Review of 2019

As is customary at this time of the year, it’s time to look back at what the past twelve months held for us operatically speaking.  This was an interesting year – happily with lots of music of this and the last century, but sadly not so much of the baroque.  On a personal level, the last five months have been exceptionally difficult and, combined with the disappointingly conservative repertoire and consistently disappointing performance standards at the Royal Opera, meant that I saw hardly any opera in London this year – indeed I saw more opera in Belgium or Germany instead.  As a result, I saw fewer shows than usual – only 70 – but these were spread over 37 venues in 32 cities in 15 countries.   I travelled over 110 000 kilometres and, also on a personal level, got to live a dream by paying my first visit to Colombia and Brazil.  The warmth of the welcome in both countries was overwhelming and I very much hope to be able to return soon, hopefully next time with some opera on the schedule.  I also had the pleasure of visiting the Teatro Comunale in Bologna, the Stadttheater Klagenfurt, the Theater Dortmund, the Oper Wuppertal, the Oper Köln, the Opéra Comique in Paris, and the Kansallisooppera/Nationalopera in Helsinki, all for the very first time.

Photo: © Gianfranco Rota

As always, one of the biggest pleasures I have is getting to see young artists at the outset of their careers – and this year was no exception.  At the wonderful Festival Donizetti Opera in Bergamo, I got to hear a major new talent in Xabier Anduaga in Lucrezia Borgia.  He’s a singer of incredibly instinctive gifts with a light, lyric tenor that seemingly floats on air.  As indeed was Florian Sempey in l’Ange de Nisida, singing with genuine bel canto style and technique, and hinting that he could indeed be one of the leading Donizetti baritones of our time.  That evening also benefitted from the revelatory conducting of Jean-Luc Tingaud, who really understood how the music should go – attack was crisp, tempi fluent, and the innate understanding of how to phrase the music was remarkable.  Starting the year in Hamburg, a fabulously uplifting Zauberflöte made the world a much better place, and highlighted a fabulous Pamina in Elbenita Kajtazi, the owner of a shimmering lyric soprano I hope we’ll hear more of, as well as Jonathan McGovern’s deeply-felt and humane Papageno.  In Oslo, a Rosenkavalier in a dreary McVicar staging, was leavened by a glorious Sophie from Mari Eriksmoen, who brought out so much through the text, and an ardent Octavian from Adrian Angelico, who brought out all the facets of his part – from heartbreak to joyfulness.  That coup de foudre of first love was simply magical in their hands.  In Stuttgart, a Mefistofele introduced the deliciously fruity mezzo of Colombian Fiorella Hincapié, the owner of an instrument of natural loveliness, as well as the exciting, if as yet technically unfinished, soprano of Olga BusuiocMika Kares was a massive and firm presence in the title role and the house chorus was on blazing form.

Photo: © Erik Berg

At a time when some theatres are programming wall-to-wall Traviatas, what a pleasure it was to discover houses not only programming the music of today, but also throwing considerable resource at it.  Not least at the august Wiener Staatsoper where, for the first time ever, they performed an opera written by a woman, in this case Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth, on the main stage.  Her Orlando was undoubtedly a work of serious ambition, skilfully written, if overlong and consisted of what seemed to me to be two operas in one, neither of which was fully developed.  Kate Lindsey’s assumption of the title role was utterly commanding.  Earlier in the year, the Staatsoper performed Manfred Trojahn’s Orest.  This is a superb piece, the action distilled and compact – and very well received from a capacity audience.  It was inspiring casting to have the greatest Elektra of our time, Evelyn Herlitzius, in the same role – the echoes of Strauss given added impact by this familiar voice.  The show was cast from strength with Laura Aikin and Audrey Luna making the challenging writing sound easy, and Thomas Johannes Mayer world-weary and battle-scarred in the title role.  In Dortmund, I had the opportunity to hear Francesconi’s Quartett, one of the most frequently performed of recent operas in a respectable performance, even if Allison Cook’s Marquise appeared to have no words.  In Flanders, the ever-enterprising Opera Ballet Vlaanderen premiered Parra’s Les Bienveillantes, a work of considerable ambition, based on the novel by Jonathan Littell.  It featured a (literal) monster of a central performance from Peter Tantsits, who performed this huge role, the longest in the repertoire, with enormous dedication.  The staging, by the great Calixto Bieito, was a fascinating study in how easy it is for evil to become banal – an all too pertinent warning in these harrowing times in which we live.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns / Opera Ballet Vlaanderen

