Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

SF Opera's 2017 season calls it a wrap


Austrian soprano Martina Serafin in the title role of Puccini's "Turandot" for San Francisco Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
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Autumn in San Francisco "spells the thrill of first-nighting," and the finish of the San Francisco Opera's 2017 season already has us yearning for summertime and the return of Francesca Zambello's "American" Ring Cycle to the War Memorial. Looking back at the varied, though occasionally predictable repertoire, arriving in jam-packed succession, our awe of the artistic and technical challenges faced by the Company is gratefully renewed. There were hits and misses, a world premiere, directorial missteps and some aging shows, but no egregious flops, and many memorable performances. Professional excellence maintained the international reputation of the house, and the venerable institution sturdily survived.

The boldly colorful David Hockney production of Puccini's "Turandot" gave the 95th season lift-off in a good revival that scarcely showed its age. At the conclusion, outgoing SFO Music Director Nicola Luisotti, who conducted, was awarded the San Francisco Opera Medal. Later in the run (all the way into December), SFO General Director Matthew Shilvock presented Hockney with his own medallion, the Company's highest honor.

Austrian soprano Martina Serafin assumed the title role admirably. She was replaced for the second half of the run by Swedish diva Nina Stemme. Tenor Brian Jagde, in his role debut as besotted Prince Calaf, starred in both casts. He again proved his winning combination of looks and talent. Adler Fellow Toni Marie Palmertree is also fast becoming a reliable casting solution with a big developing career of her own. Her portrayal of the slave girl Liu was haunting.

And talk about haunting: original production director Keith Warner and revival director Anja Kuhnhold (both making SFO debuts) almost burned the house down with a trio of magnificent female vocalists in their fascinating take on Richard Strauss' "Elektra." The co-production of SFO, Prague National Theatre, and Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe was remarkable for the acting challenges it offered the cast.

Break-out star turns, featuring Merola Opera Program alumna Michaela Martens as a boozy Clytemnestra, and Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka as Elektra's softer sister Chrysothemis, were anchored by Christine Goerke's breathtaking tour de force embodiment of the title role. It was a magnificent night of opera, and the undisputed jewel in the crown of the season.

Verdi's "La Traviata" could only pale in comparison. The well-worn but beautifully curated production by English Director John Copley looked refreshingly traditional, and Nicola Luisotti confidently conducted an international cast featuring three debuting artists. Soprano Aurelia Florian, tenor Atalla Ayan and baritone Artur Rucinski gave voice to their roles, but they could only respectfully enliven the curiously uninvolving entertainment.

Massenet's "Manon" was another opera featuring a fallen woman, but Vincent Boussard's emotionally charged direction gave a shot of adrenaline to the cautionary tale of a doomed party girl. His vision was often annoying in execution, but there was no denying his grasp of the deliciously lurid aspects of the plot. It was fun watching a good girl go bad, with pretty clothes to wear while singing so many gorgeous arias.

Making their highly anticipated role debuts, soprano Ellie Dehn and tenor du jour Michael Fabiano fulfilled expectations and often surpassed them. Fabiano even got to tear his cassock open before ravishing Manon in a chapel beneath a naked (flying!) torso of Christ on the cross. They removed that bit after the gasped amusement of the opening-night crowd threatened to become the talking point of the show. I thought it perfectly captured the hothouse romance-novel slant of Boussard's direction.

Bass-baritone Davone Tines and soprano Julia Bullock in John Adams' and Peter Sellars' "Girls of the Golden West." Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

The most discussed and studied world premiere of an American opera in years closed the season, engendering conversation and debate that is ongoing. John Adams' and Peter Sellars' latest collaboration, "Girls of the Golden West," was a bold attempt to re-read the history of the California Gold Rush, using speeches, poetry, songs and memoirs of the day as the basis for a sprawling libretto.

There were starkly divided critical reactions to Sellars' book and overwrought, sometimes confusing direction, but among everyone who made it through the night, there was consensus on his obviously good intentions. I was somewhere in the middle, and disappointed with the production as it stands now. There should be a future for Adams' massive and daring score. At 70, he continues to evolve, and his uncompromising refusal to dumb down offers hope for his latest opera as it travels the world.

The cast of "Girls" showed SFO's commitment to diversity and young talent. Soprano Julia Bullock (SFO debut) as Dame Shirley, bass-baritone Davone Tines as escaped slave Ned Peters; tenor Paul Appleby as psychotic miner Joe Cannon, Korean soprano Hye Jung Lee as Chinese prostitute Ah Sing, mezzo-soprano J'Nai Bridges as Mexican entertainer Josefa Segovia, and bass-baritone Ryan McKinny as the sometimes good, sometimes bad 49er Clarence made successful and thrilling commitment to their roles.

Following the November 21 premiere, Adams was presented with the SFO Medal by Matthew Shilvock. He has received many accolades over the years, but this was a truly heartfelt thank you from a Company that has benefitted from collaboration with a living legend.

Time to get your recordings and videos of Wagner's "Ring" out before the summer season begins, but you might want to go online for tickets first. The Cycle is sort of an "Opera-Con" for music-lovers.


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