This was another year unlike any other. It started with the darkness and despair of lockdown, gave us a glimmer of hope in a thriving summer, and is now looking into the new year with trepidation. For the operatic world, while 2021 has been an improvement in many respects, it has also been exceptionally difficult with numerous theatre closures, cancelled productions, artists leaving the profession, and now a renewed round of theatre closures. Of course, we were given the opportunity to see a number of productions thanks to streaming – in the majority of cases free of charge – and the opportunity for productions to be recorded for posterity is a reason for gratitude. And yet, nothing, absolutely nothing, can be a substitute for being able to hear the glory of the unamplified human voice live.
I was able to review a good number of the streams made available, and consequently got to hear some new artists in new places. As things opened up again, I was able to return to a number of theatres, as well as visiting the theatres of Piacenza and Rome, Italy, as well as the Arena di Verona and Philharmonie Essen, all for the first time. Despite the constantly-changing travel restrictions, I was able to see shows in the Portuguese, French, Italian and Federal German Republics, as well as in the Kingdoms of Belgium and the Netherlands.
Half of the reviews on the site in this past year have been of streams, while the other half have been of live performances. Streaming gave me the opportunity to see shows from Prague and Lille, two theatres that I have yet to have the pleasure of visiting. In particular, a superb Pelléas et Mélisande from Lille, notable for superb diction from an entirely francophone cast and the revelatory period instrument sonorities of Les Siècles, conducted by François-Xavier Roth, who gave us a reading that was much more passionate than we often hear in this work. Similarly, from Wrocław, we were given the opportunity to see Charles Castronovo make his stage debut as Hoffmann, having sung in it in concert in Baden-Baden a few years ago. Castronovo brought his customary handsome tenor and clarity of French diction to this massive sing, and was ably supported by the admirable house forces led by their music director, Bassem Akiki.
Streaming productions also meant that the years of preparation of new stagings were not in vain. Fortunately, we were able to see Damiano Michieletto’s Jenůfa from Berlin, featuring Camilla Nylund making her debut in the title role in a mesmerizing assumption, bringing out a wealth of tone colours in how she pointed the text. She was joined by the great Evelyn Herlitzius, once again giving us a riveting Kostelnička. Over in Paris, France, Sondra Radvanovsky gave us a singing lesson as Aida, joined by Ludovic Tézier who sang Amonasro in a firm column of sound. Ksenia Dudnikova sang Amneris with a plush mezzo but appeared to give little impression of understanding what she was singing about, while Jonas Kaufmann’s Radamès sounded vocally tired and frequently resorted to unsupported crooning. That said, this was the best conducting I’ve heard from Michele Mariotti, while Lotte de Beer’s staging attempted to give an interesting post-colonial take on the work, but the outcome was much less than the sum of its parts.
Eleonora Buratto once again confirmed her place as the heiress to the great Italian tradition in an Ernani from Palermo, while as Fiordiligi in Così from the Scala, she proved herself to be an elegant Mozartian, fully up to the challenges of her fiendishly difficult assignment. There she was joined by Alessio Arduini as Guglielmo, the owner of an exceptionally handsome baritone and undeniable stage presence. Also from the Scala, came the opportunity to see Damiano Michieletto’s Salome, a staging of immense power, that disturbed profoundly due to it leaving so much to the imagination. The Scala orchestra was on thrilling form for Riccardo Chailly, playing with extreme virtuosity. Elena Stikhina’s Salome was disappointing though. She clearly has the right kind of instrument for the role, but it was hard to discern what language she was singing in.
In Belgium, La Monnaie – De Munt, gave us a Turn of the Screw, directed by Andrea Breth, that worked exceptionally well on the small screen, sung with dedication by a mostly anglophone cast, and conducted with gripping insight by Ben Glassberg. In Flanders, a Werther gave us the chance to hear Enea Scala’s assumption of the title role, sung with staggering ease and heartfelt passion. His Charlotte was Rihab Chaieb. The Montréalaise mezzo sang with glamorous tone, but her assumption felt rather cold and contained. In Paris, France, the Théâtre du Châtelet gave us the opportunity to view the great Calixto Bieito’s deeply emotional staging of the Johannes-Passion, transforming it into major communal ritual, and in doing so, universalized the work and overcame its antisemitism, to produce a theatrical experience of raw power. It was superbly sung by the principals, not least Benjamin Appl’s Christus, and the dedication of the volunteer singers of the chorus was inspirational. Over in Vienna, the Theater an der Wien gave us the opportunity to see Claus Guth’s fascinating staging of Händel’s Saul, dominated by Florian Boesch in the title role and Jake Arditti as a magnetic David.