This show cemented Opera Ballet Vlaanderen’s place as one of the most exciting lyric theatres in the world right now.  Indeed, both there and La Monnaie – De Munt in Brussels really are two of the most exciting places to see opera.  Performance quality is consistently excellent, casting is done intelligently and from strength, and the stage productions are stimulating.  For serious lovers of opera as a great art form, both houses deserve to be visited.  These qualities were certainly in evidence in a Don Carlos in Antwerp this fall.  Leonardo Capalbo was a tireless presence in the title role – singing with youthful ardour.  Kartal Karagedik a noble Posa and Mary-Elizabeth Williams an Élisabeth of heartfelt passion.  The exciting discovery in that cast was Raehann Bryce-Davis – a thrilling Eboli who sang her veil song with such sensuality I began to question my sexual orientation, and gave us a ‘don fatal’ of limitless ease with room to spare.  The house chorus and orchestra were both on splendid form, and the clarity of the text throughout the cast meant that the drama truly lived.  A Macbeth in the summer was also extremely well cast with Marina Prudenskaya an exciting Lady Macbeth, with a voice of dark malevolence, and Craig Colclough a Macbeth of Italianate generosity.  Tareq Nazmi sang an eloquent Banco in an exceptionally handsome bass.  In Brussels, a Tristan und Isolde confirmed the excellence of the house orchestra under Alain Altinoglu – that orgasmic resolution five hours later was as shattering as it really should be.  Christopher Ventris was a thoughtful Tristan and coped well with the demands of the role, while Ricarda Merbeth sang a lyrical Isolde, the voice pinging out thrillingly in the curse.  It was, however, Ève-Maud Hubeaux’s glorious Brangäne that stayed with me – she floated her warnings from the tower with silky ease, and coped magnificently with the demands of the tessitura.  The staging, by Ralf Pleger and Alexander Polzin, was something of a psychedelic trip – hypnotic and magnifying the music in equal measure.  Also in Brussels, a new production of Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher by Romeo Castellucci gave us a fascinating exploration of the link between faith and mental illness, notable for a coruscating performance of the title role by French actress, Audrey Bonnet.  I saw one opera in Liège, a Clemenza di Tito in a rather random staging by Cécile Roussant and Julien Lubek, complete with acrobats (yes, acrobats!) and set in a mythical forest.  Patrizia Ciofi, a singer who has given me so much pleasure in Mozart in the past, was sadly mis-cast as Vitellia, but Leonardo Cortellazzi was a nicely lyrical Tito.  The highlight was undoubtedly the great Anna Bonitatibus’s peerless Sesto, so utterly stylish with a total understanding of how to communicate the role.  Finally, there was a Rusalka in Flanders that showed Opera Ballett Vlaanderen at its very best (as did pretty much everything I saw there this year).  It reflected the house’s ability to spot some phenomenal talent.  Conductor Giedrė Šlekytė led the house band in a reading of glorious romantic sweep.  Goderdzi Janelidze was a major discovery as Vodník, the owner of a highly imposing bass, as was Justin Hopkins as the Hunter, a singer with a wonderfully resonant bass-baritone.  Alan Lucien Øyen’s staging combined dance and singing most convincingly.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

Somewhat away from the beaten track, I had the pleasure of seeing some shows in regional German theatres, where I was struck by the adventurousness of the repertoire and the high performance standards – particularly in Wuppertal.  There, I saw an ambitious tote Stadt notable for a vocally impressive Marietta/Marie from Susanne Serfling, one that could belong on any major lyric stage.  There was also a stimulating Stravinsky double bill of Les Noces and Oedipus Rex in an intelligent and convincing staging by Timofey Kulyabin, who transformed two separate works into a gripping two act opera.  Mirko Roschkowski had the ideal voice for the title role, singing with a good blend of lyricism and heft, and the house forces were on very good form.  In Cologne, the great Peter Seiffert, in his sixty-sixth year, sang a Tristan of remarkable freshness and power, joined by the warmly lyrical Brangäne of Claudia Mahnke.  While in nearby Bonn, an Elektra confirmed the excellence of the house orchestra and featured a regal Klytämnestra from Nicole Piccolomini, commandingly sung off the text – no tired harridan this.

