And so, once again we come to the end of another year of music. This year gave us a view of what lies ahead. As we begin to enter the next stage of the global pandemic, operatically things are starting to return to normal – although cast changes and show cancellations persist – and some audience members seem to have returned to the idea of thinking it perfectly acceptable to cough and sneeze over their neighbours. This year, I had the pleasure of returning to a number of theatres, including some I haven’t had the pleasure of visiting in quite a while, and also visited some venues for the first time. I attended shows at the Fenice, Opéra de Rouen, the Festival Puccini in Torre del Lago, and the Macerata Festival all for the first time.
More by accident than design, there wasn’t much early music this year, something I definitely intend to change in the coming year. Fortunately, there was some music of today or the more recent past. At the beautiful Fenice – what an exquisite theatre – I saw Battistelli’s Le baruffe based on the play by Goldoni and set to a libretto by Damiano Michieletto, who also directed the show. It was a work that left one in admiration of the construction of the score more than convinced by it, but it was certainly given a performance of immense dedication. The late Wim Henderickx wrote The Convert for Opera Vlaanderen, where it was the most attended premiere in that innovative company’s history. Sadly, it was something of a disappointment – while the score did have its moments and could certainly make an intriguing orchestral suite, the vocal setting was repetitive and the staging perfunctory. In Lisbon, the Teatro São Carlos revived the late Azio Corghi’s Blimunda. It was given a performance that could hardly have been bettered, satisfyingly cast across the board with superb orchestral playing, and was conducted with visionary accuracy. Not new, but a genuine rarity, the Deutsche Oper finally got to perform Langgaard’s Antikrist, given that the original run in 2020 had been cancelled due to the plague. It was worth waiting for to see a highly visual staging from Ersan Mondtag, a work of immense theatrical imagination and skill. The musical performance reflected the high standards one has come to expect at this address.
Interestingly, when things so often come in threes, this year I saw two performances of a number of works. I saw Ernani in a traditional but musically superb performance at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, conducted with irresistible verve by James Conlon, with the house orchestra and chorus on fabulously lusty form. In Flanders, the work was produced in a new staging by rising star Barbora Horáková Joly. She chose to add spoken dialogues to the work to add context, but sadly only seemed to serve to slow the narrative down. It was admirably sung by a youthful cast and conducted with stateliness by Julia Jones. Two Verdi Requiems marked the year. One, at the Fundação Gulbenkian, featured a youthful quartet of soloists including the wonderful Adriana González and Marina Viotti, and the Gulbenkian’s superlative chorus. The other, in Milan, featured the great Anna Bonitatibus, a revelation in the mezzo solo, singing alongside an all-Italian cast, conducted with visceral fervour by Claus Peter Flor.
Also in Milan, but this time at the Scala, I saw Pikovaya Dama, in a performance with some committed singing and orchestral playing, but rather tentatively conducted. In Brussels, the work was given in a rather random staging by David Marton, that seemed to have been set in a university library or a Soviet-era shopping mall, but once again demonstrated that this house has one of the best opera orchestras in the world currently, that day under Nathalie Stutzmann’s exciting direction. There was also a pair of Troyens. In Munich, Christophe Honoré set the work in two very distinct settings, with plenty of naked men and gay sex – never disagreeable to see, but it did feel like an art installation rather than an opera production. It was notable for the great Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s staggering Cassandre, offering singing of thrilling impact and textual insight, and Gregory Kunde seemingly defying the years as Énée. In Cologne, Enea Scala sang his namesake with thrilling freedom, while François-Xavier Roth gave us some revelatory conducting at the head of a supremely responsive orchestra. In Rouen, the house revived Calixto Bieito’s revelatory staging of Jenůfa, featuring Natalia Romaniw in the title role, a soprano notable for a voice that combines Celtic warmth with Slavic metal; while in Geneva, the great Evelyn Herlitzius simply became the Kostelnička, confirming that she has now become the leading interpreter of this iconic role of our time. Also at the Scala, the great Sondra Radvanovsky swept all before her as Amelia in Ballo. What a pleasure it was to hear singing of the calibre that she and Ludovic Tézier gave us that day – both so utterly firm and stylish, filling the house thrillingly. In Munich, I was privileged to be at the role debut of Charles Castronovo as Riccardo. Castronovo has managed his career impeccably, and that night he sang with such freedom and stylishness, giving that wonderful sense of watching an artist really come into his own. He was joined by George Petean as Renato, singing with admirable firmness and an impeccable sense of line.
