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Reviews and commentary on the West Coast opera scene, written and edited by David Gregson, San Diego Magazine's Opera Critic. June 25, 2004.

San Francisco's Fascinating Doktor Faust

Rarely Performed Opera in Stimulating "Concept" Production

The loft of Doktor Faust, famous conceptual artist. Photo by San Francisco Opera.

Perhaps the least well-known of the numerous "Faust" operas (and oratorios and symphonies), Busoni's Doktor Faust reached the Met only very recently, and San Francisco got around to it this June as part of its "Faust project," which, in fact, does not include Alfred Schnittke's three-act Historia von D. Johann Fausten, a work even more obscure than Busoni's. Doktor Faust, though blatantly patched together from any number of pre-existing pieces Busoni recycled into his opera, really must be seen to be enjoyed. On records -- that is to say on the distinguished CD set with the Orchestre de l'Opéra national de Lyon led by Kent Nagano -- it seems altogether disjointed, what with one interlude after another and a libretto that is pathetically trivial, especially to the reader who has been assured of Busoni's lofty artistic aspirations. The first hour or so includes special effects in such profusion, only Lucasfilms' Industrial Light and Magic could do justice to the staging.

Baritone Rodney Gilfrey as Faust. Photo by San Francisco Opera.

The SFO production, however, throws all the supernatural wonderment into the trash bin almost literally. The set, which hardly looks like a set at all, is the messy loft of a conceptual artist (Faust, superbly portrayed by baritone Rodney Gilfrey) -- and like most such studios, it is full of indications of a previous utilitarian function. This loft is full of church pews, a very curious feature for a chamber so devoid of a sense of sanctity. The devils Faust conjures up are mundane fiends -- pizza and UPS delivery men among others -- with the ultimate demon, Mephistopheles (tenor Chris Merritt in one of his most inspired characterizations to date) little more than a decrepit transient carrying a paper market bag. He later goes through some telling transformations, of course, but none that is achieved through means more miraculous than the combing of his hair or the donning of clerical garb. Helen of Troy appears to Faust only (not to us) in an opium dream. And the seduction of the Duchess of Parma (a role sung superbly by soprano Hope Briggs), is not achieved through supernatural agencies of any sort but through the glamour of Faust's dissipation, something the Duchess finds romantic and charismatic. She's just a groupie - and apparently never really beds Faust (as far as we can see), although she somehow has a dead baby that she carries around in a paper sack.

This Doktor Faust is a marvelous instance of a director's concept saving the opera from itself - making the whole experience interesting and meaningful for a contemporary audience. At least that is my personal feeling, Busoni's original concept being both elusive and literally incomplete. This production made no use of other composers' efforts to conclude the piece, and it just ends in an interesting state of ambiguity leaving the anti-hero where he comfortably belongs, eternally suspended between heaven and hell.

CAST: Doktor Faust -- Rodney Gilfry; Mephistopheles -- Chris Merritt; Duchess of Parma -- Hope Briggs*; Wagner -- Friedemann Röhlig; Duke of Parma -- Jay Hunter Morris; Girl's Brother -- Johannes Martin Kränzle; Master of Ceremonies -- Oren Gradus; Lieutenant / Tenor Solo -- Todd Geer; Student #1 from Cracow -- Dennis Petersen; Student #2 from Cracow -- Ricardo Herrera; Student #3 from Cracow -- Joshua Bloom* ; Student #1 from Wittenberg -- John Ames ; Student #2 from Wittenberg -- Thomas Glenn *; Student #3 from Wittenberg -- Lucas Meachem* ; Another Student from Wittenberg -- Chris Dickerson*; Gravis / Jurist -- Gregory Stapp; Levis -- William Pickersgill; Asmodus -- Jere Torkelsen; Belzebuth -- Daniel Harper; Magäros -- Richard Walker ; The Bashful One -- Michael Rogers.

