The end of the year is so often a time for reflection and this year is no different. 2018 has been a spectacularly good operatic year, and I’d like to ask you to indulge me for a little while as I reflect on the past twelve months. This year, I travelled over 85 000 kilometres for opera – the equivalent of twice around the world – from the North Sea to the Pacific, the banks of the Oder to the mouth of the mighty Tagus. I visited 45 venues, in 30 cities, in 15 countries – some for the first time, others as a happy return visitor. I was delighted to visit the Capitole in Toulouse, the theatres of Darmstadt, Bonn, St Gallen, and Mannheim, as well as the Festival Donizetti in Bergamo and the Atelier lyrique de Tourcoing, all for the first time.
As always, a huge pleasure is getting to see young artists at the outset of their careers. In a way, it’s the start of, what will hopefully be, a long-term discovery of watching someone’s artistry develop over the years. A Don Giovanni in Oslo was notable for a crystalline Zerlina from Caroline Wettergreen. That evening was conducted with fabulous spirit by Benjamin Bayl and highlighted Johannes Weisser’s tremendous assumption of the title role, in an insightful staging by Richard Jones, alongside two excellent donne in Birgitte Christensen and Marita Sølberg. In Copenhagen, a wonderful period-instrument Figaro with Concerto Copenhagen showcased an engagingly vivid Figaro from Simon Duus. In Cardiff, a War and Peace saw Jonathan McGovern gave us a youthful Andrei, really making the most of the English translation. In Munich, the Bayerische Staatsoper offered us a delectably youthful Così, with a winning Despina from Tara Erraught, a handsomely-sung Guglielmo from Sean Michael Plumb, and a delightful pair of sisters in Federica Lombardi and Angela Brower. In Mannheim, a fascinating staging of the Monteverdi Vespers by the ever-insightful Calixto Bieito, highlighted some lovely singing from the house ensemble members, in particular sopranos Amelia Scicolone and Nikola Hillebrand, and basses Dominic Barberi and Patrick Zielke.
In a year where the quality of what has been on offer operatically has been exceptionally high, there were unfortunately a couple of disappointments along the way. Barrie Kosky’s Carmen at the Royal Opera House certainly divided audiences. I must admit I found it an interminable evening. Yes, it was a good ‘show’, but it was lethargically paced and lacked so much in character development. It was so disappointingly sung, conducted and played, that it was so difficult to care about what happened on stage. Similarly, a staged War Requiem at English National Opera regrettably had me wishing I’d had an aisle seat so I could have escaped. While the two gentlemen soloists were excellent, the soprano sounded overstretched, and the normally excellent ENO Chorus also suffered from uncertain pitching. With a production that basically consisted of walk on, lie down, get up, walk around, lie down, get up etc for around ninety minutes, this wasn’t an especially satisfying evening. Admittedly I was in the minority, as it seemed to have been generally well received.
I was thrilled to return to the legendary Teatro alla Scala for a trio of shows. There’s something about going into that building, the sheer sense of history and tradition, the knowledge of all that has happened there over the years, that I find absolutely captivating. An Ernani was notable for some disappointing individual performances from singers who had previously given much pleasure, but was redeemed by Ádám Fischer’s sensational conducting. A Fledermaus was terrific Sunday afternoon escapism – I left the theatre so uplifted – and was satisfyingly sung. Most interesting was the much-awaited premiere of Kurtág’s Beckett setting, Fin de partie. What a remarkable work it is – in a way, Wagnerian, as it lives within its own time and space, where one completely lost sense of time and just existed with these characters trapped in their own situations. There was a beguiling delicacy to the scoring that was also completely compelling. As always the Scala gave this new piece its full attention and rewarded us with an equally remarkable quality of performance. Similarly, I had the opportunity to experience more music of today. I attended the premiere of George Benjamin’s latest collaboration with Martin Crimp, Lessons in Love and Violence at the Royal Opera. It’s an interesting work, superbly performed by Stéphane Degout and Barbara Hannigan in particular, but I left not quite as convinced by the word setting and melodic contours of the vocal line. It was undoubtedly most expertly crafted in the orchestral writing but, with the surtitles giving advance notice of what was going to be sung next, the word setting became somewhat predictable over the course of the work. In Madrid, I saw a Dead Man Walking. This is a work that has definitely entered the operatic repertoire but again, one that I wasn’t quite convinced by. It was more than decently performed by a strong cast, including Joyce DiDonato, Measha Brueggergosman and Michael Mayes.
