Sans la liberté de blâmer, il n’est point d’éloge flatteur.
(Without the freedom to criticize, there is no true praise.)
—Le Mariage de Figaro by Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais
For the sixth year in a row, I hereby present my annual Figaro awards for the best (and worst) operatic moments of the year. All operas seen at the San Francisco Opera in 2016, both in the summer (Jenůfa, Don Carlo, Carmen) and in the fall (Andrea Chénier, Dream of the Red Chamber, Don Pasquale, and Věc Makropulos) are eligible for these beauties. [Side note: I also saw Akhnaten at the L.A. Opera—which was glorious—but, since I have yet to write it up formally, I’ve decided to restrict these awards to the operas I saw in San Francisco.]
Production I would most readily see again: Jenůfa. This was a tough call. Don Carlo was almost my selection here, but ultimately the set design did not impress and the opera is just too darn long. Jenůfa really blew me away, particularly Karita Mattila’s performance, but also Jiří Bělohlávek in the orchestra pit, a role I admittedly don’t usually pay much attention to. The rock metaphor was a bit heavy-handed, but otherwise the spare sets fit the opera’s mood.
Best ensemble: Don Carlo. This was truly an ensemble piece, from Michael Fabiano in the title role to the strong baritone and bass roles played by Mariusz Kwiecień and René Pape respectively. I’ve never heard male duets as beautiful. The women were no slouches either, from the regal Ana María Martínez as Elisabetta to the feisty Nadia Krasteva as Princess Eboli.
Best ensemble (runner-up): Don Pasquale. Although the structure and plot of this opera are ridiculous, the casting made this the most enjoyable opera of the fall season. Maurizio Muraro was a lively Don Pasquale and both Lawrence Brownlee as Ernesto and Heidi Stober as Norina had impeccable comic timing. Rounding out the main players was Adler Fellow Edward Nelson who more than held his own as Dr. Malatesta.
Most improved warhorse: Carmen. While I always appreciate an opera in French, I can’t say I was thrilled about seeing Carmen on the schedule yet again. How wrong I was. Calixto Bieito’s take on this warhorse was distinctly refreshing and made me feel like I was seeing the opera for the first time.
Most disappointing production: Věc Makropulos. I considered not using this category for once because it was such a strong year; however, I can’t deny I had high hopes for this one that ultimately weren’t met. Everything was perfectly fine, but nothing stood out to me in this production after such a long string of hits.
Best set design: Tim Yip for Dream of the Red Chamber. These sets were glorious—detailed, dynamic, and absolutely in sync with the story being told.
Best set design (runner-up): Alfons Flores for Carmen. There were a few missteps in changing the set between Act I and Act II but otherwise I loved his choices, especially the Osborne bull.
Best costumes (tie): Jai Alltizer for Don Carlo and Tim Yip/Kristi Johnson for Dream of the Red Chamber. The costumes used in Don Carlo were pitch perfect, befitting the royal subjects and drama portrayed—velvety rich. The costumes for Dream were beautiful and the sheer volume (in both senses) was impressive.
Best lighting: Adam Silverman for Andrea Chénier. Lighting is not something I generally notice, but I did in the final act of this opera, where the lighting meant that the shadows of the prison bars were cast dramatically across the stage.
Outstanding performance (orchestral): Jiří Bělohlávek leading Jenůfa.
Outstanding performance (male lead): Mariusz Kwiecień as Rodrigo in Don Carlo. This was a tough call in a year with great singing, but Kwiecień’s duets with Michael Fabiano were angelic.
Outstanding performance (female lead): Karita Mattila as Kostelnička in Jenůfa. A stunning performance that made me kick myself yet again for not seeing Věc Makropulos the first time it came around.
Outstanding performance (couples skate): Irene Roberts as Carmen and Brian Jagde as Don José in Carmen. This couple really sizzled.
Outstanding debut performance (soprano): Malin Byström as Jenůfa in Jenůfa. While Karita Mattila was the star of the show, Byström superbly managed the delicate task of moving from a relatively innocent but passionate youthfulness to an emotional and world-weary angst.
