Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

The City of Big Shoulders

June 22, 2008

Susan Graham as Ariodante
Photo : Terrence McCarthy 2008

When David Gockley took over the reins of the San Francisco Opera two years back he made quick efforts to shore up audience support that had been fractured during the tenure of his predecessor Pamela Rosenberg. One of the steps he took was to promise some of the lower-brow elements of the audience that they would not have to suffer any more “Eurotrash” (his word not mine) productions. Whether or not these people found solace in his pledge to protect them from anachronism is unknown to me. However, after seeing the horrid production of Ariodante currently on stage at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, designed and directed by the very British John Copley, it appears that Gockley may have wanted to be a little more specific about which Europeans he wanted to keep out and which ones he didn’t. Even without anachronism, there are plenty of bad opera productions regardless of the designer's nationality. Or in the words of a famous world leader, "mission accomplished." Trashy or not, Copley’s staging of Handel’s work is likely the worst single production of any opera I’ve seen in years. It is lifeless, ugly, and devoid of insight. Puffy shoulder costumes abound in this homage to what an 18th century version of this opera may have looked like. Think of it as the operatic equivalent of a Nagel print – stylized in a way that may have seemed artistic twenty years ago, but now seems sad.

In a striking parallel to the company’s current production of Lucia di Lammermoor, despite this awful staging, no expense has been spared in obtaining a first rate cast with big names including, Susan Graham, Ruth Ann Swenson, Richard Croft, and Eric Owens. The singing is glorious and if one shuts their eyes, this might be construed as a superior evening. Graham is her usual magnificent self and no evening spent hearing her sing is ever wasted. Ruth Ann Swenson shines despite overly-mannered acting, and Richard Croft and Eric Owens were admirable in their smaller roles. Sonia Prina, who played Polinesso, and Veronica Cangemi as Dalinda blended well with a top flight cast and sang with great precision and clarity.

Unfortunately, though, despite the wishes of some, opera is still, in fact, theater, and music is not always enough to make it work. Patrick Summers was on hand to lead the orchestra and elected tempi that ranged from a little slow to glacial, dragging out an opera with significant cuts to 3 and a half hours anyway. The performance was all heartbreak and no vengeance. So, much like Lucia, I’d say that Ariodante has several imperative vocal artists worth seeing, but don’t expect miracles and don’t expect this evening to be on anyone’s list of memorable evenings at the opera.

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