As with every year, it’s time to look back at the operatic and musical memories that the year has brought. This year I was lucky to travel for opera even further than ever before – almost 95 000 kms (2.35 times around the world), from Warsaw to Chicago, Oslo to València. I visited 41 venues in 29 cities in 15 countries. I was delighted to visit venues in Dresden, Freiburg, Strasbourg, Turin, Wiesbaden and Wrocław, all for the first time. The look of the site has been freshened up and I must admit to being blown away by the massive increase in page views since the redesign – in the two months since the new look, the site has received 300% more views.
As always, one of the biggest pleasures I have is seeing young artists at the beginning of their careers – and this year was no exception. At a Viaggio at the Liceu, I was struck by the young French mezzo Marina Viotti’s Melibea who, alongside Lawrence Brownlee’s Libenskof, transformed in their duet what was, up until then, a routine evening into something special. At the Wigmore Hall, I saw an excellent recital from Andrè Schuen with effortless yet intelligent artistry and warm, handsome tone. At the delightfully intimate Wiesbaden house, I saw a fine Onegin from Christopher Bolduc alongside Asmik Grigorian’s glorious Tatyana. In a Clemenza in Wrocław Jeanine de Bique impressed with her sunny tone with a steely edge alongside Karina Gauvin’s definitive Vitellia and Stéphanie d’Oustrac’s deeply-felt Sesto. Benjamin Bernheim made a sensational Royal Opera debut as Rodolfo in Bohème, the voice of exceptional beauty crafting those ‘castelli in aria’ and pointing to a very bright future. He was joined by a terrific Marcello from Mariusz Kwiecień and a delectable Musetta from Joyce El-Khoury.
In Paris, France, I was privileged to see a period instrument Barbiere conducted by Jérémie Rhorer and his Cercle de l’Harmonie who made every tempo and the range of instrumental colour seem like it was the only possible way for the work to be heard. That performance was capped by the superb Almaviva of Michele Angelini who made the florid writing more than just a series of tricks, but something that genuinely meant something. He was joined by a winning Figaro from Florian Sempey who displayed a top that was seemingly without limits. That Barbiere was one of a trio of visits to the ville lumière this year. I must admit to not being a fan of the aircraft hangar that is the Bastille theatre, but getting to see Véronique Gens as the lustige Witwe was an absolute must and she really did not disappoint. Her ‘Vilja-Lied’ was absolutely magical – it felt that we were hearing it for the first time, finding the wistfulness and longing that lies at its core. If Thomas Hampson’s baritone is no longer in the first flush of youth, that actually worked to the service of his character. Together with Gens, they brought to life the fact that it’s never too late to have a second chance at falling in love. Marie-Nicole Lemieux made an astonishing debut as Carmen at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in a semi-staged performance, giving us a strong, independent woman of incredible complexity with extraordinary textual clarity. Her ‘chanson bohème’ was show-stopping and the final scene with Michael Spyres’ Don José was riveting.
Over in Strasbourg, Lemieux made another debut, this time as Cassandre in a concert performance of Troyens that was subsequently released commercially. I will put on record that she is the greatest Cassandre I have ever heard, either live or on record. Her use of text is staggering, bringing home all the conflicting facets of the prophetic seer, from devoted lover to terrified citizen to suicidal leader. She was joined by the handsomely sung Chorèbe of Stéphane Degout. I went to the first of two performances and at that point there were still quite a few false entries throughout the cast. In Carthage, Joyce DiDonato’s Didon was always deeply felt, but her intonation issues gave an interesting microtonal twist to Berlioz’ writing. Michael Spyres’ Énée was sung with great beauty, making what so often sounds like an endurance test into something that inspired admiration. The massed choruses were exceptional. Continuing the theme of things coming in threes, I saw two other Troyens this year. One in Nürnberg was the work of Calixto Bieito. When I realized that it would be heavily cut, I feared I would hate it. In the event, the strength of the theatrical argument completely won me over. This wasn’t a conventional Troyens, but instead a reflection on the fear that is created by the elites and what happens when one gives into one’s feelings instead of doing what one is expected to do. It was honourably performed by a cast almost exclusively drawn from the house’s own ensemble. In Dresden, the work was very well served by the superlative house chorus in a staging that was, frankly, a bit of a mess. It was dominated by an exceptional Didon from Christa Mayer. Sung in excellent French, the voice full of womanly warmth, she brought a staggering fervour to her confrontation with Bryan Register’s Énée and also dominated the stage as the regal leader. I also got to see three Rosenkavalier. One at the Royal Opera marked Renée Fleming’s London stage farewell. Perhaps the emotion of the night was too much but the evening felt contained and lacking in passion, not helped by Andris Nelsons’ sluggish conducting. In Munich the incomparable Anja Harteros was a splendid Marschallin, complemented by a delightful Sophie from Golda Schultz. The audience there still applauds the sets at the start of Act 2, even though the staging has been around longer than I, and indeed many in the audience, have been alive.