Outstanding debut performance (mezzo) (tie): J’Nai Bridges as Bersi in Andrea Chénier and Hyona Kim as Lady Wang in Dream of the Red Chamber. Bridges impressed in a small role (and I was to enjoy her again as Nefertiti in Akhnaten) while Kim sunk her teeth into the juicy role of Lady Wang.
Outstanding debut performance (tenor): Lawrence Brownlee as Ernesto in Don Pasquale. How Brownlee maintained such an incredible tone through all the physical comedy required in this production I’ll never know.
Outstanding debut performance (baritone): George Gagnidze as Carlo Gérard in Andrea Chénier. Though basically the third wheel in this opera, Gagnidze outshone his colleagues on opening night, especially with his delivery of “Nemico della patria” in Act III.
Outstanding performance (Italian): Maurizio Muraro in Don Pasquale. Muraro had quite a bit of spoken text as Don Pasquale and it was refreshingly to hear it from a native Italian.
Outstanding aria: “La mamma morta” from Andrea Chénier, sung by Anna Pirozzi as Maddalena.
Adler Fellow of the year: Edward Nelson in Carmen and Don Pasquale. In Carmen, he elevated the role of Moralès, one I don’t typically notice. In Don Pasquale, where I was looking forward to Lucas Meachem, Nelson more than delivered.
Favorite program cover: Andrea Chénier. How could I not pick this one? Despite the fact that this Delacroix painting depicts the Trois Glorieuses (July Revolution) of 1830, this was a perfect choice for an opera about the French Revolution. Plus, it may prove to be remarkably prescient for our times.
The Charlie Brown award for most rocks: Jenůfa. While I loved this production, the rock metaphor was the most heavy-handed thing I’ve seen in a long time.
The Charlie Brown award for most rocks (runner-up): Dream of the Red Chamber. Seriously what was it with rocks this year?
The Big Sleep award for most nonsensical plot: Don Pasquale. Why does Dr. Malatesta set up Don Pasquale for a fall? Why does he decide to help Ernesto? When exactly did Norina and Malatesta hatch their scheme? And why is Ernesto not in on it? Why does Pasquale still agree to the wedding once he sees what they’ve done? Even by opera buffa standards, this is ridiculous.
The Big Sleep award for most nonsensical plot (runner-up): Věc Makropulos. Sure, the plot as explained in program notes basically makes sense, but it is not explained in the opera very well so consider yourself forewarned that this is not an opera you want to go into blind.
The Jacques Prévert award for best use of leaves: Dream of the Red Chamber. A lovely bit of stagecraft in Dream was women literally sweeping changing colored falling leaves across the stage to indicate the changing seasons.
The Claire Denis award for most appreciation of the male body: Carmen. Operas in general aren’t known for a tremendous amount of skin, but Calixto Bieito’s production put the male body on display at multiple points. In the opening, a man literally runs circles around the soldiers’ camp in his underwear and at the entr’acte a lone, naked toreador (discreetly shadowed) performs a ritual dance. [Shout-out to L.A Opera’s Akhnaten for being a bit more forthright, with full-frontal front and center.]
The L. Frank Baum award for best Cowardly Lion impersonation: Qiulin Zhang as Granny Jia in Dream of the Red Chamber. Once La Maratonista pointed this out to me at intermission, I just couldn’t control myself every time she sang in the second act.
The Duchess of Cambridge award for best coats: Jenůfa. I coveted the coat on the mayor’s wife, but Quinn also looked quite sharp in his fur-lined number.
Best crowd control: Carmen. Too often, the blocking of the chorus in operas is, well, blocky. Here it was very fluid and natural. Of particular note was the bullfight crowd in the final act where the blocking emphasized how the action between the two leads is simply a mirror of what is happening offstage in the bullring.
And so the clock runs down on another year and another round of Figaros. Given the strength of 2016, I certainly look forward to what the summer season will bring in 2017.
As always, a big shout-out to La Maratonista for being such a great opera companion.
Feel free to comment or argue for your favorite (and not-so-favorite) moments of the season below.