As the weather improved, so the theatres reopened. My first live opera of the year didn’t take place until June, when I was delighted to return to the wonderful Teatro Nacional de São Carlos in Lisbon for Ernani. The house orchestra and chorus were on stirring form. Gregory Kunde gave us a masterclass in vocal longevity in the title role, while He Hui was a vocally wayward but undeniably exciting Elvira – mainly as one never knew if the voice would quite land where it was aiming at. Summer is of course a time for festivals and after a year of enforced absence, I was similarly delighted to return to the fabulous Festival d’Aix-en-Provence for this year’s edition. It was something of a mixed bag. Lotte de Beer’s Le nozze di Figaro was a bit of an incoherent mess, frankly, although it offered some musical rewards in Julie Fuchs’ Susanna, Lea Desandre’s Cherubino and Andrè Schuen’s Figaro. Simon Stone gave us a barely coherent Tristan und Isolde but the overwhelming sound of a live Wagnerian orchestra, the score superbly played by the London Symphony Orchestra, was a glorious treat after months outside of the theatres. Nina Stemme was a secure, if cold, Isolde; Stuart Skelton an admirable Tristan, but Jamie Barton was overparted as Brangäne, the tone brittle and frequently inaudible from my seat. Kaija Saariaho’s new opera, Innocence, was undoubtedly the highlight of the festival. The word masterpiece is perhaps too widely used, but there really is no better way of describing Saariaho’s major contribution to the operatic repertoire. The fluency and inventiveness of her instrumental writing, the way that she created such a diverse range of vocal languages, all coming together to illustrate a fascinating plot – this was a major evening in the theatre and a work that deserves to be widely heard and discussed.
I also made my first visit to the legendary Arena di Verona. I wanted to have that unique experience of siting on the steps high up, taking in that incredible atmosphere. Unfortunately, the evening I was there coincided with a strike by the orchestra, so we got an Aida with piano accompaniment in that massive space. Unique it most certainly was and it was definitely a night to remember – if perhaps not for the reasons one might have expected. María José Siri gave us a passionate Aida, Murat Karahan a sturdy Radamès, while Olesya Petrova was good value as Amneris.
One might have feared that the months of theatrical closures would have led to theatres playing safe in terms of repertoire. Fortunately, this was not the case. In Florence, the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino gave us the opportunity to see Giordano’s Siberia, with Sonya Yoncheva giving us a highly dedicated assumption of the central role of Stephana. Over in Flanders, we were given the opportunity to see Weill’s Silbersee in a staging by Ersan Mondtag that had some significant pacing issues, but was musically up to the standards of the house. De Munt – La Monnaie gave us the opportunity to see Kris Defoort’s new work, The Time of our Singing, based on the novel by Richard Powers. This is an important work and subject matter, a reminder of the ties that connect the African-American and Jewish communities, yet Defoort’s score felt episodic and I longed for him to take a melodic idea and run with it. That said, it would be hard to imagine a better musical performance than the one we received from the assembled forces.
Over in Essen, I was lucky to be able to see Il Pomo d’Oro’s tour of Händel’s Radamisto in concert with a fabulous cast including Philippe Jaroussky, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Anna Bonitatibus, Emőke Baráth, and Zachary Wilder, all of whom gave us a feast of superb Händelian singing. In Amsterdam, Concerto Köln gave us the opportunity to hear a revelatory Das Rheingold. Hearing this work with the period instruments, gave a sense of seeing a great edifice being cleared of years of grime and instead, sounding as revolutionary as it must have done at its first performance. Kent Nagano conducted a reading that used swifter tempi than usual, but felt utterly natural in its pacing and organic in its transitions. He cast lighter voices than one often hears but it really worked, with a sense of every role being securely sung. In Hamburg, Benjamin Bernheim once again confirmed his place as one of the leading francophone tenors before the public today, with his stage role debut as Hoffmann. He was more than up to the multiple challenges of the part, the voice dispatched with ease throughout, and strongly supported by Olga Peretyatko (singing all of the ladies), Luca Pisaroni, and Angela Brower.
