Anyone in search of anything more adventurous or challenging than People You’ve Heard Of, In Works You’ve Already Heard (or even those just searching for novelty) is out of luck. Gockley and the bulk of the San Francisco audience seem perfectly suited to each other. That’s not a compliment. Any potential audience members intrigued by works like Le Grand Macabre or St Francois are once again left to fend for themselves out there in the avant-garde wilds. Thank goodness for DVDs! What we're getting here are brand-name works presented in a more or less plush and traditional way. Nothing here is going to frighten the horses. Going to the opera in San Francisco now isn’t like going to the Museum of Modern Art; it’s like going to Bloomingdale’s.
By the way, I don’t really buy the claims that what San Francisco Opera is currently doing is “all about the voice”; everyone says that these days casting the big Verdi, Puccini, and Wagner works is difficult to impossible, whereas we’re living in a golden age for Handel and Rossini singing. So are we getting Radamisto or La Donna del Lago? We are not. We’re getting inadequate productions of the big Verdi, Puccini, and Wagner works, because a large segment of the audience isn’t interested in anything unfamiliar and no one is interested in convincing them that new stuff can be fun and engaging.Yes, Aida and Madama Butterfly are great works, and there’s no disgrace in presenting them, but for a veteran of the opera house there isn’t a lot of urgency in hearing them; that’s the thing about Top 40 programming – sooner or later, and probably sooner, you’re going to get another chance to hear that piece. Yet opera is a strange and addictive drug: a few months ago I looked up the performance dates of Aida for a friend, and suddenly was strangely excited at the thought of hearing the opera – Aida, of all things, an opera that has never interested me much outside of Leontyne Price’s involvement with it.
I ended up feeling I didn’t really need to pay those prices for another Aida, though Zajick was definitely a temptation. It turns out to be just as well, since I could have written the reviews without seeing it: the Zandra Rhodes designs were eye-catching but didn’t always work well, and the cast was vocally uneven. (I had seen Zandra Rhodes’s production of the Pearl Fishers and though I loved the colors I thought the setting was too cartoony.) Sung drama is the most basic form of drama, and an art form that has survived in varying forms for centuries deserves an audience that thinks of it as something more than candy-colored camp.
As for the rest of the season, I enjoyed Werther; and though Nozze di Figaro is one of my favorite operas, I loathe this production, which I’ve already seen in two different revivals (my mostly negative thoughts on that 2006 revival are here, and it was actually less vulgar than the first); I love Madama Butterfly, but feel I’ve seen it enough for a while. I did spring for a ticket to Cyrano, because I’ve always admired Domingo and the only other time I’ve heard him live was in Herodiade. And then there’s the Janacek; I assume we have Mattila’s star power to thank for bringing us one of this great composer’s fascinating works. I honestly don’t understand why he isn’t as popular as Puccini – to me he has that same kind of emotional directness and melodic richness. And Jenufa has one of the few happy endings I find convincing, even inspiring. So that’s the one can’t-miss for me this season.
Fortunately other local groups are taking up the operatic slack for those who maybe don’t want to pay hundreds of dollars for their hundredth Butterfly:
Cal Performances is presenting Lorin Maazel's Castleton Festival Opera in two Britten works, The Rape of Lucretia on March 24 and 25 and Albert Herring on March 26 and 27.
Ensemble Parallele is presenting Philip Glass’s Orphee, one of his Cocteau operas, on February 26 and 27, as a follow-up to their kick-ass Wozzeck.
Festival Opera hasn’t announced its 2011 productions as far as I know. For a while they were doing one warhorse and one more unusual work (like Rorem’s Our Town or Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream) but lately it’s been two warhorses. I hope they resume their more adventurous ways. But even if they don’t, they present solid productions in a nice smaller theater, at a much lower cost than San Francisco Opera.