In an era where some houses seem content to be programming wall-to-wall Traviatas, it was really quite refreshing to get to see much of the opera of the last century being performed. ENO performed their first-ever Porgy and Bess – musically outstanding, I was disappointed by a staging that failed to interrogate and look below the surface of a piece that is problematic. In Wrocław, a concert performance of Król Roger was dominated by some spectacularly good choral singing from the NFM Choruses, a psychologically complex performance of the title role from Mariusz Kwiecień (who transformed the final scene into a tender liebestod), and a Roksana of unblemished, rounded tone from Joanna Zawartko. In València, the thrilling Cor de la Generalitat Valenciana was absolutely staggering in Peter Grimes. It had clearly been impeccably rehearsed, and it showed, in choral singing of astounding accuracy, combined with a haunting performance of the title role from Gregory Kunde, who sang that music as if it were bel canto, to quite magical effect. In Berlin, Bieito directed a Gezeichneten that was intensely disturbing psychologically. Rather than show what was going on, he left hints of the horror within, allowing each spectator to bring his, her or their own personal nightmares to what was seen on stage. It was superbly played by the Komische house band and very well sung, with Aušrinė Stundytė and Michael Nagy, in particular, on outstanding form. Also at the Komische, a tote Stadt once again showed the band on blazing form, even if it meant that the principals weren’t always audible due to the thickness of the orchestration, in a production by Robert Carsen that also felt skin-deep. Over at the Deutsche Oper, a Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk showed their house band on exceptional form for Donald Runnicles, in a true ensemble show. The great Evelyn Herlitzius was a consummate Katerina and Seth Carico was a notable Police Inspector with healthy, masculine tone and linguistic acuity.
Of course, any discussion of opera of the last century needs to involve Janáček and this year was no exception. The London Royal Opera gave us a Z mrtvého domu in a supremely insightful production by Krzysztof Warlikowski and extremely well sung by a cast including Johan Reuter, Pascal Charbonneau, Willard White and Nicky Spence. Sadly, at the premiere, the orchestral contribution was not at all at the level a house like that should be offering – it sounded like they were still sight reading the score – and Mark Wigglesworth’s conducting was tentative. I was delighted to be reacquainted with David Hermann’s incredibly insightful Vĕc Makropulos at the Deutsche Oper, with the great Herlitzius once again giving a commanding performance as EM. As she reflected on her long life, of living and existing, I couldn’t control the tears – it was so absolutely moving, one of those evenings in the theatre that I long to, and live to, experience. It was one of my very top shows of 2016 and if I hadn’t included it as such back then, would also have been one of my very top shows this year. In Amsterdam, Herlitzius gave her debut as the Kostelnička alongside Annette Dasch as Jenůfa, while Pavel Černoch sang Laca. Superbly conducted by Tomáš Netopil, the Act 2 was so intense, for a while I forgot I was in a theatre, such was the vividness of the performances. There was also some Strauss. In Lisbon, Leo Hussain conducted a terrifically inspired reading of Elektra, finding a delicacy in the scoring, as well as a violence, that sounded absolutely right. Lioba Braun was a fascinating Klytämnestra. Ariadne auf Naxos came up several times throughout the year. In Munich in April, Carsen’s excellent staging was revived with Brenda Rae as a delicious Zerbinetta and an extremely strong ensemble performance. In Aix-en-Provence, Katie Mitchell gave us what was a seriously problematic production. One that seemed to fail to engage with the excellent singing-actors at her disposal and created a staging that was messy and distracting. Fortunately, it was musically much better. Sabine Devieilhe was a sparky Zerbinetta, Brower an effortless Komponist, and Lise Davidsen a mighty Ariadne, even if the technique sounds far from finished. Eric Cutler was a thrilling Bacchus, sounding like he could do it all again straight away, with an ease on top that was extraordinary. In Dresden, the magnificent Staatskapelle was a fabulous presence in the pit, led by Christian Thielemann who gave us a deeply considered reading. Krassimira Stoyanova was a heavenly Ariadne, giving us a singing lesson in the process, Stephen Gould, clearly singing while sick, showed remarkable staying power as Bacchus, and Daniela Fally was a terrific Zerbinetta. Hermann’s production was a deeply moving meditation on the power of art.
