2014 in Review

It seems every year I mention that this particular year is one of the best for music I have had and this year was no exception.  It also marked a significant new departure for this website.  In February I listened to a favourite artist being interviewed on BBC Radio 3 and found it a highly frustrating experience.  Instead of asking pertinent questions about the production he was working on or his technical approach to the music, it seemed the presenter was more interested in imposing his own views on his guest.  I decided at that moment that I would like to devote space to giving artists the opportunity to discuss their work fully.  Since then, I have had the pleasure and privilege of interviewing a great range of artists, all of whom have something original and interesting to say.  There has also been a redesign and in this year alone, traffic to the site has increased by 306%.

Michele Angelini as Count Almaviva and Serena Malfi as Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia © ROH. Photo by Tristram Kenton

Michele Angelini as Count Almaviva and Serena Malfi as Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia © ROH. Photo by Tristram Kenton

2014 included 97 shows in 14 countries, with visits to 31 houses in 22 cities.  As every year, one of the biggest pleasures I have is getting to hear young singers at the start of their careers.  I very much enjoyed Jonathan McGovern’s recital at the Wigmore Hall where he revealed a healthy and bright baritone and a major talent.  I also enjoyed Mary Bevan and Samantha Price as Susanna and Cherubino at ENO and Iwona Socha’s Susanna in Kraków.  James Platt impressed with his resonant and wonderfully healthy bass in a Wigmore Hall Messiah.  The revival of Barbiere at the Royal Opera threatened to be a routine revival of a classic staging but instead showcased the captivating singing of Serena Malfi’s gloriously idiomatic Rosina and Michele Angelini’s Almaviva who gave us singing of effortless virtuosity and elegance that promises what could very well be a major career.  David Portillo in the Aix-en-Provence Ariodante also highlighted an instrument of great tonal beauty.  There was also Layla Claire’s Governess in The Turn of the Screw in Zürich who gave us a rounded soprano of natural loveliness, another singer I suspect we will be hearing a lot more of.

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Naturally there were disappointments.  Following a superb 2013 – 14 season, the Royal Opera seems to have fallen back on a diet of the tried and tested.  Their Dialogues des carmélites, much appreciated by many, left me sadly cold.  The main reason was not Robert Carsen’s stimulating production but the fact that the work was being performed in French by a mainly Anglophone cast.  It’s a piece where the words count and its impact for me was completely diminished as the quality of the sung French was for the most part incomprehensible.  For a similar reason I confess to being underwhelmed by ENO’s OtelloPerformed in an unmusical translation, the Verdian line was missing and it felt musically dissatisfying as a result.  There is certainly a case for opera in the vernacular, ENO’s Fanciulla worked extremely well and was as good a case for opera in translation as any.  And yet, in an age of surtitles, in a global city where almost 40% of the population was born overseas, I firmly believe ENO need to seriously look at their English-only policy.

Evelyn Herlitzius as Elektra (photo Pascal Victor /ArtcomArt)

Evelyn Herlitzius as Elektra (photo Pascal Victor /ArtcomArt)

This year marked first visits to a number of cities and theatres.  A non-musical trip to Alghero was a wonderful opportunity to enjoy great food and beautiful weather.  I was also lucky to visit the opera houses of Copenhagen, Chicago, Frankfurt, Zürich, Basel, Milan, Warsaw and Kraków all for the first time.  The Copenhagen theatre is absolutely stunning and the quality of the ensemble there was unmistakable in a musically gripping Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.  Warsaw and Milan had Elektra in common and I had the privilege of reacquainting myself with the great Ewa Podleś as Klytämnestra in Warsaw and Evelyn Herlitzius in the title role in Milan.  Podleś is a legend – her Klytämnestra was imposingly regal, sung with impeccable diction and theatre-filling low notes.  Herlitzius once again proved herself to be a remarkable Elektra with a voice of breathtaking amplitude and also real tenderness where necessary.  In Zürich I saw a stunning Turn of the Screw with Pavol Breslik proving himself a significant Britten tenor, sung in impeccable English and I very much hope he will one day give us his Grimes and Captain Vere.