PRODUCTION : Stage Direction -- Jossi Wieler / Sergio Morabito ; D ramaturg -- Jossi Wieler / Sergio Morabito ; Designer -- Anna Viebrock; Lighting Designer -- David Finn; Chorus Director -- Ian Robertson ; Sound Designer -- Roger Gans; Conductor -- Donald Runnicles

* San Francisco Opera debut Co-production with Staatsoper Stuttgart.

Review to follow.


Association Begins Search for Successor: Official Press Release

SAN FRANCISCO, CA. - The San Francisco Opera Association and General Director Pamela Rosenberg announced today that Ms. Rosenberg has elected not to renew her contract when it expires on July 31, 2006.

San Francisco Opera Association President Karl Mills said the Association would immediately commence an international search for Ms. Rosenberg's successor.

"I am proud of the artistry I have helped bring to the Opera House stage and am excited about what is ahead of us in the next two years," Ms. Rosenberg said. "I am equally proud that the San Francisco Opera is on the path to good health and, by 2006, will be financially stable."

Ms. Rosenberg explained she had struggled with the decision to leave the Opera. But after careful consideration she said, the decision reflects a desire to increase her focus on new works and productions. "My time in San Francisco has been extraordinary; truly a time in my career I will always remember," she said. "As I look to the next phase in my career, I want to find more time to do what I love most, which is bringing new works to the operatic stage." Ms. Rosenberg also cited the distance between her work in San Francisco and her children and grandchildren who live in Europe as another important reason for her decision, "Being this far from them has been more difficult than I anticipated," she explained.

In a letter to Franklin Pitch Johnson, Jr., Chairman of the Opera's Board of Directors, and Mr. Mills, Ms. Rosenberg expressed gratitude to the Company, the Opera's Music Director Donald Runnicles, the Board and the community for their support and generosity. "The generosity of this community in its love of opera and support for this Company is unequalled anywhere," she said, "I also wish to take this opportunity to thank Donald Runnicles for being a wonderful artistic partner to me in every way. Donald is one of the Company's most treasured assets." In her remarks to the Board, Ms. Rosenberg added that she is especially pleased that Runnicles has indicated his strong desire to be an active part of this Company's artistic leadership beyond 2006.

Since joining San Francisco Opera in August 2001, Ms. Rosenberg has added an impressive list of accomplishments to her credits including exciting American premieres, many vibrant productions, the introduction of new artists to the San Francisco audience and the upcoming presentation of Doctor Atomic (2006), a new opera by internationally recognized composer John Adams.

"Pamela has written an important new chapter in San Francisco Opera's artistic history, one that has brought the Company new levels of international acclaim and recognition," said Pitch Johnson, "Her sense of craftsmanship, love of creating new works and passion for every detail has given San Francisco opera lovers a total experience where every element of the art comes together. The Opera will continue to build upon her artistic leadership and also upon its rich tradition of presenting opera performances of the highest international quality to the widest possible audiences."

Association President Mills added, "We have been very fortunate to have Pamela as our leader. Under her stewardship, the Company successfully turned the corner in our five-year plan to achieve financial stability by 2006, while continuing to excite audiences with exceptional artistic vitality." Search for Replacement Begins

Mills said the Board would begin its search for Ms. Rosenberg's replacement immediately. "The Board is committed to continuing the legacy of artistic excellence that is at the core of San Francisco Opera's 82-year history by conducting a far-reaching search for a new General Director capable of carrying on the grand traditions and high standards of this Company and this community," Mills said.

Mills said that Opera Board member George Hume will serve as Chair of the Search Committee. He added that the Association has retained the search firm of Spencer Stuart to conduct the search. "The involvement of Donald Runnicles and other members of the Company, the community and leaders of the arts world will be important to the search process," he said. "We have a clear sense of strategic direction, but the first step will be to talk to a lot of people and do a lot of listening."

Opera press release. Reviews of summer season to follow shortly. (06/25/04)

The Cunning Little Vixen in San Francisco

Janácek Opera In Emotionally Compelling Production

Photo by San Francisco Opera.