I returned to Stuttgart to see Bieito’s staging of Holländer. I was struck yet again by his cogent argument and the way he managed to populate a crowded stage with a chorus descending into anarchy, along with a naked man with an impressive schlong, yet never took attention away from the principals. They were James Rutherford, a musical Holländer, and Christiane Libor a fabulously unhinged Senta. In Berlin, the Staatskapelle played a magnificent Parsifal under Daniel Barenboim’s direction. The staging was entrusted to Dmitri Tcherniakov and was a fascinating exploration of the power and cruelty of belief. It left me completely shaken at the end. There was a youthful Amfortas from Lauri Vasar, a brave Kundry from Anna Larsson, and Andreas Schager once again proved himself the leading Wagner tenor of today in the title role. Over in Wiesbaden, I got to the see the final two instalments of the Ring. Schager’s Siegfried was indefatigable, although in Götterdämmerung there were signs that he was losing musical discipline. That said, the opening duet with the great Evelyn Herlitzius’ unparalleled Brünnhilde was glorious – the thrill of experiencing two of the world’s biggest voices in a small theatre, surfing over the orchestral texture, making the building shake almost, was simply unforgettable. A Tristan at the Liceu was dominated by Iréne Theorin’s astounding Isolde, maintaining a staggering level of intensity throughout the entire evening. Stefan Vinke’s Tristan grew in stature as the evening progressed and in Act 3, seemed to revel in everything thrown at him. In Chicago a Walküre was distinguished by excellent singing from Brandon Jovanovich as Siegmund and Elisabet Strid as Sieglinde, both utterly musical, and Christine Goerke’s Brünnhilde with Eric Owens’ Wotan always singing off the text.
That Walküre was one of a trio of shows I was fortunate to see in the Windy City this year. I saw a Pêcheurs with a delicious Leïla from Marina Rebeka, highly musical Nadir from Matthew Polenzani and a dramatically livewire Zurga from Mariusz Kwiecień. All sung in impeccable French. Kwiecień also appeared as a superb Onegin at Lyric, shading the text and tone to create that complex and contradictory character, giving a masterclass in how to combine acting and vocal production. Charles Castronovo was the outstanding Lensky – very possibly the best I’ve heard in the role. He caressed the text and sounded to my ears like a native speaker, singing his aria with sheer handsomeness of tone. I was pleased to attend two further shows at the Dresden Semperoper. A Hoffmann benefitted from the comprehensive assumption of the title role by Eric Cutler – heroic, lyrical and single-minded all in one. Measha Brueggergosman was a fabulously soulful Antonia and Tuuli Takala a crystalline Olympia. As in a Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, the choral and orchestral work was second to none. The Santuzza was Evelyn Herlitzius, making a rare foray into the Italian rep. Her Santuzza was overwhelming, tugging at the heartstrings, finding dramatic truth combined with vocal passion. The Canio was Vladimir Galouzine, big and elemental of sound, who charted his descent into murderous madness with incredible immediacy. Idiomatically conducted by Stefano Ranzani ,who brought out so much Italian warmth in the orchestral writing.
