Last year when San Francisco Opera's fall season ended I willingly ate some crow- while the season looked like a complete bore on paper, it wound up being one of the most enjoyable seasons the company had put on in years. This year the results were a mixed bag and since the star power was somewhat diminished compared to last year, this season didn't hold much promise beyond Mattila in Makropulos and the return of Domingo as Cyrano. That turned out to be the case as there were few surprises. I'm going to include last summer's "season" because it makes sense- the summer operas end about 10 weeks before the fall season starts and begin more than 6 months after the fall season closes so the whole 2009/2010 and 2010/2011 season designations are illogical and stupid. Besides, including the summer operas make the season look better than it really was. Below, in order, is my take on SFO in 2010, ranked in order, starting with the best. The links will take you to my original posts:
The Makropulos Case: Karita Mattila singing Janacek just may the best pairing of a singer and composer in today's opera world. Her previous turns as Jenufa and Katya Kabanova raised expectations pretty high for her debut as Emilia Marty and she exceeded them beyond measure. A stunning production all the way around, this was without doubt the best thing I saw on any local stage in the past year.
Die Walkure: I'm not a fan of Francesa Zambello's vision for Wagner's Ring Cycle, but if you closed your eyes, this was as good as it gets. The singers, led by an incendiary Nina Stemme as Brunnhilde, were simply fantastic and the orchestra under former Music Director Donald Runnicles never sounded better. Even though the staging was ridiculous and downright creepy at times, this was a musical triumph, worth hearing again when it returns this summer.
The Girl of the Golden West: Deborah Voigt came out West this past summer to practice Minnie before debuting it at the Met this month. That was lucky for us. Musical Director Nicola Luisotti, a champion of this lesser-known Puccini opera, delivered his best work in the pit so far in what was for me the season's biggest surprise.
Cyrano De Bergerac: The return of Placido Domingo to the War Memorial stage after a long absence was greeted with anticpation and sold out performances. Nobody was really looking forward to the opera itself, but Domingo didn't disappoint and with a very strong assist by Ainhoa Arteta as Roxanne, a beautiful production borrowed from Theatre du Chatelet, and good work from the orchestra under Patrick Fournillier, this didn't disappoint on any level, except that it wasn't Il Postino.
Werther: This production had three things going for it: guest conductor Emmanuel Villaume led the orchestra in one of the most luxuriant performances I've ever heard in the house; Ramon Vargas was hit and miss, but when he hit it, it went soaring; Heidi Stober, in the smaller role of Sophie, was fabulous. On the downside, after two lackluster performances, the interest Alice Coote generated here with her performance in Alcina years ago all but evaporated for me. The production itself was a puzzle, only succeeding at select moments.
Aida: I seem to be one of the few who thought this production to be fine for what it was- a traditional production of Verdi's warhorse designed to put butts in seats. Perhaps I enjoyed it because of low expectations, but on the whole I found it to be well-done. I only saw the first cast, and heard the second one was better. It wasn't anything more than a pleasant night at the opera, but when is that a bad thing?
Faust: This was so boring and unexciting I barely remember seeing it, much less what I didn't like about it. Not even a decent cast could save this one.
Madama Butterfly: This was one of the worst nights at the opera I've ever experienced, which may only be rivalled by the disastrous Otello of 2002. Seriously, it was awful. Even The Fly wasn't this bad.
Le Nozze di Figaro: While I somewhat regret missing the local debut of Danielle de Niese, this same production was here just four years ago. Why would I want to see it again? Because it's Mozart? That will work for some folks, but I'm not one of them. I took a pass on this one.
Final grade? C. One unqualified triumph. Two legendary performances from Mattila and Stemme. Three really good runner-ups. Compared to last year, not so great. From what I've read, next year doesn't look to be any better, but I've been wrong before. We'll see what's coming in January. Still, the Ring Cycle this summer promises to be a feast for the ears, if not the eyes, and I'm looking forward to it.