If 2012 was one of the best years for music, opera and concert-going that I have had then 2013 was not only even better but also provided so many wonderful memories that will linger for a very long time. I got to renew my acquaintance with so many wonderful artists, discover new talents, return to some of my favourite works but also get to hear works that I had previously only heard on record. It was, without doubt, a spectacularly good year.
In a way, this year represented three things – seeing exciting new talent, hearing outstanding existing talent in their absolute prime and watching favourite artists move on to the next stage of their careers. It started unpromisingly enough with a dreary Lucia at the Deutsche Oper but quickly improved with an exquisite Komische Oper Rosenkavalier and an outstanding Karlsruhe Troyens. In both I discovered some sensational new talent in the South African soprano Johanni van Oostrum, Polish mezzo Karolina Gumos, American soprano Heidi Melton and Mexican tenor Eleazar Rodríguez (who later in the year sang an impressive Tonio also in Karlsruhe). Other young singers who impressed this year included Sophie Bevan as WNO’s Vixen, Ana Quintans and Henk Neven in the Amsterdam Armide, Jennifer Johnston as Jocasta with the LSO, Maria Agresta in the Paris Puritani and Russell Thomas in Don Carlo at the Deutsche Oper. All are highly promising artists who are very much the real thing and I very much look forward to having the opportunity of hearing them again very soon.
Before concentrating on the wonderful, I should mention a few disappointments. One would most certainly be Verdi’s Vêpres siciliennes at the Royal Opera. While I did hear that it improved over the run, it was – when I saw it – disappointingly conducted, staged in a way that was inaccessible to large sections of the audience in seats on certain sides of the auditorium and the singing could be charitably described as a mixed bag. Robin Ticciati’s conducting of Yevgeny Onegin at the Royal Opera at the head of a band that was on quite unfortunate form was also a disappointment but that evening was redeemed by some thrilling singing by Krassimira Stoyanova, Simon Keenlyside and especially, Pavol Breslík. Indeed, Breslík gave an object lesson in how to sing a role that was a size too big without forcing and never compromising beauty of tone. Sadly Philippe Jordan’s conducting of Elektra in Paris failed to rise to the occasion despite his outstanding orchestra. Daniele Abbado’s staging of Nabucco also at the Royal Opera was also a major disappointment despite being sensationally conducted by Nicola Luisotti – probably the best Verdi conducting I have heard in London, if not anywhere in years – and some extremely fine singing from Liudmila Monastyrska.
Getting to travel and see new cities is always a highlight and this year I got to see Oslo and its magnificent opera house for the very first time. A far too brief visit to Aix-en-Provence inspired me to re-visit and I will certainly be keeping an eye on tickets for next year. I also enjoyed non-operatic trips to Lisbon and Copenhagen two cities I would definitely like to see again. Perhaps the most memorable opera trip that I did this year was to New York for Yevgeny Onegin at the Met. The show itself was mixed – laboured conducting and some troubled singing from some artists combined with outstanding singing from others. I very much enjoyed Mariusz Kwiecien’s Onegin and he was also part of one of the most musically satisfying evenings I had this year – the Don Carlo at the Royal Opera. His Posa had all that I love in his singing, the warm line, endless breath-control and beauty of tone. The big confrontation with Feruccio Furlanetto’s Filippo and his big scene with ‘per me giuntò’ were two of the most gripping things I have seen this year. He was joined by the exceptional soprano of Anja Harteros who proved why she is one of the leading Verdi sopranos of today – she was in short, sensational. Her pearly tone effortlessly filled the auditorium, phrasing was impeccable and the style was spot-on. Only Antonio Pappano’s episodic conducting disappointed. I was lucky enough to see la Harteros twice, later in Berlin with an excellent cast and with much more fluent conducting from Donald Runnicles.
I was also lucky to see Kwiecien at the Paris Opéra as Riccardo in Puritani where, singing while sick, he demonstrated exactly how having an outstanding technique is essential to ensuring a successful career. For me a singer who also combines an impeccable technique with great vocal beauty is Karina Gauvin. I have been a big fan of Karina’s for years and have seen her a number of times in recital, in concert and in concert performances of opera. Until this year, I had never seen her in a fully-staged production and this year she sang the title role in a visually ravishing production of Armide at the Nederlandse Opera. It is of great regret to me to know that it was not filmed because this was one of the most visually stunning stagings I have seen. Yet it was not just that, musically it was also at the very highest level. Karina sang as part of an outstanding cast and the show was conducted with distinction by Ivor Bolton.
This year I also got to see three productions by a stage director who I think is the best in the world – Calixto Bieito. I know that he has so many detractors but in his work I see a touch of genius, someone able to illuminate a piece in a way few other directors can. His Boris Godunov in Munich was superb and his Fidelio for ENO left me unable to speak with emotion. Sadly his Oslo Contes d’Hoffmann, despite some fine performances, seemed like a work in progress rather than the finished article. I still found it unbearably moving at the end and most certainly a work of genius, but it didn’t feel like it had been completely finalized in the way that his shows normally do.
