This wasn’t quite how we were expecting the year to go. 2020 was a year that brought out the best and worst in humanity. The best in that neighbours looked out for each other and the entire world made enormous sacrifices to protect the most vulnerable. The worst, in that it provoked a storm of hostility both in real life and on social media, with people lacking compassion in shaming each other, without even considering the mental health impacts of what others might be going through. We’ll live with the economic and mental health implications of this year for a very long time to come. Some have lost loved ones, some are still unwell, others have suffered greatly from the lack of work, or from having the freedom to do basic daily tasks removed.
For the operatic and cultural world, it’s been a very dark year indeed. Artists are going without work, some have had to look for other work in other fields, some have left the industry completely. Theatres have been shuttered, some will never open again. Yet even in this gloom, there were some threads of hope this year. There was live opera in a number of locations, some conventional staged productions, others modified to ensure distancing between artists. In the Spanish state, even now, theatres continue to be open, welcoming reduced audiences and offering some hope of normality even when everything else is falling apart.
On a personal level, it’s been tough, but I’ve had it relatively easy compared to so many. That said, the mental health impact has been severe and, as is common with the last four years, things are looking very dark indeed. Despite it all, I was determined not to give up and, all while complying with local and international regulations, I managed to attend 25 live performances, about a quarter of a usual year, in 19 venues, in 16 cities, in 11 countries – from Brno to Montreal, and from Hamburg to Lisbon. I had the pleasure of visiting Pesaro, Palermo, Florence and Brno, as well as the venerable Salzburger Festspiele, all for the first time. Behind those statistics, however, are hundreds of cancelled shows and all of the related implications for artists and all those who work with them. It’s meant periods of months from April to July and from November until, well, who knows when, without live music. Though, when I got to hear some live music in July, courtesy of a Beethoven concert at the Fundação Gulbenkian, for the first time in months, the impact was overwhelming. It has meant that in all the shows I saw in the second half of the year, there was a sense that this could be the last show for a while, empowering and motivating those on stage to give something even more.
What it has also meant is theatres have been active in putting their work online. Some, such as the Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper Berlin and Oper Köln have filmed their work especially for online broadcast. As a result, we were able to see the centennial production of Die tote Stadt, featuring the remarkable Aušrinė Stundytė as Marie/Marietta, which could have been lost to posterity. It also meant that we got to see a rarity, Braunfels’ Die Vögel, also in a centennial staging, this time a rather clichéd-ridden one by Frank Castorf, that offered significant musical rewards thanks to a very strong cast featuring Caroline Wettergreen, Michael Nagy, Günter Papendell and Wolfgang Koch. In Paris, the Opéra Comique presented a superb Hippolyte et Aricie, performed with that precise stylistic command one has come to expect from Raphaël Pichon and Pygamalion, with a terrific francophone cast, through which every word was clear. The Festival Donizetti Opera, always a highlight of the year, went online for this edition and gave us a fully-staged performance of a rarity, Marino Faliero, in a vocally solid performance.
Of course, while one must rejoice at the fact that these shows were able to be recorded for posterity, and be grateful for the vision of theatres in making it possible, nothing can ever replace the matchless feeling of experiencing the unamplified human voice soaring over a large orchestra. That was particularly evident in Elektra in Salzburg. After months of silence, getting absorbed in the sound of a Straussian orchestra in full flight was unforgettable. Particularly, in an intelligent staging by Krzysztof Warlikowski that featured Aušrinė Stundytė in the title role. Stundytė gave us something quite special. Hers was an Elektra racked with doubt, desperate to believe, but unsure if ever vengeance would come. She truly sang the role with her instrument, giving us a masterclass in how to take on a massive assignment, yet always managing to sing within her means. This was an evening full of damaged people, haunted by the demons of the past. With Tanja-Ariane Baumgartner a riveting Klytämnestra, Asmik Grigorian a fearless Chrysothemis, and Derek Welton a tortured Orest, and with Franz Welser-Möst leading a Wiener Philharmoniker on blazing form, this was an evening to remember.
