A look back at San Francisco Opera's 2008-09 season

San Francisco Opera has just concluded its season so now is a good time to take a look back and review the last year, which brought the end of Donald Runnicle's seventeen year tenure as Music Director and was the first season bearing the full stamp of General Director David Gockley's vision. I didn't see every production, though I have no regrets on my final score of seeing 7 of the 11 performed by the company. The reviews and opinions I read and heard justified my initial hunch that there were a few things this year that weren't worth the time nor the money. Having said that, there were four excellent productions, and given the overall success of La Traviata (based on the performances of Netrebko and Perez) which I didn't see, and some people's positive response to The Bonesetter's Daughter (again, I passed), the season had a failure rate of 50%. Or if you're a glass half-full type, there was plenty to like up on the stage of the War Memorial.

The season began with Runnicles conducting Simon Boccanegra- one of Verdi's finest and most under-appreciated operas and a personal favorite of mine. In my opinion Boccanegra ranks with Otello, Don Carlo, Ballo and Rigoletto as being among the composer's finest works. The cast was excellent across the board, featuring Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the title role, Barbara Frittoli alternated with Ana Maria Martinez as Amelia and Vitalij Kowaljow and Marcus Haddock gave solid performances. In hindsight, Kowaljow had an impressive year on the West Coast, going on to triumph as Wotan in L.A. Opera's magnificent productions of Das Rheingold and Die Walkure.

The production was the same one seen last time around, with some silliness removed, but it was the singing and the orchestra under Runnicles' superb conducting which made this one very special. For me it was one of Runnicles' finest moments, delivered with a superlative cast. Hvorostovsky is incredible in this role. A+.

The Bonesetter's Daughter- besides blatant pandering to San Francisco's large Asian population, was there another reason to commission and stage this? Methinks not. Pass.

Die Tote Stadt:

Without a doubt, this was the highlight of the season. Runnicles once again taking the orchestra to a new level in this rarely performed Korngold masterpiece. Another strong cast, and while some had issues with the strength of Torstern Kerl's Paul, Emily Magee shone bright as Marie/Marietta and Lucas Meacham and Ji Young Yang left great impressions in their supporting roles. Add to this a provocative production and you had a mesmerizing, unforgettable experience. Too bad we aren't destined to see more productions like this in the future. This is the kind of opera I live for. Absolutely fantastic across the board. A+, and then some.
Idomeneo: A Mozart opera whose popularity I really don't comprehend at all. The only reason I attended this was because of the amazing quality Runnicles and the orchestra brought to Boccanegra and Die Tote Stadt. Alas, it was still the same boring, ridiculous story and production I saw ten years earlier. If this was my first opera I would never, ever have gone back. Alice Coote's long-awaited return was for naught, Kurt Streit bored me to tears and the whole thing was a three and a half hour bore. How the Opera Tattler, whom I respect and admire, had the stamina to endure every performance of this is beyond my comprehension. Then again, that's opera, folks. Fail.
Boris Godunov: After thinking it couldn't get worse then Idomeneo, I was really looking forward to seeing Samuel Ramey in this role. Besides, I like Russian opera. So what the hell was this piece of crap? I left halfway through the dress rehearsal, traded in my regular tickets for Elixir, which originally I had no intention of seeing, and am happy to say I have never made a better decision on exchanging a ticket in my life. This was junk. Sad. Failure on a massive scale. Worst of the season- worst I've ever seen and heard, bar none.
The Elixir of Love: This was really the surprise delight of the bunch. After having seen Ramon Vargas' debut here in '99 I became a huge fan and eagerly awaited his eventual return. That enthusiasm waned once I saw hin as the Duke in Rigoletto at the Met a few years later- he came off as pompous and seemed to be sashaying through the part in a way that wasn't pleasant to watch nor hear, nor had anything to do with the role. He was coasting on his laurels since he was now a regular lead at the Met. But here was the Vargas I saw in '99- and he was fantastic.
Inva Mula, in her SF debut, was terrific, as was Ji Young Yang in a production that brought out all the sparkle of Donizetti's score. It looks like we are in for a lot more of this sort of thing in the Gockley/Luisotti era and if they can keep it at this level of quality I may have to eat some crow. It was terrific light opera and I loved every moment of it. Kudos to conductor Bruno Campanella- bring this guy back anytime. Solid A.
La Boheme: Count me among the opinionated who think if you don't like Boheme you really don't like opera and may as well give up and go back to whatever it was you were listening to before. La Boheme is one of the five best operas ever written- period. Too bad it's used as a cash-cow at most houses and once one has seen it a few times it becomes tedious to endure productions that lack imagination and the passion the work deserves. Often, as was the case here, a star or two in the cast is deemed an acceptable reason to stage this beyond the obvious box-office allure.
Angela Gheorghui was this year's Mimi and it was supposed to be a big deal. Having been unimpressed with her turn in La Rondine in the previous season, I was eager to see if she could deliver this time around. Count me unimpressed with one of the most regarded sopranos of the moment. She simply didn't impress at all, and Piotr Beczala, who has impressed in the past, was not impressive either. In other words, the whole thing was... unimpressive. Add to this the sad fact that SFO has been using the same old production for the last fifteen or so years, and this was a Boheme that didn't thrill and didn't bring a single tear to the house. How can this be, when it has three of the best arias ever written showing up back-to-back in the score? Apathy, my friends, and this is what I fear we are in for much more of under Gockley's reign of the safe, sure and proven. Luisotti, our own house Italian Stallion, was completely unimpressive in this outing that supposedly should have showcased his strengths. Oh dear, it looks like we are really going to miss Runnicles if this was an example of what the future holds in store for SFO. Grade it a D, with only Puccini's incredible score keeping it from failing completely, and that just sucks for opera lovers.