There was a time, not so long ago, that people said that there were no ladies capable of singing Elektra around any more. Well this year, I got to see three and all of them were in their own ways wonderful. The late Patrice Chéreau’s staging in Aix didn’t quite convince me in the way that it did others but there was no doubt that it showed the mark of a great mind and it was meticulously rehearsed. It also benefitted from Adrianne Pieczonka’s glorious Chrysothemis. In a way it seems cruel to compare three exceptional exponents of such a difficult role but for me, Evelyn Herlitzius just blew me away. Simply incredible. The voice seemed absolutely massive, just super-human in size, but it was used with an intelligence that was remarkable. Iréne Theorin and Christine Goerke offered different yet complementary portrayals – both have fast vibratos but Theroin’s bright soprano contrasted with Goerke’s more mezzo-ish hues. Both were exceptional in their own ways but for me Herlitzius was hors concours – a force of nature with a voice that seems to come from some different dimension.
This year also allowed me to reacquaint myself with Juan Diego Flórez who seemed to struggle in Pêcheurs in Madrid but who excelled in Donna del Lago at the Royal Opera. That show was somewhat messily staged but gloriously sung by Daniela Barcellona, Michael Spyres and especially by Joyce Di Donato who sang the role like it had been written for her. La Donna del lago is one of those works that I hadn’t previously had the opportunity to see on stage and another for me this year was Lulu in WNO’s superb staging. It was one of those evenings where absolutely everything came together – the singing, orchestral playing and conducting – to produce an absolutely gripping experience. Both the Royal Opera and ENO responded by offering two complementary yet equally relevant productions of Wozzeck. The ENO offered the more interesting staging, the Royal Opera’s the stronger sung and conducted.
There was a lot of Verdi for me this year in his anniversary year. I was deeply impressed by Johan Reuter’s Nabucco at the Deutsche Oper offering singing that offered a masterclass in stylistic awareness and how to use one’s instrument to its best advantage. A València Otello benefitted from Gregory Kunde’s fully Italianate and vocally effortless assumption of the title role and that theatre’s glorious chorus. Then there were those two Don Carlos that renewed my love of that splendid work. The latter had the thrilling Eboli of Violeta Urmana and she also thrilled in the other anniversary boy, Wagner’s, Tristan that I saw at the Wiener Staatsoper. There she simply owned the role and was thrilling. While the voice might have lost the freshness it once had, she has grown enormously as an interpreter and she commanded the stage magnificently. She also offered singing of glorious tonal beauty. The Tristan was combined on the same trip with a Rinaldo that was also thrillingly sung – not least by Karina and Franco Fagioli – and also introduced me to a major new talent in Xavier Sabata
I didn’t attend that many orchestral concerts this year – this year I didn’t see the Berliner Philharmoniker at the Philharmonie as I usually do but I did see some quite spectacular ones, not least the opportunity to hear Antheil’s Ballet mécanique live performed by the Aurora Orchestra who also offered a terrific performance of a chamber version of Mahler 1 combined with a fantastic collaboration with a klezmer band in the same concert. The Aurora also gave me one of the best Beethoven 7s I have ever heard. From the opening chords, it provided an irresistible physical energy that had me hooked. There was also a superbly sung Oedipus Rex from the LSO and two Beethoven piano concertos beautifully played by Angela Hewitt and the Britten Sinfonia. Getting to see Alex Esposito in a solo recital at the Wigmore Hall was a real treat as was Véronique Gens’ concert of melodies with Temple Music. Gens was also present in an outstandingly-cast Dialogues des Carmélites in Paris. If the staging didn’t quite convince ultimately and left me somewhat cold, nobody could dispute that it was sensationally sung by singers who may well be the finest exponents of the roles today. I was really impressed by Sabine Devieilhe and Rosalind Plowright but especially so by Gens who sang with an ease and richness that were glorious.
In this year of outstanding doubles and triples, it is fitting to conclude with recalling experiencing two incredible performances of one of my very favourite works, in the same week. Le Nozze di Figaro is very possibly my desert island opera and I was so unbelievably lucky to hear two extraordinary performances a few days apart. The first was conducted by John Eliot Gardiner at the Royal Opera. It benefitted from the peerless Figaro of Luca Pisaroni and the delicious Susanna of Lucy Crowe. Gardiner elicited some of the best playing I have ever heard from the Royal Opera Orchestra – vibrato-free strings, swift tempi and pristine articulation combined to provide a wonderful evening. And yet a few days later, I got to hear a Figaro that was unforgettable. René Jacobs conducted a Freiburger Barockorchester at the very peak of its powers in a reading that had irrepressible physical energy, wit and beauty. It was well cast, in the ladies especially so, with a superb Susanna from Sophie Karthäuser, stunning Countess from Rosemary Joshua and a Cherubino from Annett Fritsch who sang his arias as if she had written them.
There are many more shows that I saw this year that I haven’t even had the space to begin discussing here. Not including them doesn’t mean that I didn’t appreciate them, it’s just there’s no way to include absolutely everything. Looking into 2014 I have a Forza in Munich with La Harteros and Kaufmann as well as a Calisto with Karina to look forward to. I also have a Ballo in Toronto with Pieczonka, an Onegin with Kwiecien in Vienna and a Munich Rosenkavalier with Isokoski and Coote to look forward to. Not to mention an incredibly-cast Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera with a cast including Kwieicen, Esposito, Gens, Elizabeth Watts and conducted by Luisiotti. If his Mozart is anywhere near as good as his Verdi, then this promises to be an amazing evening. 2013 had so many amazing moments, 2014 looks like it may have many more.
All that remains is for me to wish you the very best for 2014 and for many more wonderful operatic, musical and opera travelling experiences for all. Bonne année à tous!