Véronique Gens as Donna Elvira and Mariusz Kwiecien as Don Giovanni in Don Giovanni © ROH / Bill Cooper 2014

Véronique Gens as Donna Elvira and Mariusz Kwiecien as Don Giovanni in Don Giovanni © ROH / Bill Cooper 2014

Likewise, I similarly enjoyed being reacquainted with some very favourite artists.  In a Figaro in his hometown of Kraków, Mariusz Kwiecień was on thrilling form as Mozart’s Count Almaviva in a cast that also included a wonderful Figaro from the superb Krzysztof Szumański.  In Chicago Kwiecień was a suave and irresistibly sexy Don Giovanni and in Vienna an urbane and captivating Yevgeny Onegin.  The Vienna Onegin also introduced me to the fine Azeri soprano Dinara Alieva.  It also gave me an opportunity to hear Rolando Villazón for the first time since his well-publicized vocal crisis.  If the voice isn’t what it was, the musician is most certainly still there and he sang with great musicality and linguistic awareness.  I must admit I was one of the skeptics to Kasper Holten’s Royal Opera Don GiovanniWhile it was clear that a lot of work had gone into it, it was for me a show that put visuals before developing the characters and ultimately, I find opera really has much more of an impact when characters are sharply drawn and really interact with each other.

Die Soldaten at the Komische Oper: Marie (Susanne Elmark), Photo: Monika Rittershaus

Die Soldaten at the Komische Oper: Marie (Susanne Elmark),
Photo: Monika Rittershaus

Indeed, for me the finest stage director of today is Calixto Bieito.  What all of his shows have in common is a willingness to re-think the work from scratch – while always basing his reading on the text – and his outstanding Personenregie that makes every single character matter.  His Nürnberg Turandot completely exemplified this approach – a radical retelling of the story that confronted its sexism and misogyny head on and made it a story about love in a horrifically violent society.  His Komische Oper Soldaten was a nihilistically bleak vision of a society on the edge, anchored by a career-defining performance by Susanne Elmark as Marie.  His Otello in Basel was likewise a horrifying study into the corruption of power on individuals and how it desensitizes them to violence.  All three of these shows were among the most theatrically stimulating I saw this year and left me unable to speak at the end, such was their enormous impact.

Otello at Theater Basel: ©Hans Jörg Michel Kristian Benedikt, Simon Neal, Chor- und Extrachor des Theater Basel

Otello at Theater Basel: ©Hans Jörg Michel
Kristian Benedikt, Simon Neal, Chor- und Extrachor des Theater Basel

I was lucky to see a trio of Otellos and Turandots this year.  In addition to the ENO and Basel ones, I saw a musically first-rate one in Frankfurt where all of the principals were at the same exalted level – Elza van der Heever a gloriously full-voiced Desdemona, Dimitri Platanias a rock-solid and malicious Jago and Vincent Wolfsteiner an absolutely thrilling Otello.  Together with the fine Guatemalan tenor Mario Chang as Cassio this was an overwhelming experience.  In València I saw a musically impeccable Turandot, conducted with great weight by Zubin Mehta and showcasing a superb cast including Lise Lindstrom, Jessica Nuccio, Alexander Tsymbalyuk and Jorge de León.  It also drew attention to that house’s truly outstanding chorus who sang with the kind of amplitude and unanimity of tone that is rarely heard.  Indeed, that has been a consistent disappointment with the Royal Opera chorus – there is often a lack of blend to the sound of that group.  The Turandot there was distinguished by a superb account of the title role by Iréne Theorin and a heartfelt Liù from Ailyn Pérez.  In Traviata this year, Pérez confirmed her reputation as one of the most exciting talents of today’s lyric stage singing with a rare beauty of tone and musicality.  The Royal Opera showed us its finest form in a Frau ohne Schatten that was musically superlative while its Ballo in maschera may well go down as one of the worst shows I have ever seen there.  Fortunately, the Royal Opera redeemed itself with a superb revival of La Fille du régiment showcasing the wonderful Quebec tenor Frédéric Antoun with the vivacious Patrizia Ciofi and a vocally glorious Manon with Ailyn Pérez and Matthew Polenzani on splendid form.

Carmen Giannattasio as Elisabetta and Joyce DiDonato as Maria Stuarda in Maria Stuarda © Bill Cooper / ROH 2014

Carmen Giannattasio as Elisabetta and Joyce DiDonato as Maria Stuarda in Maria Stuarda © Bill Cooper / ROH 2014