Happily, there was quite a bit of Gluck this year. At the Opéra Comique, the great Véronique Gens gave her debut in the role of Armide, surprisingly so given her long association with his music. She headed a superb cast, the only disappointment being Ian Bostridge’s Renaud, which was rather an acquired taste. It was thrillingly conducted and played by Christophe Rousset and his Talens lyriques. In Rouen, Gens was to have sung Iphigénie, but withdrew a few days before the premiere giving Hélène Carpentier her debut in the role. The house revived Robert Carsen’s staging, which I saw a few years ago in Toronto. It looks dated now, but it was efficiently revived and judiciously cast. In Rome, Italy, I saw Marina Viotti, one of the finest francophone singers, coming into her own these days, in the title role of Alceste. Viotti proved herself a very fine tragédienne and was joined by the superb Juan Francisco Gatell as Admète. Other French music this year, included an enjoyable Lakmé in Liège, featuring local favourite Jodie Devos scintillating in the title role.
Strauss and Wagner were also present this year. I saw my first-ever staged Arabella in Zürich, decently sung across the board, although I have to say I found Robert Carsen’s Nazi-themed staging in extremely poor taste. In Aix-en-Provence, Elsa Dreisig sang the title role in Salome. She was very warmly received by the audience, but I must admit it sounded to my ears like far too big a role for her at this stage in her career and it was verbally indistinct – Angela Denoke’s Herodias showed how it should be done. In Brussels, we finally got to see Damiano Michieletto’s Rosenkavalier after a pandemic-induced delay. It was a heart-breaking evening, full of pain, loss, and implicit goodness. It reminded us of the value of time and treasuring every moment. With Julia Kleiter a glorious Marschallin, one of the finest incarnations of this role I’ve ever seen, and Alain Altinoglu leading that truly outstanding orchestra, this was an evening in which the tears flowed freely. Calixto Bieito directed a revelatory Tristan und Isolde in Vienna. This was a staging that amplified the world of that revolutionary score, taking us deep into its longing and solitude. Without doubt one of the greatest stagings I saw this year, but it was let down musically by Martina Serafin’s waywardly-sung Isolde. Although Andreas Schager was a thrilling Tristan, probably the finest exponent of that role today. In Helsinki, I got to see the second part of their Ring, with a Walküre that was much more strongly produced than the opening Rheingold, seen just before the world changed. The house orchestra was on blazing form, with Miina-Liisa Värelä and Joachim Bäckström a world-class pair of twins. Over in Bologna, I saw a Lohengrin that was nothing short of a revelation. I’d never heard an Italian orchestra in Wagner before, but they played it as if it were bel canto, phrasing the music with grace, beauty, and warmth – it was unlike anything I’d heard before and I would gladly have all my Wagner sound like that in future. The house chorus, joined by guests from Ukraine, made a magnificent noise with superb discipline and tuning, and Anna Maria Chiuri and Ólafur Siguardarson were outstanding as Ortrud and Telramund.
Mozart was regrettably only a small part of my operagoing this year. A delectable Così in Lisbon, was satisfyingly conducted by Nuno Coelho, and did what all good performances of this work should do – it took us from joy, to pain, to truly understanding what it means to be human. With extremely satisfying performances from Ilker Arcayürek, Samuel Hasselhorn, Im Sunhae, and Marcos Fink, and the excellent Gulbenkian orchestra and chorus, this was an evening that lived its humanity. In Aix, I saw an Idomeneo directed by Miyagi Satoshi. It was an interesting staging, static for the principals, but made us reflect on the sacrifices people make for their leaders. With Michael Spyres, Anna Bonitatibus, and Sabine Devieilhe offering highly stylish performances, the musical standards were very high.
Visiting that beautiful Provençal city is always a pleasure and I also saw a Moïse et Pharaon there that felt like a bit of a work in progress, with some satisfying and some less than satisfying singing, but in Tobias Kratzer’s staging did aim to inspire us to be better humans. In my first visit to Macerata, I found a festival with very high standards and an extremely ambitious staging of Tosca by Valentina Carrasco, with a Scarpia from Claudio Sgura who made evil sound perniciously quotidian. At the Puccini Festival in Torre del Lago, I finally got to hear the Berio completion of Turandot live, on a serviceable, if rather humid, evening.
