As is customary at the closing of the year, it’s time to look back at the musical experiences of 2015. This year, I attended far fewer operas in London than I previously have, for reasons I have discussed extensively elsewhere. Despite the fewer shows in London, this year consisted of 91 shows in 38 venues in 25 cities in 13 countries. I was delighted to visit the theatres of Leipzig, Seville, Lausanne, Bordeaux, Belfast, Hamburg and Liège for the first time. I was also pleased to visit the fascinating Casa da música in Porto and the beautiful Dortmund Konzerthaus, also for the first time. Back in London, I was sorry to hear of Kasper Holten’s departure from the Royal Opera. While I have been less than enthusiastic about the productions he’s done there, compared with some of his earlier work, I have enormously appreciated how he has transformed the way the Royal Opera communicates with its public and his openness and transparency in communicating with his audience. I very much hope that the great work that he has done as the public face of the institution is continued under his successor.
Once again, one of the biggest pleasures I have is hearing young singers at the start of their careers. Last year I heard Jonathan McGovern in recital and thought at that time he would make a fantastic Pelléas. And so it proved to be in English Touring Opera’s regrettably cut version where he poured out effortlessly easy tone. In Munich, Amber Wagner revealed herself as a major new talent as Ariadne: if the technique is slightly unfinished, the quality of the instrument is undisputable. Back in Montreal, Heidi Melton gave us an ecstatic Sieglinde in concert, while in London Eleazar Rodríguez made a tremendous London debut as Rossini’s Almaviva, revealing a natural comedian and fine lyric tenor. In Bordeaux, I was introduced to the excellent young Flemish tenor Reinoud van Mechelen as Dardanus who, with his unforced ease, will surely have a very bright future in this repertoire. In Belfast, the wonderful Anna Patalong gave us a Liù that would be at home in any major lyric theatre. I was also pleased to be reintroduced to the impeccably stylish and highly musical tenor of Michele Angelini as a superb Ottavio at the Royal Opera.
In part due to not attending as much opera in London as in previous years, I found myself attending more song recitals at the Wigmore Hall than I have done previously. I had the pleasure of hearing Bernarda Fink bringing some sabor argentino to Wigmore Street with a program of charming Argentine songs. The fabulous Saguenay contralto, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, lavished her artistry on a delectable French program. The young German baritone Dominik Köninger revealed why he’s already a fine lieder singer and Russell Thomas brought his rich and generous tenor to a mixed program, the highlight for me being a heady Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Outside of the two big houses, Opera Holland Park gave us another season where they highlighted some exciting new talents including Fflur Wyn and Robert Murray in Lakmé giving us some stylistically and linguistically impeccable French singing. There has also been some new work this year with the Royal Opera performing Haas’ Morgen und Abend, a piece that could probably be trimmed slightly but which was highly atmospheric and for once showed the Royal Opera orchestra on very good form. In Milan, I returned to the Scala for Battistelli’s CO2. Hampered by a banal libretto, it was extremely well sung with orchestral writing of great imaginativeness and fluency.
In January the Royal Opera decamped to the Camden Roundhouse for an Orfeo that brilliantly integrated community forces and was certainly musically satisfying. They also gave us a Zauberflöte notable for some fabulous singing from Pavol Breslik and Chrstiane Karg with Cornelius Meister’s zippy and invigorating conducting. London saw Damiano Michieletto’s work for the first time. If Guillaume Tell had far too many ideas, his Cavalleria Rusticana & Pagliacci was inspired dramatically if musically rough for the most part. Holten’s thoughtful new production of Król Roger was dominated by Mariusz Kwiecień’s commanding assumption of the title role while Gluck’s Orphée showcased the outstanding playing of the English Baroque Soloists and the glorious singing of the Monteverdi Choir. Indeed, by importing these specialist groups, it highlighted the issues with the Royal Opera’s resident forces. While the chorus is certainly enthusiastic and highly dedicated, there is a lack of blend to the sound and sketchy tuning that lets them down. Likewise, the orchestra has had far too many evenings this year of string intonation that is not at all suitable for those of a sensitive disposition. At English National Opera however, musical standards are higher than ever. The chorus is certainly on a par with other similar continental European theatres and the orchestra absolutely superb. The quality of the forces there was more than evident in a musically thrilling Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. In Forza, Calixto Bieito gave us a staging that was perhaps not his best work but a deeply-felt meditation on the horror of war. It was distinguished by a highly notable debut by Tamara Wilson and Rinat Shaham, for once a Preziosilla who sang all the notes, including the trills in ‘Rataplan’ that every other mezzo I can think of has left out. A shame then that, as so often, it was performed in an inane English translation. A revival of Bieito’s riveting Carmen was enhanced by the superb José of Eric Cutler, sung where necessary with beauty and sensitivity but also with real visceral force when it really mattered. Perhaps ENO’s finest hour came in a Meistersinger that showed real company spirit. If it didn’t resolve my doubts about the work – yes, I’ll readily admit to having them – and if the conducting felt somewhat pedestrian, the contribution of ensemble, chorus and orchestra demonstrated that ENO still has much to offer.
