opening night “double bill” offering of the traditional coupling of Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana" and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci.” The other two operas are Tosca (Giacomo Puccini) and Carmen (Georges Bizet). Most opera lovers are familiar with all of these offerings and will appreciate that this categorization speaks for itself.

That leaves one “unclassified” opera, Gaetano Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux. This is a typical bel canto instance of historical English characters enduring intense tribulations while singing in Italian. Nevertheless, it took the SFO production of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma, which opened the 2014–15 season, to each me how to sit back and enjoy the pretty voices without letting a clunky plot get in the way of my pleasure!

It would be unfair to offer any comments (opinionated or otherwise) on any of these productions before any of them have shown up on their respective drawing boards. I will, however, observe that the summer of 2019 will be the first time Rusalka has seen the War Memorial Opera House since 1995. For over two decades I have only been able to satisfy my delight in this opera with video recordings, so I am definitely glad that its return has finally been planned. It is also worth noting that the production team for It’s a Wonderful Life will be pretty much the same one that mounted Moby Dick, which also involved Heggie working with a libretto by Gene Scheer. This production will bring one of the few faces to the orchestra bit that will be familiar, conductor Patrick Summers.

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