2012 has been an exceptional year for concert and opera-going. I don’t write up reviews for everything I see simply because time doesn’t always allow me to and so some of the performances I mention here I won’t necessarily have written about. That doesn’t mean I didn’t think them worthy of writing about, simply that real life just comes in the way. I write partly because I enjoy it, partly also to be able to put into words the feelings that I have on seeing various shows. One other thing I’ve noticed is that sometimes, I write something up in the heat of the moment only to reflect upon it and realize it was even greater that I originally thought.
The year didn’t start off too auspiciously with a dreary Forza at the Wiener Staatsoper. This benefitted from the presence of La Urmana who gave a complete performance as Leonora but on the whole, it failed to capture the sheer drama inherent in the score. This and the Figaro I saw in June led me– despite some terrific performances in individual roles – to conclude that the Wiener Staatsoper is perhaps the world’s most overrated house. The other two disappointments of the year also happened to be things a lot of people enjoyed but left me relatively cold. The biggest disappointment was les Troyens at the Royal Opera House – a simplistic, obvious production that failed to bring out the multifaceted glories of Berlioz’ magnum opus. The singing was extremely variable and the show as a whole was not cast as well as it could have been. The other disappointment was Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s performance of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis at the Barbican Centre with the Concertgebouworkest and the Groot Omroepkoor. Despite some wonderful orchestral playing and some terrific choral singing, Harnoncourt managed to make this most superhuman of works, dull and ordinary. Some felt the performance had a ‘devotional’ quality, yet to this atheist, I felt that it failed to bring out the struggle and the pain inherent in this music.
So enough of the negatives, what about the positives.
This year I got to enjoy some superb performances from lady singers. Rebecca Evans’ Figaro Countess for Welsh National Opera is the most beautiful rendition of that character’s music I have ever heard. She sang the most perfectly beautiful ‘dove sono’ I have ever heard, the ornamentation perfectly done, the oaky tone filled out wonderfully. It was, quite simply, perfection. That production, along with a Beethoven 9 in Edinburgh, also introduced me to the irresistible soprano of Elizabeth Watts. She is a captivating stage presence, sings wonderfully and I look forward to hearing her in more next year. Another singer new to me and one to watch is Sophie Bevan. I very much enjoyed her terrific rendition of the soprano arias in a Messiah with the Classical Opera Company at Wigmore Hall. Everything was there, creamy tone, crystal-clear diction, agility and splendid ornamentation. I’m equally looking forward to her Vixen, also with WNO, in early 2013. A further revelation was Jennifer Larmore’s Lady Macbeth in Geneva. This was a stunning interpretation of this fiendishly difficult music, the corners turned as only a Rossini singer can. Finally, there was one singer I got to hear for the first time this year who really left a mark on me. She was Sondra Radvanovsky who really is the real thing. I saw her in a museum production of Aida at the Liceu. Amplitude, a distinctive tone and sheer artistry – she really does have it all. I would travel a long way to hear her again. 2012 also meant that I also caught up with some of my other favourite singers – Karina Gauvin in a wonderful recital with Angela Hewitt at Wigmore Hall, Joyce DiDonato, again at the Wigmore Hall, closing her recital with a thrilling ‘non piu mesta’ and La Urmana as Santuzza and Lady Macbeth.
After the disappointment of the Royal Opera’s Troyens, it was good to recall David Hermann’s production of the work at the Badisches Staatstheater, Karlsruhe. This was one of the finest productions of this glorious work I have ever seen. It really managed to bring the work to life, using the whole theatre to bring the audience into the heart of the action. I am really looking forward to seeing it again in January, this time with a singer new to me of whom I have heard many wonderful things – Heidi Melton.
This year also gave me some truly, unforgettable moments that will stay with me for a very long time. Hearing Schoenberg’s Gurrelider, in the hall where it was premiered in a superb performance led by Zubin Mehta, was incredible. It was capped by a thrilling performance of Tove by La Urmana but also by the most glorious choral singing I have ever heard in that work. The building resonated wonderfully to the piece and the singing of the combined Wiener Singverein, Kammerchor and Staatsopernchor was just breathtaking. Another example of superlative choral singing was that of the Cape Town Opera Chorus, prepared by Albert Horne, in Porgy & Bess with the Berliner Philharmoniker. I don’t think I have ever heard an opera chorus like it and I’m not sure I will again. Blend and discipline were certainly present but what really struck me were the amplitude and the glorious golden tone they produced. That performance also benefitted from Simon Rattle’s complete mastery of the score, Willard White’s peerless Porgy, thrilling playing from the orchestra and Latonia Moore’s wonderful Bess.
The Berliner Philharmoniker also gave me what was probably the finest orchestral performance of the year. They played the most extreme Rite of Spring I have ever heard. Rattle pushed them harder and harder to produce playing of the most mind-blowing power, accuracy and virtuosity.
Two performances by male singers round up my top experiences of 2012. The first was Vincent Wolfsteiner as Max in Freischütz directed by Calixto Bieito at the Komische Oper. This reinforced my opinion of Bieito as probably the finest opera director of today. Wolfsteiner’s was an incredibly brave performance of a man who had gone to the edge of madness and not returned. But it was more than that: vocally Wolfsteiner had it all – strong oaky tone, a great sense of line and clear diction.
Ultimately though, this year gave me one of the greatest experiences I have had in twenty years of opera going. Mariusz Kwiecien’s performance of King Roger in Bilbao is one of the most incredible portrayals on the operatic stage today. He fully inhabited the character bringing him from uptight leader to sexually confused soul to depressed drunk in the space of ninety minutes. Naturally, much has to do with Szymanowski’s score which is also a revelation but despite the superb and imaginative staging and strong individual performances, this was Kwiecien’s night in a role which he has made his own. The sight of him, alone on stage at the end, the music visibly possessing him, was something I will never forget.
So, 2012 has been one of the best years for music I have ever had. Initial plans for next year include Lucia at the Deutsche Oper, Rosenkavalier at the Komische Oper, Troyens in Karlsruhe, a Mozart Requiem with Tafelmusik in Toronto, a Tchaikovsky concert with my hometown band the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal and Calixto Bieito’s Boris in Munich.