This year also gave me the first opportunity to hear a resplendent Nina Stemme as the titular heroine in the Royal Opera’s Tristan und Isolde.  She was partnered by a tireless Stephen Gould and while I can’t say I’m a fan of his timbre I was impressed by how he lasted the course.  I was also particularly impressed by Iain Paterson’s rich-voiced Kurwenal.  I have happy memories of Joseph Calleja and Bryn Terfel in an enjoyable Faust which also introduced me to Sonya Yoncheva – a major, if as yet unfinished, talent.  The Royal Opera’s Maria Stuarda showcased Joyce DiDonato in the title role.  If the role seems a bit of a stretch for her, she impressed as always with her impeccable musicality and constant striving for excellence.  Sondra Radvanovsky was a fabulous Tosca even if she was hampered by Plácido Domingo’s pedestrian conducting.  I also got to hear Angela Gheorghiu who brought real vocal glamour to La bohème with Vittorio Grigolo a vocally impressive yet undisciplined Rodolfo.  That performance was marked by the superb Marcello of Massimo Cavalletti – a major talent and a baritone with a very exciting future.

Rebecca Evans as Countess Almaviva and Anna Bonitatibus as Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro, The Royal Opera © ROH / Mark Douet 2014

Rebecca Evans as Countess Almaviva and Anna Bonitatibus as Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro, The Royal Opera © ROH / Mark Douet 2014

Mozart was a constant as always for me.  The Royal Opera Idomeneo was given quite a hostile reception for its staging.  I found nothing offensive in it although I’m not convinced it worked.  Sadly, the singing could charitably be described as needing some work.  With the fine singer Franco Fagioli regrettably and severely mis-cast as Idamante and Matthew Polenzani missing the poetry and imaginativeness that characterized his Des Grieux, the best singing came from Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Arbace.  Both this Idomeneo and the Royal Opera’s Don Giovanni had Malin Byström in common, the owner of a fabulous-sounding instrument if not one she is full in control of.  The Don Giovanni benefitted from the presence of Véronique Gens as a gloriously musical Elvira and Alex Esposito as a nicely-sung Leporello.  Esposito was also present in a wonderful Royal Opera Figaro which also featured a fabulous Countess from Rebecca Evans and an engagingly vivacious Cherubino from Anna Bonitatibus, both of whom demonstrated the importance of ornamentation in this repertoire and the real and moving impact it can make.  Another Figaro in Munich was memorable for the same reason with a fabulous Countess from Véronique Gens and Luca Pisaroni’s fantastic Figaro.  The Chicago Don Giovanni was very well cast, particularly Ana María Martínez’ Elvira who found real poetry in the text.  Then there was Warlikowski’s Don Giovanni in Brussels.  Unlike any I’ve seen before, he reimagined the work as a parable of obsession and addiction.  It was completely gripping, occasionally wayward, and executed with extreme dedication by a superb cast including Barbara Hannigan, Rinat Shaham, Jean-Sébastien Bou, Willard White, Andreas Wolf and Jean-Luc Ballestra.  It is without doubt a major contribution to our understanding of the work and needs to be widely seen and discussed.  The other major Mozart of the year was La Clemenza di Tito with the magnificent Karina Gauvin singing her first Vitellia in Paris.  It was everything I dreamt it would be culminating in a devastatingly moving ‘non più di fiori’.  The evening was brilliantly conducted by Jérémie Rhorer and sung in a cast that included a marvellous Julie Boulianne.

La Clemenza di Tito at the  Théâtre des Champs-Elysées © Vincent Pontet

La Clemenza di Tito at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées © Vincent Pontet

I saw quite a few shows at the Bayerische Staatsoper this year including Warlikowski’s fascinating Yevgeny Onegin which was musically undistinguished except for the sensational Lensky of Edgaras Montvidas.  There was also a ravishing La Calisto in David Alden’s terrific staging, featuring Karina Gauvin, Anna Bonitatibus, Tim Mead and a Danielle de Niese on admirable form.  Then there was a devastatingly exquisite Rosenkavalier which featured Soile Isokoski’s unforgettably perfect Marschallin alongside Alice Coote’s Octavian and Peter Rose as Ochs.  There was also a Forza which featured the fabulous Anja Harteros and introduced Ludovic Tézier as a Verdi baritone of real distinction.  I haven’t always been convinced by Jonas Kaufmann but here he proved himself a superb singer.  There was another Forza in València which once again demonstrated Gregory Kunde as an exceptional Verdi tenor with staggering vocal health for a singer in his 60th year.  It also introduced me to another new talent in Simone Piazzola and again showcased Liudmyla Monastyrska as a highly striking if inconsistent artist.