There was a fair bit of Wagner also this year. In Brussels, Cutler gave us a glorious Lohengrin giving his ‘in fernem Land’ the tenderness of a lieder singer, making the tone seemingly shimmer on air. In Berlin, Dmitri Tcherniakov directed a Tristan that convinced in so many ways, while it didn’t quite add up in others. Andreas Schager was a mighty Tristan, seemingly indefatigable, while Anja Kampe sang Isolde with impressive cleanness of line and impeccable diction. Daniel Barenboim led a reading that was exceptionally languorous, if lacking in erotic charge, with a Staatskapelle on supreme form. In Stuttgart, I finally had the opportunity to see Bieito’s legendary Parsifal. For once, a reading of the piece that challenges its misogyny and gives us a meditation on the power of faith and belief – that idea that the need for a saviour can be exploited so easily. It’s a masterful piece of music theatre, surely one of the all-time most important productions of that piece. It was well performed by the house forces – the chorus absolutely thrilling and some excellent individual performances, particularly from Christiane Libor as Kundry and Daniel Kirch in the title role. In Amsterdam I saw a Gurrelieder, staged by Pierre Audi. It was an overwhelming evening, showing the harrowing descent of a man into the abyss. Musically, it was very good and in places excellent.
As always there was some Italian opera. I saw my first ever due Foscari in Bonn, and in Wiesbaden, I saw a Ballo in a logical and fluent production by Beka Savić, set in prohibition-era Boston. Judiciously cast with Arnold Rutkowski as Riccardo, and the very exciting baritone, Vladislav Sulimsky as Renato, it also showcased Adina Aaron, an exciting Amelia, and the fabulous Marie-Nicole Lemieux a tremendous Ulrica. There were two Verdi Requiems, one in concert at the Royal Opera was somewhat earthbound and routine, though Benjamin Bernheim’s tenor gave an enormous amount of pleasure in his part. Another, staged by Bieito, in Hamburg took us into the heart of a woman’s experience of grief and yet felt universal, as if everyone could find something of themselves in that staging. Maria Bengtsson’s soprano gave us singing that combined both beauty and power, as well as acting of thrilling abandon. In St Gallen, a Don Carlo featured Alex Penda as a deeply-felt Elisabetta and Tareq Nazmi as a mighty Filippo. Nazmi is so young and his Filippo, while already excellent, can only grow even more in stature. He really has what it takes to be the Filippo of his generation. At the Liceu, we were treated to a feast of bel canto in a Puritani that was definitely all about the singing. Pretty Yende and Javier Camarena were absolutely electrifying, leading, after their big duet, to the longest mid-act ovation I’ve ever experienced. Kwiecień brought that depth of stylistic understanding that cannot be taught to Riccardo, while Marko Mimica was a tower of strength as Giorgio. In Brussels, Damiano Michieletto’s outstanding slice of Italian realism was devastatingly brought to life in a Cav & Pag with two of the most remarkable singing-actors of our time, Penda and Elena Zilio as Santuzza and Lucia, in an emotionally devastating performance.