There were two Jenůfas this year. One in Berlin in January, featured the great Evelyn Herlitizus as a thrilling Kostelnička, her performance so compelling that I forgot that I was in the theatre – it genuinely felt like watching someone going through the Kostelnička’s journey in real time. The other, in Janáček’s home town of Brno, struck by its authenticity. There’s nothing quite like hearing Czech musicians in this rep, the chorus in particular, singing with a freedom and command of the angular rhythms that felt utterly unique. The Kostelnička there was a visitor, Karita Mattila, who gave us a multi-faceted interpretation of the role, one that made us reflect on what life events made her get to the point at which infanticide seemed like a viable option. In Berlin also was an Andrea Chénier, that was rather loud. The audience loved the no-holds-barred vocalism, but it did feel a bit much. Anja Harteros poured her heart out as Maddalena, though, singing with the warmth and generosity that is her trademark. In Hamburg, a double bill of Pierrot lunaire and La voix humaine, gave us the opportunity to see another diva, the indefatigable Anja Silja, as one of a trio of vocalists, ranging from the new to the mature generation. Over in Florence, Ailyn Pérez gave her debut run as Magda in La rondine. Pérez was glorious in the role, pouring out streams of silvery tone, taking us on that journey from pensiveness, to joy, to final regret, in an intelligent staging by Denis Krief. In Palermo, we got a Don Giovanni that wasn’t quite as planned. Due to the indisposition of Sarah-Jane Brandon’s Anna, Aga Mikolaj sang both Elvira and Anna’s arias, while Brandon sang the recitatives and ensembles. It was something of a tour de force for Mikolaj, who rose to the occasion with ease. Alessio Arduini gave us a handsomely-voiced Giovanni, fully fulfilling that essential criteria for any interpreter of the role, to make the listener want to drop his (or her or their) pants through sound alone.
There was also some new music and some rarities this year. In Munich, the Bayerische Staatsoper gave us the opportunity to hear the first performances in English of Abrahamsen’s The Snow Queen, in a dark staging by Andreas Kriegenburg. As always, the casting was done from strength with Barbara Hannigan, Rachael Wilson, Caroline Wettergreen, Katarina Dalayman and Peter Rose in the principal roles. The music was of notable complexity, gratefully written on the whole for the voices, and was received with enthusiasm by the public. In Montreal, the ever-enterprising Opéra de Montréal gave the Quebec and Canada premiere of Written on Skin, in a staging by Alain Gauthier and performed by a mainly local cast. The quality of the singing was extremely satisfying, with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal providing a rainbow of instrumental colour in the pit. Back in Europe, the always innovative Opera Ballet Vlaanderen gave us a chance to see a work based in Gent, Schreker’s Der Schmied von Gent. It was performed in an extremely colourful and busy staging by Ersan Mondtag that gave us a meditation on colonialism and was performed to the extremely high standards one has become accustomed to at this house.
At the start of this Beethoven anniversary year, I was expecting to see quite a few performances of Fidelio. In the end, I saw only one live, at the London Royal Opera. The production, by Tobias Kratzer, was revelatory – one that forced us to ask whether we would stand by and let tyranny take hold. In a country, where populism has led to a horrific death toll, the curtailing of freedoms, and the removal of citizenship, this was exceptionally powerful theatre. Lise Davidsen was an engaging Leonore, an artist of immense promise but with a technique that still needs work. Jonas Kaufmann was a vocally tired Florestan, the voice barely penetrating beyond the footlights. In Zurich, I got to see an Iphigénie en Tauride, notable for a very fine Oreste and Pylade from Stéphane Degout and Frédéric Antoun respectively, and the superb period instruments of La Scintilla. While in Turin, I saw operatic history on stage, in a Nabucco with the great Leo Nucci giving us a masterclass both in vocal longevity and Verdian style in this, his 79th year.
Some more vocal fireworks came courtesy of an Elisir in Munich, with Pretty Yende taking her place as the house’s new reigning bel canto diva, and a mainly house cast showing precisely why this is one of the world’s pre-eminent lyric theatres. In Zurich, a Cenerentola featured Cecilia Bartoli in the title role. I’ve long been fascinated by Bartoli’s vocal technique. It feels that it shouldn’t work, but she’s been singing in this way for over thirty years and sounds the same as ever. Javier Camarena sang her love interest and dispatched his big number with staggering ease. More Rossini came courtesy of a Viaggio a Reims in València in Damiano Michieletto’s glorious staging, a life-affirming meditation on the power of artistic creation. It was superbly sung across the board by a terrific cast. The Melibea there was Marina Viotti who is proving herself one of the most exciting artists on the lyric stage currently. In Lisbon’s Fundação Gulbenkian in December, sadly I wasn’t able to go but saw it online, she gave a compelling performance of Elle in La voix humaine, at the core of a fascinating program that coupled it with classic French chansons and a magical surprise at the end. To hear a francophone singer sing the Poulenc with such clarity of diction was a real treat. Also in Lisbon, but this time at the Teatro São Carlos, there was a star is born moment in La Wally with Zarina Abaeva in the title role proving herself a very exciting talent. The voice is large and vibrant and, if as yet there is some way to go as an interpreter, there is a notable instrument there.
As I said at the top, this was a year unlike any other. It has changed the way we interact, how we work and how we live. It has been catastrophic for so many. If you can, I would encourage you to investigate any way you can support artists, venues and others who are struggling right now. The future is looking extremely uncertain. That said, there is a speck of light at the end of the tunnel, even if, as of now, we don’t know how long the tunnel is. Brighter days will come and when they do, I look forward to being with you all inside a theatre again and bringing you the coverage you have come to expect from the site. In the meantime, I would like to wish you health, happiness and hope for that brighter tomorrow. Happy new year. Bonne année.