There was some Strauss as always this year. Karita Mattila was absolutely transcendental as Ariadne in London, accompanied by Jane Archibald’s scintillating Zerbinetta. In Munich, in addition to Amber Wagner’s voluptuously velvety Ariadne, we had Alice Coote’s glorious Komponist and Brenda Rae’s witty Zerbinetta who, like Archibald, made the role’s numerous challenges sound easy. In addition to the two Ariadnes there were two Elektras this year with a welcome return to the Opéra de Montréal after a very long absence. The Montreal performance was notable for Agnes Zweirko’s generously-sung Klytämnestra and Lise Lindstrom’s highly impressive ease in the title role. In Zürich I had my third encounter with the phenomenal Evelyn Herlitzius’ daughter of Agamemnon. Herlitzius quite simply owns the role in the way no other singer seems to – the absolutely enormous and overwhelming sound comes from the very core of her body, overtaking her and the listener, and in a space the size of the intimate Zürich theatre, gave this spectator the impression of surfing on a sea of all-encompassing sound. Herlitzius is a truly unique artist and if the vocalism is occasionally rough, it is never less than completely compelling. There was more Strauss with a very luxuriously-cast Rosenkavalier in Baden-Baden featuring Lawrence Brownlee as the Italian singer, a glorious Anja Harteros as the Marschallin and Magdalena Kožena as Octavian.
That Rosenkavalier was my third encounter with Harteros this year. I saw her as a thrilling Tosca at the Deutsche Oper. If the role seemed a little heavy for her, her total alchemy of words and music was something to treasure. We also had Marcelo Álvarez bring his trademark Latin warmth of sound together with a maliciously aristocratic and vocally impressive Scarpia from Ivan Inverardi. Harteros also gave us some very special moments as the Trovatore Leonora in Munich where she was accompanied by Anna Smirnova’s Azucena. With Smirnova we didn’t quite get the notes on the page but she was tremendous value nonetheless. Also in Munich, Krassimira Stoyanova gave us a total singing lesson in Aida. The voice might be compact for the role but her innate musicality, her total command of her instrument and beauty of her line left one full of admiration. She was paired with Jonas Kaufmann who gave us a Radamès that was unfortunately mannered and suffered intonation issues. Another singer who gave us a singing lesson with the excellence of her technique was Anna Bonitatibus, who as the Italiana in Algeri proved, singing while sick, that an outstanding technique is essential to great vocal health. That show also gave an interesting glimpse into Juan Diego Flórez’ development as an artist, seemingly experimenting with a different placement of the voice as Lindoro. In Lausanne Bonitatibus made her role debut as Tancredi and made time stand still with her perfectly modulated opening ‘o patria’ and the kind of extremely rare understanding of the union of music and text that cannot be taught. Accompanied by Jessica Pratt, a singer with an impressive top if an inconsistent technique, we also got to hear Shi Yijie a tenor with impeccable vocalism who will hopefully grow as an interpreter with time. There was more bel canto with a fabulous Don Pasquale at the Liceu with Mariusz Kwiecień again giving a total masterclass in Italianate style and Pretty Yende an irresistible Norina. In Liège we had a dramatically rigid but vocally more than decent Lucia, showcasing Annick Massis in the title role.