As always, Mozart was a constant presence. In addition to the Wrocław Clemenza, a Così in Freiburg conducted by René Jacobs, as always, felt that Mozart was in the room with us. In an excellent cast, the Despina of Im Sunhae shone out with her comic timing and beguiling tone. There was a pair of Don Giovannis. One in Aix, highlighted the commendable Anna and Ottavio of Eleonora Buratto and Pavol Breslik, as well as Jérémie Rhorer’s Cercle de l’Harmonie a terrific presence in the pit. The other, at the Liceu, gave me a chance to reappraise Kasper Holten’s staging, which emerged as a much stronger piece of theatre than I had previously encountered. In it, Mariusz Kwiecień gave a career-defining performance. On stage throughout the entire evening, the sheer detail that be brought to his acting was staggering and that handsome tone seduced in just the way it needed to. In Brussels, a Lucio Silla was given in a fascinating staging by Tobias Kratzer and sensationally conducted by Antonello Manacorda. The cast featured a fearless Lenneke Ruiten, elegant Jeremy Ovenden and Anna Bonitatibus finding such beauty and truth in the writing and text.
Having seen my first live Silla, I got to see some other works that I had previously only known from recordings. In Munich, Krzysztof Warlikowski gave us a fascinating Gezeichneten one that made us as an audience ask questions of ourselves and how we relate to power, our consumption of art and how we relate to those who are different. It was superbly performed by the house forces and the enormous cast. In Warsaw, a tote Stadt featured a very fine Marlis Petersen as Marie/Marietta in an intriguing production by Mariusz Treliński. In Amsterdam I got to see Beethoven’s first thoughts on Leonore, and one could not have wished for a better guide than René Jacobs – splendidly performed by the whole cast, including Petersen’s Leonore and Johannes Weisser’s devilishly malicious and textually impeccable Pizarro. There was some new music also. In Berlin, Scartazzini’s Edward II, proved an interesting work, performed at the very highest level, particularly by the Deutsche Oper’s chorus who seemingly pitched complex tone clusters from thin air. Michael Nagy gave a complex and warmly sung assumption of the title role in an extremely handsome baritone. At the Scala, Sciarrino’s Ti vedo, ti sento, mi perdo was exceptionally well written for the voices, offering contemporary bel canto and intelligent use of sound and space, although I left with a suspicion that it was a half-hour too long. Not quite a first but at least a different version – in Hamburg, Barbara Hannigan swept all before her as a staggering Lulu. Her vocal technique is remarkable, her ability to pitch even while standing on her head inspired enormous admiration. The production, by Christoph Marthaler, offered a meditation on people who are unable to know others as they barely know themselves. An outstanding piece of theatre, extremely well performed.
In London, I was only able to pay a single visit this year to English National Opera for their Aida, well sung by the chorus, Latonia Moore’s generous assumption of the title role and Gwyn Hughes Jones a serviceable Radamès. At Holland Park, Elizabeth Llewellyn once again proved her Puccinian credentials with a moving Magda in La rondine. I saw a memorable Handel recital from Karina Gauvin at the Wigmore – finding so much depth in the music, as well as an extraordinary performance of Penderecki’s Luke Passion at the Royal Festival Hall, with outstanding singing from the visiting Polish Radio Choir and Camerata Silesia. At the Royal Opera House, the most striking feature this year has been the big improvement in the quality of the Royal Opera Chorus since William Spaulding took over as director. There are still a very few obtrusive vibratos, but much has been done to improve blend and tuning. I was unlucky with Don Carlo, which was cut short due to the indisposition of the Elisabetta, and with Elisir which was stopped by a fire alarm, although Pretty Yende was a delightful Adina. The great Ermonela Jaho was a devastating Butterfly, and Lucia benefitted from Charles Castronovo’s marvellous Edgardo with a well-sung, if somewhat anonymous, Lucia from Lisette Oropesa, and despite some pedestrian conducting from Michele Mariotti. In Semiramide, Daniela Barcellona and Lawrence Brownlee offered some virtuosic singing while Joyce DiDonato was deeply felt in the title role, if somewhat frayed on top. In Cav & Pag, Damiano Michieletto’s slice of Italian village life returned to Bow Street. The staging is genius – he seems to get to the core of what living in provincial Italy is like – and also deeply moving, especially in how Santuzza and Lucia reappear in the Pag intermezzo. Elīna Garanča gave us warm and rounded tone as Santuzza with a massive voice. It was a pleasure to see Simon Keenlyside back to form as a nicely malicious Tonio. Then, there was a duo of Otellos back in the summer. Jonas Kaufmann’s was introspective yet failed to penetrate beyond the footlights, not helped by saggy conducting by Antonio Pappano that appeared to confuse volume for creating tension. Two days later, Gregory Kunde gave us his peerless Otello. The voice pinging out into the auditorium, riding whatever volume Pappano could through at him, yet also finding poetry in the love duet. Combined with Dorothea Röschmann’s heart-breaking Desdemona and Željko Lučić’s sophisticated Jago, this felt like a world-class evening at the opera.