Indeed, there was a lot of Italian music this year. It was a privilege to be in Lisbon for the first staged production in over two years at the São Carlos, with a youthful Bohème in March. At the Scala, I saw my first live Gioconda in a visually imposing staging by Davide Livermore, if rather mixed musically. Another first for me was getting to see L’amico Fritz, which I saw at the Maggio, where Charles Castronovo was giving his role debut in the title role. It was perfect Sunday afternoon escapism, with vocal and instrumental performances at the highest level. Castronovo also made his role debut as Pinkerton in Munich, alongside Ermonela Jaho as Madama Butterfly. Wolf Busse’s staging is now extremely dated, but that night really demonstrated the exceptional standards we expect at that house, and the Jaho-Castronovo pairing in Puccini was as devastating as it always is. In Brussels, a Trittico was directed with insight by Tobias Kratzer and highlighted once again the excellence of the orchestral playing there and was honourably sung. The Teatro Massimo in Palermo gave us a Nabucco that showed what a magnificent acoustic that historic house has and the depth of and understanding of tradition of the house forces.
Reflecting a great tradition was the work of soprano Eleonora Buratto as Anna Bolena in València. Watching her, one is immediately aware that Buratto really is the incarnation of the great Italian vocal tradition, in style, in technique, and in that implicit musicality that cannot be taught. In Madrid, Nadine Sierra gave us some technically spectacular singing as La sonnambula, but left me cold. Xabier Anduaga’s Elvino on the other hand cherished the line and the text and sang with a wonderfully ardent and warm tenor. At the Festival Donizetti Opera in Bergamo, I saw a Favorite, also directed by Valentina Carrasco, that was equally ambitious. Annalisa Stroppa poured out her heart as Léonor, but I couldn’t understand a word; while Javier Camarena and Florian Sempey both sang with bel canto sensibility and impeccable French. My first show of the year was a Lucia in Hamburg that was musically extremely satisfactory, but lost impact in a staging by Amélie Niermeyer that didn’t trust her singers to drive the drama forwards.
As is the case every year, I would like to highlight three shows that left particularly strong impressions on me. That isn’t to say that Bieito’s Tristan, the Bolognese Lohengrin, or Michieletto’s Rosenkavalier didn’t – these were definitely real highlights of the year, but the next three felt particularly special. Indeed, the first isn’t even an opera. For the Aix festival this year, Romeo Castellucci directed a staging based on Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. After all we have lived through the last three years, Castellucci’s staging felt like something of a catharsis. Indeed, in that final climactic ‘Aufersteh’n’ it felt that the entire venue wept for all we have lived through, lost, and experienced in what has been the biggest societal change so many of us have experienced. Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted a reading that was at once both nightmarish and roof-raising. The venue, a disused arena, seemed to embody the spirit of returning to life. Yes, Marianne Crebassa was mis-cast as the mezzo soloist, but Golda Schultz sang radiantly on the soprano line. This was much more than an evening of music. It was an evening that allowed us to mourn what we have lived through and to face our future.
L’elisir d’amore is one of the most perfectly uplifting operas – and so it was on a Monday evening in October in Lisbon. This was the kind of evening that opera should be about – not about overrated ‘names’ sleepwalking through five-decade old productions – instead, we got a youthful cast of serious promise in a staging that did so much with little. And it really did send all present into the night with a smile on our faces. Rita Marques was a delicious Adina, offering stratospheric embellishments to the line. Antonio Garés gave us a Nemorino with an exquisite line, that used the warmth of the language to colour the text, and was an engaging actor, while Ricardo Seguel sang Dulcamara with so much personality. Mário João Alves’ staging used the principals to drive the action forward, and did so with so much imagination and fantasy. It was an evening I simply didn’t want to end.
La bohème is an opera that, when done well, can be an unforgettable evening in the theatre. There was magic on the stage when I saw Davide Livermore’s production in València this month. It had been cast with imagination – Federica Lombardi gave us a Mimì that abounded in sheer humanity. Saimir Pirgu was an extremely enthusiastic Rodolfo, portraying a poet who really wore his heart on his sleeve. Mattia Olivieri was a gravity-defying Marcello, while Marina Monzó sang a diamantine Musetta. Having Damián del Castillo and Manuel Fuentes incarnate Schaunard and Colline as clearly forming a third couple, made this feel an even more inclusive and inspirational evening. Then there was the playing of the house orchestra under James Gaffigan, bringing out so much beauty in the surging textures, and the house choruses singing with such firmness and unanimity of tone. It was one of those magical evenings that reminded us what it feels like to fall in love and how important it really is to savour every single moment. It was an extremely special evening.
This has been another very enjoyable year of operagoing. There were indeed so many satisfying evenings along the way – as well as a few less satisfying. Overall, the standard has been extremely high and I am very much looking forward to what 2023 brings. In the meantime, I would like to take this opportunity to extend to you my very warmest wishes for the year ahead in the hope that you too will have much operatic satisfaction along the way. Thank you, as always, for reading. Bonne année!
Many thanks for a great summary – it reminded me about many great pieces that I’ve seen this year 😉 have a great 2023 too…