The Madrid Teatro Real is offering a terrific 2015/6 season and two visits to the capital of the Spanish state offered some marvellous vocal riches. Mariella Devia continues to defy the passage of time with a fearless Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux accompanied by Silvia Tro Santafé as a Sara of impeccable style and refulgence. Then there was Karina Gauvin as Alcina. This was a show that showcased an artist hitting her peak: a total understanding of the Handelian style, impeccable vocalism and dramatic truth – this may well be the best thing I have seen Gauvin do so far. Over in València, Plácido Domingo brought all of his long experience to Macbeth sounding more like Macduff but singing with compelte stylistic command even if one regrets that the voice is not what it was. That show was enhanced by that house’s outstanding chorus, one of the best I’ve heard, and the excellent, youthful house band. Further north, I was pleased to make my first visit to the island of Ireland to see Calixto Bieito’s production of Turandot in Belfast. Respectably sung, and often more than that, this was a triumph for the enterprising Northern Ireland Opera with extremely fine choral singing and orchestral playing. I remain as convinced by Bieito’s vision as much as I was last year; finally we have a production of the work that deals with its difficult issues head on.
Over in Flanders, Bieito re-imagined Tannhäuser as a parable of a post-capitalist society where nature triumphed over mankind. It highlighted the thrilling tenor of Andreas Schager who really is the real deal. The owner of an enormous voice, always even in emission, he is also a fine musician. He was joined by Ausrine Stundyte, who was a captivating Venus, dramatically vital and vocally exhilarating, and the Opera Vlaanderen forces, the quality of which is worthy of the biggest international houses. In addition to a concert performance of the first act of Walküre in Montreal, I also got to see the opening and closing instalments of Wagner’s Ring. The Rheingold in Leipzig was well sung and played but the Götterdämmerung in Munich really was something very special. It highlighted the truly outstanding playing of the ladies and gentlemen of the Munich orchestra who that night hit greatness under their chief, Kirill Petrenko. Petra Lang’s narrow and intonationally-challenged Brünnhilde was definitely an acquired taste but Lance Ryan certainly more than lasted the course as Siegfried and Markus Eiche was a rock-solid Gunther.
There was some French repertoire including a Damnation de Faust in Baden-Baden that was notable for Charles Castronovo’s impeccably-sung Faust which was impeccably stylish and sung in wonderfully clear French. He was joined by Simon Rattle leading the Berliner Philharmoniker on breathtakingly virtuosic form. In Paris, Véronique Gens once again proved her dominance in this repertoire as a glorious Alceste. While in Bordeaux, we were given a visually-ravishing Dardanus, exceptionally well sung and played with consummate stylishness. Bieito’s inspired production of Platée was extremely well served by the Stuttgart forces and centred around a complete assumption of the title role by Thomas Walker. I also got to hear Don Carlos en français for the first time. The diction at the Staatsoper in Hamburg was unfortunately incomprehensible for the most part but it was acceptably sung and particularly well played by the Hamburg forces.
Amazingly, having waited years to see Norma on stage, this year I got to see 3 all on the Iberian Peninsula within the course of a month. In Seville, we had Sonia Ganassi as a rich and lyrical Adalgisa and Sergio Escobar a very promising Pollione. In València the great Mariella Devia gave us a performance that encapsulated her artistry, while Varduhi Abrahamyan gave us a sensational Adalgisa, big and rich in sound. Russell Thomas was a wonderfully uninhibited and vocally glorious Pollione. Then there was one night at the Liceu where the audience seemed to be in the presence of something historic. Perhaps in the hangover of the next day one might not feel the same way but that night, it seemed that the very walls of that august theatre were home to something unforgettable. Sondra Radvanovsky gave a career-defining performance of the Priestess, singing with amplitude, a glorious line and profound stylistic understanding. As Pollione, Gregory Kunde gave us a lesson in true bel canto style with extremely musical ornamentation and highly impressive ease throughout the range. The production might have been static and dreary but there was magic on the stage that night.