This year’s repertoire wasn’t confined to the music of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Fortunately, there was also some early music. A Poppea directed by Bieito in Zurich was one of those shows where absolutely everything came together – a supremely intelligent staging, excellent orchestral playing and conducting, and singing that was absolutely top class. It feels so wrong to highlight individual performances because the quality of the whole was simply outstanding. Having singers like David Hansen, Julie Fuchs, Stéphanie d’Oustrac, Nahuel di Pierro, Delphine Galou, Jake Arditti, Florie Valiquette, Hamida Kristoffersen and so many more, at the very top of their game made for an exceptional afternoon in the theatre. Similarly, an Hippolyte et Aricie in Berlin was also given in a visually impressive, futuristic production with sets and light installations by Ólafur Elíasson. Conducted with undeniable rhythmic impetus by Simon Rattle, and played with staggering accuracy by the Freiburger Barockorchester, it was also very well sung. Indeed, getting to hear opera on period instruments was a consistent pleasure of the year. I had the opportunity to hear Gounod’s original thoughts on Faust in Paris with Véronique Gens a heart-breaking Marguerite, Bernheim a silver-voiced Faust and Andrew Foster-Williams a verbally incisive Méphistophélès. The Vlaams Radio Koor and Talens Lyriques were both excellent. In Tourcoing, I had the pleasure of seeing Gens’ debut in Fidelio, that aristocratic tone was so perfectly matched to the music, and Donald Litaker brought such depth of experience to Florestan. Getting to hear the period instruments of the Grande Écurie et la Chambre du Roy was a revelation. Over in Bergamo, it was most interesting to rediscover Donizetti’s Enrico di Borgogna, at the wonderfully intimate Teatro Sociale, with the always astounding Anna Bonitatibus in the title role bringing her impeccable understanding of the idiom, at the head of a very fine cast. In Baden-Baden, Marc Minkowski led his Musiciens du Louvre in a concert of Les Contes d’Hoffmann. It was notable for a number of role debuts – Charles Castronovo in the title role and Luca Pisaroni as the Villains. Castronovo brought his customary glorious masculine tone and excellent French to his parts, while Pisaroni was absolutely gripping, having the full measure of his roles and always sung off the text. There was, of course, some Mozart also. I caught the last ever revival of Bieito’s Entführung at the Komische. It was a journey that told the stories of those whose stories are rarely told, a deeply affecting evening, and extremely well performed by the house forces, capped by Nicole Chevalier as a fearless and extremely moving Konstanze.
There were some recitals this year. Bonitatibus gave two highly stimulating performances of Italian song, with a remarkable breadth of repertoire, at the Wigmore Hall, where Ilker Arcayürek was spellbinding in his program of lieder. Then there was an astonishing recital from Lemieux, also at the Wigmore, where, in a program of German and French song, she poured her heart out for us, with a sense of communication so immediate and so palpable. Sadly, there wasn’t as much symphonic music this year – something I will certainly need to rectify next year. There was however a compelling Mahler 7 from Kirill Petrenko and the Bayerisches Staatsorchester and an episodic Mahler 1 from Andris Nelsons and the Gewandhaus.
As every year, I need to choose a few shows that really stand out as being the biggest highlights of the year. In a year where the quality of what I saw was so exceptional, this has been very difficult. But I’ve managed narrow it down to four. Well actually seven, because in this first one, we get four in one. Over the years, I’ve seen the four instalments that mark Wagner’s Ring separately, on multiple occasions. Until this year, I’d never seen them together in one week. In June, I had the privilege of visiting the great City by the Bay to see San Francisco Opera’s cycle. It was a very special week for me, one I will look back at with great fondness as a genuinely life-changing moment. It’s true, Francesca Zambello’s production had issues – its lack of a long-term focus and logical theatrical argument, made it feel somewhat frustrating. The singing ranged from honourable to outstanding. But the orchestral playing, from the house band on superlative form, was absolutely world class and Runnicles led a reading that was always utterly enthralling. In the cast, we had Brandon Jovanovich as Siegmund, surely the finest interpreter of the role before the public today. The great Karita Mattila was a complex, multifaceted and riveting Sieglinde. Iréne Theorin carried all before her as Brünnhilde, the voice pinging into the house with ease, and mapping her character’s journey from spiky daughter to the determination of the immolation scene with such immediacy. There will probably be other Rings-in-a-week in my future, but this one will always be special, thanks to the magical combination of that amazing city during Pride week, Runnicles and his fabulous orchestra, and some tremendous individual performances.