Photo: © Brescia/Amisano – Teatro alla Scala

South of the Alps, I saw some German opera, very well performed, in both Milan and Bologna.  At the Scala, an Ägyptische Helena featured the mighty Andreas Schager on tremendous form, singing his impossible role with ease, not just getting through the challenges but revelling in them.  Ricarda Merbeth sang the title role with her characteristic ease on top, filling the theatre with waves of sound.  There was also a Salome in Bologna which revealed a superb house band, and highlighted the remarkable Aušrinė Stundytė in a highly compelling assumption of the title role, with Doris Soffel’s mezzo seemingly defying the passing of the years as Herodias.  Also, in Bologna, a Fidelio was somewhat unevenly sung but, when the full house chorus entered in the final scene, they raised the temperature of the evening with the unbounded joyfulness of their singing.  Back at the Scala, the house chorus there had a chance to shine in Khovanshchina which they did, singing with soulful and heartfelt introspection in the famous prayer.  As Marfa, Ekaterina Semenchuk seemed to open up new realms in her closing ‘alleluia’, in what was a visually interesting, Blade Runner-inspired staging by Mario Martone.

Photo: © Brescia/Amisano – Teatro alla Scala

The music of the last century was a consistent feature of this past year.  Another Salome in Munich was notable for a revelatory production by Krzysztof Warlikowski, who transformed it into a study of what happens when people are imprisoned in their own home, and where the prospect of death is all around.  The setting, in a Jewish household in 1930s Germany had enormous impact, particularly seeing it in Munich, the site of so many horrors over the years.  Marlis Petersen was a rather contained Salome, but she benefitted from Kirill Petrenko’s transparent handling of the score – always allowing her through.  In Dresden, I got to see my first live Grand Macabre in an interesting staging by Calixto Bieito.  As always there, the house chorus was on outstanding form, handling the challenging writing with ease, as indeed was that phenomenal orchestra, who made it sound like the most natural thing in the world.  I made my first visit to Klagenfurt, where I found a nicely intimate house and a very fine orchestra in a Pelléas et Mélisande that was rather dark to look at.  Ilse Eerens was an enigmatic Mélisande, while Jonathan McGovern gave us an ardently sung Pelléas with remarkable ease on high.  Over in Paris, the Opéra revived Bieito’s virtuosic production of Lear.  This was the work of a phenomenal theatrical imagination, who not only knows how to create a fascinating narrative, but also has the technical capability to make it work.  It was also superbly cast, with Bo Skovhus devastating in the title role and the great Evelyn Herlitzius utterly compelling as Goneril.  In Zurich, Herlitzius reprised her signature role as the daughter of Agamemnon, this time in Strauss’ version.  Getting to experience her portrayal of Elektra in an intimate house was simply unforgettable.  She doesn’t sing the role, she lives it, and she was in remarkably fresh voice too – filling the house in waves of sound.  Simone Young led a logical and sympathetic reading, while Christof Fischesser was a tower of strength as Orest.  There was more Strauss to kick off the year, with a musically fabulous Frau ohne Schatten in Hamburg.  Emily Magee poured out streams of pearly tone as the Kaiserin, Lise Lindstrom was a dedicated Färberin, Linda Watson was commanding as the Amme, while Eric Cutler sang the Kaiser with remarkable ease, and Wolfgang Koch was a heartfelt, humane Barak.  Kent Nagano led a reading that was ideally paced and displayed a remarkable transparency of texture.  Over in Warsaw, a Billy Budd was testament to the great Polish choral tradition.  The opera chorus, augmented by gentlemen from the university chorus, sang with tremendous amplitude and exceptional discipline.  Excellent choral singing was also a feature of The Bassarids at the Komische Oper.  This wasn’t a performance that was notable for clarity of diction, but there was some fine singing from Sean Panikkar, Günter Papendell, and Ariane-Tanja BaumgartnerBarrie Kosky’s staging appeared to consist of his usual visual tricks (one can now call them clichés, to be frank) and while visually staggering, felt no more than skin deep.

