Sunday, June 21, 2009

San Francisco Opera's 2009 Summer Season

A few of my cultural blogging compatriots have written of their deep disappointment with new General Director David Gockley's conservative programming, using this summer's three operas consisting of "Tosca," "La Traviata" and "Porgy & Bess," as Exhibit A. Though the trio easily fall into the category "Done to Death," I don't have as many objections, partly because the three summer operas performed in June have always been a bit of an anomaly and a marketing nightmare.

The San Francisco Opera season traditionally extended from the first Friday after Labor Day until sometime in November or December with anywhere from five to ten operas performed in repertory during that stretch. Starting in the early 1980s, when a complete Wagner Ring cycle was produced, an additional set of operas in June were offered as part of a year-long season which didn't make much emotional or calendar sense. Three months of intensive operatic production followed by a six-month layoff has always made the trio of summer operas feel like a strange afterthought. "Oh, and here, have some more opera even though you're probably thinking more about where to go on a summer holiday."

There have been attempts at creating thematic festivals with an all-Mozart summer or "Seductive Sirens" or what have you, but they always seemed a bit half-assed. Attendance has always been problematic in the summer, and though for instance I adored Janacek's "The Cunning Little Vixen" a few years ago, it's also true that you could shoot a cannon from balcony standing room at every performance and not worry about hitting many people.

Gockley inherited a deficit and an opera house that was dispirited by Pamela Rosenberg's management style, and an audience that was declining in numbers and enthusiasm, not to mention the fiscal disaster that's currently engulfing the world. So I don't blame him for trying to build new audiences with tuneful, beginner friendly operas, particularly during the summer when the city is filled with foreign tourists. However, since I'm not an opera beginner and fall closer to the sophisticated, jaded end of the scale, my solution is to simply avoid those warhorses seen one time too many.

Puccini's "Tosca" is a good newcomer's opera, short and melodramatic, with heapings of sex, violence, politics and pretty tunes. I saw it in the late 1970s with Montsarrat Caballe and Luciano Pavarotti, and though they were both enormous and dramatically ridiculous, I knew while hearing it that there was no good reason to ever go see "Tosca" again because it was probably never going to be sung better. When asked to be a supernumerary in this summer's production, shooting the tenor as part of a firing squad in the third act, I figured it would be less dull to be in the opera than watching it, but I was wrong. It's an adequate, very traditional, well-sung production and that's about it. The Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka has a beautiful voice which I look forward to hearing in other roles, but this is definitely The Last "Tosca."

I felt the same way about "La Traviata," Verdi's version of the Camille story, but was invited to a dress rehearsal and was curious to hear what Anna Netrebko sounds like these days. I hadn't seen her live since her debut in San Francisco over ten years ago as Lyudmila in Glinka's "Ruslan and Lyudmila." At least during the dress rehearsal, Netrebko gave a great performance. Her voice was exquisite, she looked beautiful, was believable in the part, and projected Superstar Diva energy which was genuinely fun. She also sold out the house for all her performances.

It's too bad that she was in a ridiculous production conceived and directed by Marta Domingo, Placido's wife. She has directed a couple of versions of "La Traviata" and this is her second, updated to the Jazz Age 1920s, which she originally created for Renee Fleming for a DVD. Fleming nixed the production, probably because the 1920s flapper fashions make any woman with a figure unlike Audrey Hepburn look fat, including Ms. Netrebko whose beauty is more in the Ava Gardner vein.

The suprise success of the summer was Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" in a production directed by Francesca Zambello that has already played in D.C., Chicago and Los Angeles. Most of the excellent principal singers had performed in these earlier productions and they gave brilliant, polished performances. Debuting in the title roles were Eric Owens and Laquita Mitchell. I've heard Owens sing in everything from John Adams to Handel, and Porgy may be my favorite performance from him. Mitchell was a totally believable Bad Girl who sets the codependent romance in motion.

I saw the touring Houston production that Gockley initiated in the 1970s and also performed as a racist white sheriff super in a threadbare version of that same production in 1995. While enjoying all the famous tunes,
I wasn't convinced or all that impressed by the opera, but this current production has changed my mind. "Porgy and Bess" was finally looking and sounding more like "Peter Grimes" and "Boris Godunov" where the main character is really the entire village (in "Grimes") or the entire country (in "Boris").

For some reason, the seven performances sold out before it even opened, and standing room turned into a free-for-all which hasn't happened at the War Memorial Opera House in some time. I stood in the top balcony when the company was featuring Operavision, two large screens that come down from the ceiling with video closeups of the stage. It was a perfect place to watch the production, because you could see Catfish Row from a birdseye view as a single, surging mass of people, while watching individual closeups on the screens to the left and right. The chorus and the supernumeraries gave one of the best ensemble performances I've ever seen on that stage, and their energy was the real key to the success of this production.


Nancy Ewart said...

I'm not that much of an opera lover any more but your reviews make me want to go. Your writing just gets better and better and now that I'm an (unpaid) jackal of the press, I'm even more impressed.

Civic Center said...

Dear Nancy: Thanks for the compliment. It's appreciated.