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
After falling off the bandwagon last year, I am once again presenting my annual Figaro awards for the best (and worst) operatic moments of the year. All operas seen at the San Francisco Opera in 2018, both the four operas of the Ring Cycle in the summer (Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung) and the five operas I attended in the fall (Cavalleria rusticana, Pagliacci, Roberto Devereux, Arabella, and Tosca) are eligible for these beauties.
Production I would most readily see again: Roberto Devereux. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this opera as in the past I have been underwhelmed by the San Francisco Opera’s bel canto productions, however, they really came through on this one. Sonya Radvanovsky led a great ensemble cast and, while the bare-bones theater set didn’t always work for me, I thought the prologue was a creative solution to provide a basic understanding of the plot (I’m looking at you, Mary Queen of Scots).
Best ensemble: The Ring Cycle. While I didn’t necessarily agree with all the production choices made by Francesca Zambello for this version, the singing across the board was so incredible that it made me forget I was listening to a fifteen-hour opera in German. I suppose it might be considered cheating to consider these four operas as one ensemble but I don’t care. Besides, I already listed Roberto Devereux above.
Most disappointing production: Tosca. This “new” production had a lot to live up to considering the previous one was my favorite opera of the 2012 fall season. Unfortunately, despite a great performance by Carmen Giannattasio as Tosca, I am at a loss as to why San Francisco Opera felt the need to stage this warhorse again so soon after replaying it in the 2014 season, especially when the overall set design didn’t seem very different from the previous one.
Best production/set design: Benoît Dugardyn for Roberto Devereux. Not everything Dugardyn created for Devereux worked for me, but I admire the chances he took and the creativity he displayed with this vision.
Best costumes: Tobias Hoheisel for Arabella. While I thought there could have been a bit more color overall, the costumes underscored the understated elegance of this production.
Outstanding performance (orchestral): Donald Runnicles leading The Ring Cycle. I almost always like when Runnicles conducts (see also Les Troyens), but he was masterful with his pacing of this behemoth.
Outstanding performance (male lead): Marco Berti as Canio in Pagliacci. Berti won over all my doubts with his delivery of “Vesta la giubba” when it counted. Plus his acting was first rate throughout—despite his heavy makeup and mask, I really felt his anger.
Outstanding performance (female lead): Sondra Radvanovsky as Elisabeth in Roberto Devereux. Both singing and acting came together for this incredible performance.
Outstanding aria (male): Russell Thomas’s “Come uno spirito angelico” in Roberto Devereux. Although somewhat overshadowed by Radvanovsky, Thomas delivered the goods from behind the bars of the Tower of London.
Outstanding aria (female): Carmen Giannattasio’s “Vissi d’arte” in Tosca. As mentioned above, I was rather disappointed by this production as a whole, but Giannattasio was not the reason.
Outstanding performance in a supporting role (male): Štefan Margita as Loge in Das Rheingold. A small role but beautifully sung; Margita made me sit up and take notice.
Outstanding performance in a supporting role (female): Jamie Barton as Fricka in Die Walkure. I liked Barton in Roberto Devereux, but her work in The Ring Cycle could have easily been overshadowed and it wasn’t.
Outstanding performance (female playing a woman playing a man): Heidi Stober as Zdenka/Zdenko in Arabella. I always love Stober and she was a highlight in this otherwise fairly uninteresting opera.
Outstanding performance (pinch hitter): Iréne Theorin as Brünnhilde in The Ring Cycle. A lot of the weight of The Ring Cycle is on Brünnhilde’s shoulders and Theorin (last seen as the icy Turandot in Turandot and who was announced as the replacement for Evelyn Herlitzius just a month before performances started) carried the role off with ease and had fantastic chemistry with her costar Daniel Brenna to boot.
Outstanding performance (couples skate): Lianna Haroutounian as Nedda and David Pershall as Silvio in Pagliacci. These crazy kids sang the sweetest love duet of the season.
Outstanding performance (Adler Fellow): Amitai Pati as Lord Cecil in Roberto Devereux. I didn’t seem to notice the Adler Fellows as much as in years past, but Pati stood out in this small role.
Favorite program cover: Tosca. Though I was somewhat tempted by the portrait of Elizabeth I on the cover of Roberto Devereux, ultimately I went with the photograph of the statue of the Archangel Michael on the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, which plays such a critical role in the finale of Tosca.
Reservoir Dogs award for best entrance: the parachuting Valkyrie in Die Walküre
Big Sleep award for most nonsensical plot (tie): Siegfried and Götterdämmerung
Bart Simpson award for creepiest clown: Canio in Pagliacci
Plato award for best shadow puppets: Tosca
Jon Bon Jovi “blaze of glory” award (tie): Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung
Gigli award for worst chemistry: Ellie Dehn as Arabella and Brian Mulligan as Mandryka in Arabella. I’ve enjoyed both leads in the past, and they sang well here, but unfortunately the couple remained fairly stiff throughout their performance and ultimately just weren’t very convincing as the lovers in this semi-comic opera.
Best imitation of Mike Tyson: Turridu in Cavalleria rusticana
Best imitation of Jenny Gump: Nedda in Pagliacci
Best use of a whip: Hye Jung Lee as The Fiakermilli in Arabella
Most lacking in Argentine tango: the Intermezzo of Cavalleria rusticana
Most lacking in actual dragons: Siegfried
Most lacking in actual bears (tie): Arabella and Siegfried
The WeRateDogs™ “Who’s a good dog?” award (tie): Finn and Fubar in Die Walküre
Outstanding performance (bird): Stacey Tappan in Siegfried
Finally, a shout out to the tweeps who know far more than me about all things opera and make all of these performances that much more interesting, whether in person or online: @Aspasia_1, @ilana_wb, @JamesJetsOften, @operatattler, @phibetakitten, @revgirrl.
And so the clock runs down on another year and another round of Figaros. I look forward to attending Orlando and Rusalka during the summer season and seeing what the 2019-2020 season will bring.
Feel free to comment or argue for your favorite (and not-so-favorite) moments of the season below.
*Note: All photos in this post except the Tosca cover were taken by Cory Weaver for San Francisco Opera.