Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Barber of San Francisco

November 27, 2006

House with Cast
Photos: Terrence McCarthy 2006
The last opera on my schedule for San Francisco this weekend and this year was the current revival of Il Barbiere di Siviglia with Nathan Gunn as Figaro and Allyson McHardy as Rosina. No, I did not see their current Carmen - even I have limits about how many times I can sit through some things. In fact, the only reason I paid to see Barbiere was because of my acknowledged infatuation with the more-than-opera-hot Mr. Gunn. He was great as always, though, oddly enough, SF Opera did not find some reason for him to take his shirt off this time around, an on-stage activity that seems to come up for him again and again in recent years in his many Billy Budd’s and even last year’s An American Tragedy at the Met. Actually, I was glad I stuck around. I had not yet seen this particular production and the amazing revolving house set is truly worth seeing, in and of itself. The finale where the house continually spins and the performers move to reposition themselves in various windows and doorways is truly inspired and though I know this production bored many who had seen it before, it was new to me.

But more than this, the production got me thinking about what a poor year it has been for this company artistically and what the future may hold. Of course I realize this assessment is unfair given that this is a "transitional" year between two general directors that also included the non-renewal of one of the company’s strongest assets, Donald Runnicles. Still, this particular slate of operas between the fall season and last June’s mini-season was uninspired at best. When the best staging comes from a several-years-old LA production of Tristan and a now third time remounted Barbiere, things are not good. I sure hope the company put a lot of money in the bank, because they have little else to show for this year. Even the few notable stars they were able to book, like Deborah Voigt and Karita Matilla were burdened with sad, overwrought historical productions. There were highlights, though, like Christine Brewer and Dolora Zajick who did show some signs of life.

Perhaps what bothers me most, as I have alluded to in previous posts, is what I feel is a smug and puzzling stance by the new general manager David Gockley. He has certainly made the cosmetic changes he could with a season he was largely left with, including moving the supertitles and doing a summertime free outdoor broadcast of Butterfly. Some of these moves have been shrewd but others like making the programs look somewhat like the front of medical journals, are not.
He has promised that his announcement of the new season in a few weeks will be exciting and will give everyone a more specific idea of what he has in mind. I hope it will be exciting, but I have this deep seated feeling of misgiving inside. I feel Gockley has been working too hard to mollify the worst elements of the company's audience - namely those alienated by Pamela Rosenberg's tenure and her interest in producing challenging and forward-thinking work. Rather than push forward to something new and interesting, his conciliatory tone with the audience's most conservative elements suggests that future season's may not hold much more of interest than the current one. Of course this doesn't really gel with the history of his tenure in Houston where he was responsible for bringing more new operas to the stage than just about anyone around. Which raises the question: are all these promises of more "traditional" productions and avoiding mistakes of SF Opera's past a front? Maybe this PR is exactly that, trying to shore up a disillusioned audience faction before springing into something unexpected and refreshing.

Time will tell whether or not the occasional trip to San Francisco for opera will still be worthwhile.

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