Interior of the War Memorial Opera House. Photo by David Wakely

San Francisco Opera's General Director David Gockley has done the improbable and created an upcoming season I'm actually excited about for the first time during his tenure. Eight operas are scheduled for 2012-13 (I'm not including the world premiere co-production with Cal Performances of The Secret Garden since that's being staged at Zellerbach), and though the season largely follows Gockley's established pattern of presenting a stable of recently staged warhorses, he's also included two premieres of contemporary, English-language operas, with another on the way the following year (based on Stephen King's Dolores Claibourne). That's a bold move in the current climate and the riskiest thing he's done in San Francisco so far. After the two premieres, the appeal of 2012-13 is in the well-cast standard rep not seen locally for a long time. It's the best schedule SFO has announced since Rosenberg's era and hopefully it works as well onstage as it looks on paper.

Rigoletto brings back Michael Yeargan's well-worn production ('06, '01, and '97) for 12 performances. The title role is shared by Zeljko Lucic and Marco Vratogna. His daughter Gilda will be performed by Aleksandra Kurzak and Albina Shagimuratova.  Lucic was good the last time the company staged Verdi's La Forza, but the presence of David Lomeli in the role of the Duke of Mantua makes my choice the cast led by Vratogna. On the other hand, Kurzak recently won great accolades in LA Opera's Cosi, so one probably can't go wrong with either cast. It's a dark and claustrophobic production which I've enjoyed the previous times I've seen it. My one question for director Harry Silverstein is will there be breasts this time- or  is the San Francisco audience too provincial? Luisotti conducts one of Verdi's very best.

Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi (The Capulets and the Montagues) has only been seen on the War Memorial stage once before in 1991. Conductor Riccardo Frizza (last year's Lucrezia) returns  to lead an excellent cast featuring Joyce DiDinato, Eric Owens, Saimir Pirgu (another singer well-reviewed in LA's Cosi) and Nicole Cabell, who seems poised for the next level. The presence of DiDonato and Owens are reason enough to attend, even if a Bel Canto version of Romeo and Juliet isn't necessarily your thing.

Jake Heggie's Moby-Dick makes its local debut after receiving a tremendous reception at its world premiere in Dallas. Ben Heppner and Jay Hunter Morris (Siegfried) share the role of the obsessed Captain Ahab. While Heppner's the more more established singer, the quickly-rising Morris is the one to see. Depending on the state of Heppner's voice, Morris may well end up performing more than the two performances for which he's scheduled. Patrick Summers conducts.

Puccini's Tosca was last staged here in 2009 and its the same Thierry Bosquet set and costumes seen previously for what seems like the last 100 years, but is in fact only the fifth time since 1997. Should still seem fresh, right? Twelve performances with two casts and a battle of the divas between Patricia Racette and Angela Gheorghiu in the title role. Racette's the local favorite, but Gheorghiu's appearances are rarer and she strikes me as the more interesting of the two in the role, which neither have sung in San Francisco before. So personally I'd go with Angela, assuming she actually shows up, but if you've never seen Tosca go with Racette- the supporting cast of Brian Jadge and Mark Delevan certainly trumps Massimo Giordano and Roberto Frontali. Luisotti conducts all performances.

Wagner's Lohengrin hasn't seen the War Memorial stage since 1996 and it returns with what may end up being the strongest cast of the season. The marvelous tenor Brandon Jovanovich sings the title role for the first time. The presence of Kristinn Sigmundsson, Petra Lang, and Brian Mulligan in the tale of the lustful knight all bode well, and though Camilla Nylund is an unknown in these parts, she'd have to muck it up pretty badly to keep this from being first-rate all the way around. The production is new to San Francisco and the only iffy thing about it is whether or not Luisotti can conduct Wagner. He did very well with Strauss two years back, so that's a good omen of what will come from the pit.

The allure that Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann) holds for many has thus far eluded me, but I've never seen it performed before. This should be an excellent introduction- Natalie Dessay plays the four loves of Matthew Polenzani's title character, with Alice Coote and Christian Van Horn along for the telling. Conductor Patrick Fournillier ably led Cyrano recently and Laurent Pelly's productions are usually a delight (La Fille du Regiment).

Cosi Fan Tutte is the one opera of Mozart's I absolutely love, so who cares if this is the same production from way back in 2005. It was great then and with a young, vibrant cast featuring Ellie Dehn, Heidi Stober, Susannah Biller and Phillipe Sly, it should be quite fun. Luisotti hasn't convinced me yet that he has any facility with Mozart, but if there's one opera where he can prove himself, it's Cosi.

The world premiere of composer Mark Adamo's The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is bound to be somewhat controversial- or at least it should be if it's done well. Mary has a strong cast featuring Sasha Cooke finally appearing on the other side of Grove Street in the title role, barihunk Nathan Gunn as Jesus, and William Burden, whose singing was the only thing I found worthwhile in last year's Heart of a Soldier, as Peter. Everything else is new, including conductor Michael Christie, making his SFO debut. Everything except the story, that is.

Ranking them in order of personal anticipation, top to bottom:
The Gospel According to Mary Magdalene
I Capuleti e i Montecchi
Les Contes d'Hoffmann
Cosi fan tutte