Tosca: give me a reason to have seen this stale Monsouri-era production which has been presented here at least five times in the past twelve years and I may have gone. I love Tosca, but I hate being milked. The SFO debut of Adrianne Pieczonka wasn't enough of a draw for me. PASS.
Porgy and Bess: This was the triumph of Gockley's tenure thus far. Too bad he didn't have the smarts to add extra shows to the sold-out run, which was one of the hottest tickets in town. People were genuinely excited about this and it generated a buzz about SFO I haven't seen in a long time. It was excellent on every level and complete success for all involved. Eric Owens had a star-making turn as Porgy, Laquita Mitchell was a terrific Bess and it featured one the finest choruses I've ever seen and heard. See my post here for details. A solid A. Why not a plus? Because the Gershwins opera ain't perfect- but it was perfectly done.
La Traviata: For the shows with Netrebko in them, these were the hottest tickets in town. So much so that when someone offered me more than triple what I paid for my orchestra seats, I took the offer- and skipped the standing room alternative. My compatriot bloggers seemed of unanimous opinion that Netrebko was fantastic, the supporting cast somewhat lacking, the B-cast worth seeing, and the Marta Domingo jazz-era production kind of lame. Not the sort of thing to erase the memories of the perfect production on view the last time around with Ruth Ann Swenson, Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Rolando Villazon, but good enough for Gockely's vision. I passed with no regrets and a significant profit.
So what about next year? The programming is the safest and most conservative I've ever seen in this house. It has little to be enthusiastic about for the seasoned fan, but will probably be a delight for newcomers to the house. Of course there will be great surprises and sad disappointments- but that's inherent to the art, wouldn't you agree?
My prediction is this:
The season's highlights will be Salome and Die Walkure. Abduction and Otello will be the disappointments for the devoted, and Il Trittico will be what everyone talks about. The sleeper will be Fanciulla and no one will remember Faust three days later- kind of like a Michael Bay movie- which is what SFO is looking increasingly like in its current state. Oh snap!
Trovatore is the dark horse- it has a great cast in an opera that never seems to work well on stage. Advance word on the production is that this one figures it out. We'll see- my fingers will be crossed.