In Aix, Stundytė hit greatness in a Fiery Angel directed by Mariusz Treliński. He gave us an evening of sheer theatrical virtuosity – the technical effects were staggering, one wasn’t even sure if the walls were solid – and it had clearly been intensively rehearsed with characters metamorphosing into others completely imperceptibly. Yet none of this was done to the detriment of the personenregie. We saw such clearly identifiable and believable characters, especially in Scott Hendricks’ implacable Ruprecht. Stundytė once again consolidated her position as one of the most remarkable singing-actors before the public today. Her Renata was scarily vivid – in fact, it was hard to know where Aušrinė ended and Renata started. She completely lived the role. Ono Kazushi conducted an Orchestre de Paris at the top of their game. This wasn’t an evening that gave all the answers and it was all the stronger for that.
After the disappointment of the Royal Opera’s production, I was so pleased to attend a Carmen in Toulouse that renewed my love for the work. The production, by Jean-Louis Grinda, was somewhat traditional but always utterly watchable and provided an effective framework for the characters to work their magic in. This was a Carmen which was completely sung off the text and with an outstanding chorus and orchestra who live and breathe this music. Clémentine Margaine was a terrific interpreter of the title role, so fierce and so believable – and her chest register is a thing of wonder. Castronovo’s Don José was absolutely gripping, he transformed the end of Act 3 into something quite frightening, a man about to explode, who was capable of the ultimate crime. His flower song was exquisite, floating the high B-flat with a perfect diminuendo. Every single role in that cast was sung at the very highest level.
Finally, there was a Moses und Aron in Dresden that was an evening that showed that house at its very best. The singing of the massed choruses was quite miraculous in its accuracy; the orchestra, led by Alan Gilbert, brought out a sensuality in Schoenberg’s music that I’d never heard before. The production, by Bieito, was a work of genius. As with his Zurich Poppea, it felt that he had managed, along with the cast, to create a true gesamtkunstwerk, that the visuals were an organic part of, and amplified, the music. He gave us a parable of the need for community, illustrating a people trapped by ideas of what they were told that they wanted. The comparisons, with the reality in which we’re living today, made this a harrowing evening. Yet as always with Bieito, it also felt that it offered us a future. There was a humanity to this production that reminded us that as humans, we can also achieve something good if we work together. This was a performance that was given to us at the very highest musical and dramatic level, of a work that is incredibly difficult to sing and play.
There were many things that I didn’t get to discuss here, but as you can see, it’s been quite the year. This year, I spent the equivalent of around 11 weeks opera travelling. All this while holding down a very full time job. It’s involved lots of early flights on Monday mornings but it’s also been worth it. Not just for the amazing musical experiences, but also to create genuinely independent writing on opera. As always, a big thank you for reading and for commenting, whether here or on social media. A big thank you also to theatres who gave me a warm welcome and to those artists who gave so generously of their time to be interviewed. I very much hope to continue to keep the site going, to maintain this breadth and reach of coverage, and will continue to do as much as I can. This year, I was exceptionally lucky to have the support of some very generous people who helped make it possible. I would never have been able to have attended the San Francisco Ring for instance, had it not been for your support. Your belief in what I do is inspirational and I only hope that, in return, I’ve managed to create content that is interesting, informative and readable. This site is independent both in thinking and in that it isn’t connected to a larger organization. In order to keep the site going, your support is invaluable. You can help support either via Patreon or PayPal. Thank you for helping to make it possible.
All that remains, is for me to wish you a very happy 2019. Let’s just hope that somehow the world will turn away from the dark side. I wish you many happy musical experiences to come. Bonne année.