Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

The Big Sleep

June 29, 2009

Charles Castronovo and Anna Netrebko
Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO 2009

Perhaps one of the worst seasons in recent memory is wrapping up for the San Francisco Opera right now. My last visit for the 08/09 schedule was on Sunday for one of the handful of performances from Anna Netrebko in La Traviata. It was small consolation though, after a year of fairly well cast, but mostly bland, uninteresting productions. Sadly, it appears that we’re in for only more of the same in coming years, in a house now aggressively devoted to bringing the biggest stars to San Francisco, no matter what the cost, in an effort to fill seats and inspire the most uninspired donors. Now I’ve got nothing against big opera stars, but when their recruitment becomes the specific expressed focus of development campaigns, I start to wonder where the “art” went, not to mention the sort of sad desperation of it all. No, I do not want to donate money just to bring famous singers in to San Francisco.

This cash-for–flash strategy (or perhaps cash-for-trash depending on your feelings about the specific star the house has on offer) appears in full bloom in this La Traviata. So here is what you get for those extra donation dollars. You get Netrebko as Violetta - and make no doubt about it, she is totally amazing. All you Netrebko haters can go on all you want about her weight and darker tone, she jumps head first into roles with abandon and is always fascinating to watch. She performs with attitude to spare and can sing better than most, which I guess is why she has the career she does. Of course, you only got to see her in San Francisco if you had tickets for one of her five performances in the series of nine shows this summer. And in addition to any ticket price and/or donation, you probably ended up paying for her in other ways. You got a rather crappy, unimaginative roaring 20s staging from Los Angeles Opera and Marta Domingo. It’s fine if you like the color orange, but it never really ignites. Plus there are only so many tiaras one gal can wear in an evening, isn't there. You got a lower-tier supporting cast that Netrebko often outran by a mile. Don’t get me wrong I love Dwayne Croft and Charles Castronovo as much as the next guy, but Castronovo in particular was too underpowered here vocally and otherwise. Still, the house did sell out all five shows Netrebko starred in. So was it worth it? Does this inspire you to donate more money so SFO can do more of the same? I’m certain that for some people it does, but I’m not so sure it’s the best approach overall. Time, of course, will tell.

This run of La Traviata is also maestro Donald Runnicles last appearance as music director with the company. He’ll be back for some of his specialties in the near future, including an upcoming Ring cycle, but this is the last of his in-house duties before the new guy, Nicola Luisotti, shows up. It wasn’t Runnicles strongest moment either in an overly controlled performance from the orchestra, lacking in any feeling of spontaneity. Everyone seems to be expecting a revolution of Italianate conducting with Luisotti’s arrival. Maybe so, but I hope they come up with productions that are a little more engaging than some of what we’ve seen this year. The current La Traviata continues with Elizabeth Futral and Allyn Perez through the rest of this week.


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