Photo: © Krzysztof Bieliński

There were some rarities – or at least works that aren’t performed that often.  I heard Drot og Marsk, widely considered to be Denmark’s national opera in Copenhagen.  I was glad I had the opportunity to hear it, especially when performed at the level it was with Johan Reuter, Peter Lodahl, and Sine Bundgaard among others.  As always, the house orchestra is worth hearing.  In Munich, I saw a staging of Alceste by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui that incorporated dance, thereby creating some interesting stage pictures, yet with direction of the singers feeling something of an afterthought.  Dorothea Röschmann gave us an introspective interpretation of the title role with indistinct French diction.  However, Charles Castronovo and Michael Nagy both gave a great deal of pleasure in theirs.  The Staatsoper Hamburg revived Willy Decker’s staging of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria with a very fine cast including Sara Mingardo, Fabio Trümpy, Rainer Trost, and Kurt Streit giving his farewell to the stage in the title role.  In Paris, the Opéra Comique mounted a visually decadent production of Ercole Amante notable for the fabulous forces of the Pygmalion chorus and orchestra under Raphaël Pichon, a commanding assumption of the title role from Nahuel di Pierro, a silkily-sung Deianara from Giuseppina Bridelli, as well as a masterclass in style from Anna Bonitatibus as Giunone.

Photo: © Stefan Brion

There was some standard rep too.  An Otello in Berlin featured Russell Thomas’s revelatory assumption of the title role, mounting the Everest of the tenor repertoire with freshness and a remarkable combination of heroism and vulnerability.  Thomas also featured in the Deutsche Oper’s Forza del destinoDirected by Frank Castorf, it was one of the most extraordinary evenings I’ve had in the theatre – due to some (literally) show-stopping audience behaviour which resulted in a near-riot.  Castorf’s staging, a meditation on post-colonialism, the power of film and a myriad other things, drowned the work with frequent interruptions with quotations from other sources.  At least the music was decently served with some invigorating conducting from Jordi Bernàcer, with Thomas a highly Italianate and superbly-sung Alvaro, Markus Brück an implacable Carlo, and María José Siri a scrupulous Leonora.  Again in Hamburg, a Cenerentola provided the ultimate seasonal treat – Xabier Anduaga’s Ramiro was something very special indeed and he struck sparks on stage with Kartal Karagedik’s livewire Dandini.  Annalisa Stroppa was an introspective Angelina, much fuller of tone than we often hear.  This was a true ensemble show, with a cast having the time of their lives.  I also paid my first visit to Helsinki to hear a Rheingold that marked the start of their new Ring.  Cast with members of the house’s ensemble, the quality of the voices on display was staggering and raises very high expectations for future instalments.

Photo: © Jean-Louis Fernandez

Summer is always a lovely time to visit Aix-en-Provence and a Tosca directed by Christophe Honoré, gave us a study in what it means to be a diva.  With a cameo from noted Tosca Catherine Malfitano, there was something quite moving in seeing her pass on the torch to Angel BlueBlue gave us a glorious Tosca – so full of tone, the voice opening up on high thrillingly, in command of all the part’s requirements.  Puccini is almost always guaranteed to get the tear ducts working but when you have Ermonela Jaho and Charles Castronovo on stage together, that usually means an emotional experience so intense that many in the audience will need to seek counselling afterwards.  And so it proved to be after a Rondine in Berlin, where they both had me in such a state of emotional wreckage that the lady next to me passed me a Kleenex.  Both are such glorious communicators with the voice, that they brought out that flourishing of true love, yet also managed to make Act 3 seem so much more than the anti-climax if can often feel like.  Instead, that feeling of having to say goodbye to the one person they truly loved was devastatingly brought to life.