There was more Verdi, as ever, including a Macbeth in Turin that benefitted from the commanding Lady of Anna Pirozzi, the strongly-sung Macbeth of Dalibor Jenis and Marko Mimica a tower of strength as Banco. Another Otello in Vienna highlighted a beguiling and beautifully-sung Desdemona from Olga Beszmertna and a Jago from Carlos Álvarez, who in his beauty of tone and everyday amiability, hid the evil that lay below the surface. In València, the privilege is always getting to hear the Cor de la Generalitat Valenciana. They did not disappoint in a Don Carlo that highlighted exciting talents in María José Siri’s Elisabetta and Alexander Vinogradov’s Filippo. The evening, however, belonged to Violeta Urmana’s Eboli who turned the corners with ease in the veil song and gave us a fabulously unhinged ‘don fatale’.
In Aix, I saw a Carmen that certainly provoked discussion. The staging by Dmitri Tcherniakov, in its focus on Don José, might actually be closer to Mérimée’s original, but to me felt that it rendered the femme fatale absent from her own story. It was superbly performed by all, including a tireless Michael Fabiano – on stage throughout and with excellent French – and Stéphanie d’Oustrac who made much of what was left to her. Over in Zurich, a Fiery Angel, was given in a psychologically disturbing staging by Calixto Bieito that highlighted the extraordinary talent of Ausrine Stundyte, a singer surely destined to be one of the greatest singing actors of our time. As last year, Munich was my second-most visited theatre. There are many monuments in that beautiful city, but none perhaps more cherished than Edita Gruberová, who I got to see in Roberto Devereux in her seventy-first year. There is still the core of that great technique there, and the evening benefitted from a superb assumption of the title role from Charles Castronovo with a generously-sung Sara from Silvia Tro Santafé. The real show, however, came during the curtain calls. They went on forever, with fans unveiling banners with la Gruberová’s face on them and repeated shouts of ‘Edita’ filling the auditorium. It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Over in Flanders, I saw the enthralling Donizetti/Battistelli mashup, Le Duc d’Albe. There was unbearable power in seeing Spanish soldiers declaiming ‘vive l’Espagne’ over the bodies of the injured below, especially with memories of the October 1st events in Catalonia fresh in the mind. As always in Flanders, the musical level was excellent – in particular Enea Scala’s impressive Henri and the vital conducting of Andriy Yurkevich.