Although I have been going to the opera most of my life, I never cease to be astonished by the size of some of the cast rosters - and this astonishment is never more acute than when the opera is something generally imagined to be a mere bagatelle, something short and distinctly non-Wagnerian in scope or pretension. I would count Janacek's 90-minute-long comic-strip fantasy The Cunning Little Vixen among such presumably modest efforts, but a quick glance at the program reveals at least 25 specially named singing characters plus a boys chorus. A closer look at the San Francisco Opera program (full of superb essays and distributed, as it were, for free) reveals a breathtaking depth of casting for this charming little beast fable: Dawn Upshaw, Thomas Allen, Anthony Laciura, Gregory Stapp, John Duykers, Judith Christin, Ann Panagulias - and so on. Good grief! No wonder the SFO is having some financial troubles -- and now, sadly, a change of general directors!

Upshaw and Peckova. Photo by San Francisco Opera.

This was my first encounter with a live staged presentation of a work I know well from recordings and videotapes - and I was surprised to find it so tremendously moving. The philosophical concept of the thing is hardly profound, and yet it is an undeniable fact that "life goes on," with all its beauty and awfulness, for better and for worse. Life must be savored and endured, and existentially speaking, all beings must be true to their nature. Myth and fairy tales embody this commonplace truth, but (not to discount great poetry and literature) it is only through the transforming power of music such as Janacek's that the mundane becomes powerfully moving.

Janacek's greatest operas feature women as victims of internal torment and external persecution, and The Cunning Little Vixen differs from the canon only in that the Vixen herself, though doomed, is so life-affirming. One of the many strengths of the SFO production is minimalizing the kiddie-show effect - i.e. really adorable animal costumes like that old Royal Ballet version of the Tales of Beatrix Potter - and opts for a witty minimalism in which a fox-fur stole is basically the costume - and the insects and other beasts of the forest are indicated by various man-made appliances including kitchen items such as wire whisks and strainers. Soprano Dawn Upshaw, she of the sweet and widely adored timbre (and of such enchanting delicacy, in fact, that it is always in danger of being swallowed up by the cavernous War Memorial House) is perfectly cast as the Vixen, and the great English baritone Thomas Allen is more than one could reasonably hope for as her putative tormentor, The Forester, although her literal nemesis is the poacher Harasta (Bojan Knezevic). I could spend paragraphs lavishing praise on the frog, cricket, badger, Dachshund, mosquito, screech-owl and numerous other forest and barnyard denizens, but such an exercise would be tedious to write and to read, so I will stop at the Vixen's mate, the Fox, beautifully realized by Czech mezzo-soprano Dagmar Peckova.

The production is a wonder! It has a solid three-dimensional look to it, and the large wooden elements ultimately combine to form a tunnel leading to an eternity of blue sky. Before this stunning finale, however, the several sections slide seamlessly back and forth to form the interiors of a pub and henhouse and the exterior of the forest.

This may be counted among one of the several most memorable productions from what will soon be remembered as the Rosenberg era.

CAST: The Vixen -- Dawn Upshaw; Fox -- Dagmar Peckova*; Forester -- Thomas Allen; Schoolmaster -- Anthony Laciura*; Badger -- Peter Strummer ; Haraata -- Bojan Knezevic; Parson -- Gregory Stapp ; Forester's Wife -- Judith Christin ; Lapák (Dachshund) / Woodpecker -- Catherine Cook; The Cock -- Ann Panagulias; Chocholka (Hen) / Jay -- Saundra DeAthos; Screech-Owl -- Katherine Rohrer; Pásek (Innkeeper) -- John Duykers; Mosquito -- John Sorensen*

PRODUCTION: Conductor -- Alexander Polianichko; Director -- Daniel Slater*; Designer -- Robert Innes Hopkins* ; Movement -- Aletta Collins* ; Lighting Designer -- Simon Mills*

* San Francisco Opera debut

Very recent 2004 reviews including The Marriage of Figaro and Il Trovatore at Los Angeles Opera and somewhat recent reviews including Pacific Opera's Candide, Golijov's Ainadamar at Disney Hall, San Diego Opera's The Pearl Fishers and Don Carlo, the Cecilia Bartoli Recital, and San Diego Opera's Turandot

Opera West continued

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