Anja Harteros in La Forza del Destino in Munich © Wilfried Hösl

Anja Harteros in La Forza del Destino in Munich © Wilfried Hösl

I had the pleasure of attending a number of very stimulating recitals including Ann Hallenberg and Stéphane Degout at the Wigmore Hall and Javier Camarena’s sensational London debut.  Some terrific concerts included Kent Nagano’s Mahler 7 with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal which really managed to shape and make sense of this problematic work.  There was also a gripping Shostakovich 10 from Pablo Heras-Casado and the London Symphony Orchestra.  Another 10th was a fascinating Mahler 10 from Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal.  The Aurora Orchestra again proved why they are one of the most innovative bands around with their highly stimulating Road Trip concert at the start of the year.  Opera in concert included an Ariadne auf Naxos in Berlin with Susanne Elmark’s witty Zerbinetta and a glorious Composer from Daniela Sindram.  There was also a truly outstanding Pelléas et Mélisande with Stéphane Degout an exceptional Pelléas, Laurent Naouri a haunting Golaud and Sandrine Piau an enigmatic Mélisande.  René Jacobs brought his astounding Mozart to the Amsterdam Concertgebouw with a tremendous Entführung with Mari Eriksmoen’s marvellous Blonde.

The Deutsche Oper Berlin's Ariadne in concert Photo: © Bettina Stöß

The Deutsche Oper Berlin’s Ariadne in concert
Photo: © Bettina Stöß

Back in London English National Opera had a very strong year with their revival of Peter Grimes showcasing the company’s outstanding chorus, undoubtedly the finest opera chorus in London.  Their Benvenuto Cellini was a riot of colour and imagination with Michael Spyres tireless and vocally fearless in the title role.  Their commitment to new work was admirable with Julian Anderson’s intriguing Thebans performed at the very highest level and The Gospel According to the Other Mary allowed me to reacquaint myself with the superb Russell Thomas as a deeply-moving Lazarus.  Welsh National Opera’s Moses und Aron presented a company at the very peak of its form, its truly exceptional chorus making the challenging vocal writing seem like a walk in the park.  This year also marked the final instalment in Opera North’s Ring cycle, performed at a highly admirable level.  There were so many shows that I don’t even have the space to mention here but suffice it to say this was a very special year.

ENO Benvenuto Cellini (c) ENO Richard Hubert Smith

ENO’s Benvenuto Cellini (c) ENO Richard Hubert Smith

Despite the unforgettable performances I saw this year that were truly exceptional, there are two that perhaps stand out as being exceptionally special and completely unforgettable.  I never thought I would leave a forty-year-old production that has been revived countless times completely emotionally devastated and in sheer awe of the work of singers who just became their characters in every single way.  Yet this is what happened to me after a performance of La bohème at the Royal Opera.  This was one of those shows that was completely unforgettable and people who were there are still taking about six months later.  On that day Ermonela Jaho and Charles Castronovo simply became their characters through incredible acting, scrupulous attention to the text and superlative musicality.  The singing was simply glorious – everything was there and there was a real sense of a team of artists coming together to create something very special.  This was a truly exceptional experience and one that I am unlikely to ever forget.   It penetrated the heart of the work and the hearts of its audience in a way that was truly incomparable.

Ermonela Jaho as Mimì and Charles Castronovo as Rodolfo in La bohème © ROH / Catherine Ashmore

Ermonela Jaho as Mimì and Charles Castronovo as Rodolfo in La bohème © ROH / Catherine Ashmore

Finally there was the double bill of Iphigénie en Aulide et en Tauride in Vienna.  It exemplified everything that I love about opera.  A highly stimulating and intelligent production that was about real characters and real emotions, performed at the very highest musical and dramatic level.  Torsten Fischer’s masterful staging used a revolving stage to constantly highlight and illustrate the action yet never losing sight of how he directed his singers.  Stéphane Degout’s stupendous Oreste, Maxim Mironov’s staggeringly-good Achille, Michelle Breedt’s thrilling Clytemnestre, and Rainer Trost’s elegant Pylade were just a few highlights from an exceptionally well-matched cast.  Conducted with thrillingly vigorous immediacy by Leo Hussain the show was crowned by Véronique Gens who hit greatness that evening.  Everything I love about her singing was there – the long lines, richness of tone, clarity of diction and incredibly beautiful use of ornamentation.  It was absolutely thrilling, devastating, stimulating and moving, all at the same time.  Only one regret – that I only saw it once.

This was a remarkable year of music and I am very much looking forward to more thrills in 2015.  To all of you I wish you all the very best for the coming year and many memorable musical moments to come.  Bonne année.

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