Every year, I choose two or three shows that for me stand out as being hors concours. The quality of so much that I saw in 2017 was exceptionally high, so I pray for your indulgence while I highlight four shows this year. Calixto Bieito is a director I have long admired but in his Tosca, seen in Oslo, he seems to have touched into the sprit of the age. More than any other director, he makes this her story. He maps her journey from someone who just wants a quiet life with her boyfriend to active revolutionary, standing up to Scarpia and taking on the mob because this is the right thing to do. In it, he highlights both the #metoo movement, and in the opening tableau of Angelotti holding up a sign saying ‘silence will not protect you’, seems to foresee the violence we witnessed this past fall in his home of Catalonia. It makes Tosca as revolutionary as it must have seemed to those present at its premiere. It was well performed by the entire cast – Svetlana Aksenova a nicely strident Tosca, Claudio Sgura a dangerously seductive and telegenic Scarpia and Daniel Johansson a robust and fearless Cavaradossi. This was gripping and revelatory music theatre.
The quality of what is on offer at Munich’s Bayerische Staatsoper is exceptional, surely one of, if not, the world’s leading lyric theatre. For their final new production of 2017, they presented a Trittico in a staging by Lotte de Beer. De Beer’s staging was functional and intelligent and allowed the drama to be presented in a logical way. Yet what raised the evening above all was the depth of the casting throughout the enormous cast. Every single singer had something to offer. It was capped by Ambrogio Maestri’s massive Schicchi and the great Ermonela Jaho again breaking hearts as Angelica, living the music and text with complete abandon. Kirill Petrenko conducted an orchestra on superlative form. I woke up the following morning with that unbeatable feeling of having seen something very special – a show that brought the humanity of the work to life, in which, as with the best Tritticos, we laughed, cried and felt everything in between. It was the cherry on the sundae of a magnificent operatic year.
That miraculous alchemy that happens when a great production, meets a genuine ensemble cast and excellent conducting was on display in Cardiff for Welsh National Opera’s Rosenkavalier. It marked Rebecca Evans’ debut as the Marschallin – she sang the role like she had been singing it for years. Joined by an irrepressible Sophie from Louise Alder and an ardent Octavian from Lucia Cervoni, this was a true company achievement. It might not have been the ‘starriest’ cast, but this was music drama that lived, helped by Tomáš Hanus’ conducting that was always swift, vital and had an irrepressible sense of swing. Olivia Fuchs’ staging, I found, perfectly encapsulated the passing of the ages, the change from the new regime to the old and, in its final tableau, reminded us that in a world of change, there are some things that will always stay the same. It was magical.
Finally, there was Michieletto’s viaggio a Reims in Copenhagen. Again, not the ‘starriest’ cast, but everything was very well sung in what was a true ensemble show. It feels injudicious to single out individuals in such a tight ensemble cast but having singers of the calibre of Rebeca Olvera, Elisabeth Jansson, Henriette Bonde-Hansen, Gert Henning-Jensen, Levy Sekgapane, Mirco Palazzi, Davide Luciano and Anke Briegel really helped make it an afternoon to remember. It was ideally conducted by Thomas Søndergård – swift, with strings playing with minimal vibrato, an unerring sense of rhythmic pulse, yet also alive to the humour in the score and sensationally played by one of the best opera orchestras around. Michieletto’s staging on paper sounds like it might not work – instead of an inn, we see the setting up of a vernissage with characters from the artworks coming to life. Yet, it did work and in its final tableau became a celebration of the power of art to bring people together. In these troubled times, it was the most hopeful and positive message imaginable.
As usual, there is so much that I didn’t cover here but it has, once again, been another exceptional operatic year. A big thanks to those of you who read, comment whether here, on Twitter or by email, and to the theatres who gave me a very warm welcome. This year, I have spent effectively an astonishing eight weeks opera travelling – this all while holding down a very demanding full-time job. It’s involved lots of early Monday morning flights, late nights and writing on the go. I did it because I really want to offer truly independent writing on opera that is critically engaged, readable, and written from the perspective of someone with vocal training. I hope I’ve managed to succeed in that. I’ve been exceptionally lucky to have a group of supporters who have very kindly supported me through the Patreon page that I set up or through PayPal. Your support and belief in what I do is invaluable and inspirational, and has allowed me to expand the range of coverage of this site. Thank you.
I wish you all a very happy 2018 and lots of magnificent musical experiences to come. Bonne année!