Photo: © Pascal Victor / ArtCom Press

There was some Mozart, as always.  In Aix, Romeo Castellucci staged the Requiem and turned it into a communal ritual and meditation on humanity’s self-destruction.  The quality of the choral singing, again by Pygmalion conducted by Raphaël Pichon, was phenomenal.  Hamburg mounted a new Don Giovanni with Andrè Schuen utterly handsome of voice in the title role and Federica Lombardi spitting fireworks as Elvira.  At the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Jérémie Rhorer conducted his Cercle de l’Harmonie in a terrific account of Le nozze di Figaro, though sadly the use of ornamentation, absolutely essential in this repertoire, was absent.  Stéphane Degout sang a deliciously malevolent Conte and Robert Gleadow was a nicely congenial Figaro.  There was some symphonic music, here and there, but definitely not enough of it and something I will definitely have to rectify next year.

Photo: © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

As every year, I’d like to highlight a small handful of shows that were really hors concours.  The quality this year has been positive, on the whole, and it was hard to pull this down to three.  The first was the Vĕc Makropulos in Zurich.  Dmitri Tcherniakov gave us a life-changing staging, one with a closing coup de théàtre that left me speechless and shaken.  Of course, the impact was heightened by having the great Evelyn Herlitzius in the central role of EM, the highly idiomatic conducting of Jakub Hrůša, and a solid ensemble cast.  Together they gave us a highly emotional journey through a reflection on life, on making things right, and on facing death after a life well lived.  Herlitzius was utterly devastating, mapping her character’s journey and presenting us with a dramatic truth that was utterly compelling.

Back to the start of the year and I was extremely fortunate to witness a ‘star is born’ moment on a wet January night in Lisbon, with Ana Quintans making her debut in the title role of Alceste, in a staging by Graham Vick.  There was a palpable sense of the sheer pleasure of performing on stage that night, the house chorus throwing themselves into the action and singing as if their lives depended on it.  The entire evening was sung in absolutely immaculate French, making the drama so vivid and immediate.  Leonardo Cortellazzi sung a lyrical and finely-shaded Admète, while Alexandre Duhamel was an imposing presence in his roles.  But it was Quintans who swept all before her, alive to all the facets of the part, bringing out desperation, resolution and passion.  Indeed, I can still hear in my mind the anguish she brought to ‘grands dieux, du destin qui m’accable’, or the sheer beauty of tone and meaning she found in ‘ah! Divinités implacables’.  This was opera that lived and breathed.

Photo: © Nuno Ferreira Monteiro

As indeed did Krzysztof Warlikowski’s staging of Les Contes d’Hoffmann at De Munt – La Monnaie in Brussels.  Warlikowski gave us a musing on the lives of creative souls and what happens to those we put on a pedestal.  Eric Cutler gave Hoffmann an unbearably tragic dimension, a man haunted by his creativity, seeking solace in alcohol.  Cutler gave us a performance of no-holds barred immediacy, showing us both a man finding satisfaction in creativity, yet also broken when he can create no more.  Patricia Petibon sang all of Hoffmann’s ladies – from an Olympia that seemed extra-terrestrial, to an Antonia addicted to singing yet knowing that it would ensure her demise.  Michèle Losier sang Nicklausse/La Muse with such artistry and understanding of the style and the evening benefitted from the sheer clarity of diction throughout the large cast.  Alain Altinoglu led the house forces at the top of their game, easily placing this house into the premier league of international lyric theatres.  This was an evening that was all that opera should be – not about ‘names’ sleepwalking through thirty-year old productions of the same old titles, but instead opera that speaks directly to us, that makes us feel, that makes us reflect, and that leaves us changed.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

As always, there were quite a few things I didn’t get the chance to discuss here.  A massive thanks to those who helped make all of this possible through supporting the site on Patreon and PayPal.  I couldn’t do it without you.  This year, I was able to see some magnificent shows and also got to interview some of the finest artists before the public today.  This wouldn’t be possible without your support, thank you for making it possible.

We are looking into a very uncertain future, but as long as we have the power of art and artistic visionaries willing to put themselves out there to make us feel and reflect, then there will still be a light for us someplace.  All that remains is for me to wish you the very best for 2020.  Please stay safe and don’t give up hope.  Bonne année.

Sunset over the city of Hamburg, Germany, Saturday December 21st, 2019; Photo: © operatraveller.com

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