There’s something very special about attending the opera in Italy, the land that gave birth to this magnificent art form, and this year was no exception. I visited the lovely Teatro Municipale in Piacenza to see their Norma. Angela Meade was admirable in the title role, even if it felt that her reading was rather skin deep and technique unfinished. The overall quality of the performance was notably satisfying. I also visited the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma for the first time, to see Tosca in the theatre where it was first performed. Alessandro Talevi’s production was an interesting work of theatrical archaeology, giving us a reproduction of that premiere production. Saioa Hernández grew in confidence as the evening progressed in the title role. Vittorio Grigolo was a virile Cavaradossi, while Roberto Frontali gave us an aristocratically dangerous Scarpia. Paolo Arrivabeni’s conducting was utterly compelling. Over at the Maggio Musicale in Florence, a Falstaff gave us a life-enhancing evening, with a mainly Italian cast, including Nicola Alaimo, Simone Piazzola, Ailyn Pérez and Sara Mingardo, all led in a revelatory reading by John Eliot Gardiner, who brought out so much detail in the score, fabulously played by the Maggio orchestra. A special mention for the Nannetta, Francesca Boncompagni, the owner of a deliciously soufflé-light soprano that soared magically with lunar beauty. As always, a highlight of the year was a visit to the Festival Donizetti Opera in Bergamo, where I saw Mayr’s Medea in Corinto. It was given a visually detailed staging by Francesco Micheli, well sung by a cast including Carmela Remigio, Juan Francisco Gatell and Michele Angelini, but hampered by pedestrian conducting from Jonathan Brandini.
As every year, there was a handful of shows that stand out as being perhaps the most exceptional in a year where the quality was indeed very high. The first was an Elisir d’amore also at the Festival Donizetti Opera. In a city that has suffered so much from the pandemic, there was something very special in seeing the theatre named after Donizetti come back to life. Riccardo Frizza conducted a reading that blended those long Donizettian lines over rhythmic propulsion, the period instruments adding a wealth of colour to the textures. Javier Camarena sang a wonderfully lyrical Nemorino, revelling in those long lines, while Florian Sempey was a nicely beefy Belcore. Roberto Frontali was a congenial Dulcamara. We also witnessed a star is born moment from Caterina Sala who gave notice of a major talent as Adina. Still in her early twenties, she’s already the owner of an impressive technique and innate musicality. A name to watch.
The other show I would like to highlight is a streaming. That was of Platée from the Theater an der Wien. The production, by Robert Carsen, is by far the best thing I have seen from him. He updates the work to the world of fashion, giving Jeanine de Bique’s Folie the opportunity to indulge in some terrific dance moves. Marcel Beekman tore up the stage in the title role, while the entire cast sang with style and with a clarity of diction that allowed the work to truly live. William Christie knows this music inside out and those decades of experience were evident in the way that he led his forces with a reading that convinced completely.
Then, also from the Theater an der Wien, came a Peter Grimes in a deeply insightful production by Christof Loy. This was an evening that made Britten’s score and the drama seem much more universal and less provincial than it can often sound. Thomas Guggeis led a reading that placed Britten’s music firmly in the European canon, bringing out a wealth of colour from the band, the icy North Sea winds and surging waves seemed ever-present in his reading. The Arnold Schoenberg Chor was on staggering form – even months later, the memory of those cries of ‘Grimes’ still curdle the blood. Eric Cutler combined both melismatic lyricism with vocal heft in the title role and he was surrounded by a cast which had clearly been selected with care. This was a major evening in the house and undoubtedly the finest Grimes I have ever seen or heard live.
Again, this was a year unlike any other but the fact that so many were able to experience live opera at the highest level is indeed reason to celebrate. As always, our thoughts must be with those who have suffered so much due to theatrical closures, we hope that these will soon be a thing of the past, and that we can return to theatres again, even if in modified ways with enhanced sanitary measures.
In the meantime, I’d like to wish all readers a very happy new calendar year and all the very best for 2022. Bonne année.