Likewise, I got to see several Don Giovannis this year. The Munich production really didn’t have much to say but it was spectacularly sung with the masculine Ottavio of Charles Castronovo, Véronique Gens’ glorious Elvira and Alex Esposito’s fluent and vibrant Leporello. Esposito was also heard in the Royal Opera’s revival of Kasper Holten’s production. In Dortmund, Teodor Currentzis led a reading that felt pushed too hard and lacking in wit but was notable for Vito Priante’s sensational Leporello and Karina Gauvin’s first live Elvira offering tantalizing hints of greatness in her use of ornamentation and generosity of tone. There was also a trio of Bluebeard’s Castles. In concert in London we were reminded of Charles Dutoit’s mastery of orchestral colour and structure in concert, while in Berlin we were given a visceral and fascinating staging by Calixto Bieito, anchored by Ausrine Stundyte’s devastating Judit. In Paris, Krzysztof Warlikowski gave us a staging that was less of a theatre of the mind and more of a visible representation of the work that one might have expected. Coupled with a Voix humaine that was stunningly vocalized and incarnated by the incomparable Barbara Hannigan, it made for a fascinating evening in the theatre. I also got to see two complete Tritticos, one at Holland Park and the other in Copenhagen. The Copenhagen was the role debut of Elizabeth Llewellyn as Giorgetta and Angelica in a deeply moving production by Damiano Michieletto. Performed by an excellent ensemble cast it was a marvellous evening in the theatre, one in which we laughed, cried and felt everything in between.
This year there was comparatively little instrumental music though I did hear a phenomenally-played Shostakovich 10 by the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal and a magical Goldberg Variations by Angela Hewitt. In concert I heard a glorious Schöpfung from René Jacobs at the Concertgebouw Brugge. Everything that Jacobs did felt absolutely right and it genuinely felt that Haydn was right there in the room with us. He was joined by the sensationally responsive Collegium Vocale Gent and the outstanding B’Rock Orchestra. Johannes Weisser was superb in the bass part and Sophie Karthäuser’s delicious soprano was a pleasure to hear. This was music-making that genuinely lived and I spent the entire evening with an enormous smile on my face.
There were however a handful of shows that stand out as being hors concours this year and one of them was Jacobs’ conducting of Don Giovanni in Paris. This was life-affirming music-making of a very rare kind. Superbly-cast, it feels invidious to single out individuals, but Alex Penda’s Elvira, sung in endlessly long phrases and Im Sunhae’s Zerlina who made so much more of the character than we often get to see were both exceptional. Joined by Johannes Weisser’s stupendous account of the title role – he was seductive, youthful, petulant and gripping – this was an unforgettable afternoon. I must admit to having my doubts about Barrie Kosky’s work. I find that he is an extremely visual director – he creates great stage pictures – but I find him less effective at creating a cogent dramatic argument. This approach worked superbly in the Munich Fiery Angel, though I found it less successful in the Komische Moses und Aron. What distinguished the Schoenberg however was the singing of the Komische Oper’s choruses. They had had 100 music rehearsals before even starting to stage the work and it showed. They sang the most difficult score in the repertoire like it was the easiest thing in the world with singing of staggering precision even while executing complex stage movements.
Something really quite remarkable happened in Kraków in November when Mariusz Kwiecień returned to sing his signature role of Król Roger in his home town with a Polish cast. Performed in a staging by Michał Znaniecki that thoroughly encapsulated the ambiguity of the libretto, superbly sung by the cast and chorus and stunningly conducted by Łukasz Borowicz, this was opera that felt real and direct. Then, there was a Yevgeny Onegin in Munich that was extraordinary. Performed in a revelatory Warlikowski staging that reimagines the work as a meditation on the closet, it was thrillingly brought to life by Kwiecień and Pavol Breslik. The chemistry between the two leading gentlemen was real and unmistakable, the staging heart-breaking and at times unbearable to watch, as we saw Onegin’s chance of true happiness with Lensky destroy itself, and the regret that came with trying to make something of a life that no longer had meaning. This was music theatre at its best – vital, emotional and genuine.
Once again, this has been a spectacular year of opera-going and I’m very much looking forward to what 2016 will bring. When I started operatraveller.com I wanted provide something different and I’m pleased to report that the site is consolidating its readership with a further increase of 227% in hits compared with 2014. Thank you to all of you who read, who interact via the site and social media, to those theatres who welcome me so warmly and to those artists who give so generously of their time to be interviewed. All that remains is for me to wish you all the very best for the new year and hope that many more memorable cultural experiences come your way. Bonne année!