Sunday, December 30, 2012

Nights at the Opera: 2012

I imagined, Gentle Readers, that compiling this year's retrospective of opera-going would present fairly few challenges. Folly! Reviewing this year's performances (an admittedly indulgent practice) has shaken my confident creation of hierarchies and left stray runners-up begging for attention. So here, a little more disorderly than usual, are my lists for the year.

5 Nights When Everything (or Almost Everything) Went Right:

Emilie: I usually resist to the utmost of my power the declaration of Absolute Favorites, but for this year, this opera by Kaija Saariaho might be it. A tautly constructed opera, creatively orchestrated, with a great libretto, centered on the accomplishments and inner life of an eighteenth-century noblewoman-philosopher... what's not to love?

Le Roi Malgré Lui: Frothy French operetta in a sly 1930s-Hollywood production? Yes, please. The zany screwball antics of Thaddeus Strassberger's production were smart enough to keep me intrigued as well as entertained, and the fearless and talented cast won my heart. Perhaps most importantly, Emmanuel Chabrier's score is in on the jokes of frothy French operetta.

Un Ballo in Maschera: If using the tropes of films of the '30s and '40s is a directorial trend, I applaud it. Not only do I think it has great potential as a vehicle for playing around with the treatment of gender that bedevils much of the nineteenth-century rep, and the shades-of-grey politics ditto, it also has great potential for gratifying my taste for Art Deco, Ingrid Bergman hats, and three-piece suits. David Alden's production was not without weaknesses, but its melodramatic moodiness suited the work well, and the singing was very fine. Standouts in a strong cast were Sondra Radvanovsky and Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Amelia and Renato, both tortured by divided affections.

La Clemenza di Tito: This was an unexpected late highlight of the Met's fall season. Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's production has stood the test of time, the orchestra was on fine form under Harry Bicket, and the vocal and dramatic performances were all strong. The performance combined sensuality, political tension, even an element of humor thanks to Barbara Frittoli's excellent Vitellia, and I fell in love with Mozart all over again.

Götterdämmerung: This managed to be a really searing, satisfying performance despite Robert Lepage's production. Having lavished adjectives of scorn and disillusionment on it, I'd like to now give it the cold shoulder. Waltraud Meier's Waltraute might be enough to convey epic grandeur to just about anything; the performances of the Gibichungs were vocally strong and dramatically nuanced; and Deborah Voigt and Jay Hunter Morris were an intensely moving Brunnhilde and Siegfried.

Runners-up: Khovanschchina (not reviewed,) Billy Budd, and L'Elisir d'Amore (not the new one.)

5 Standout Performances (in no particular order):

Simon Keenlyside (Wozzeck): Berg's opera is clearly holding a perfect record of giving me nightmares after live performances, and I mean this as a high compliment. Esa-Pekka Salonen led a one-off concert performance which was searingly intense, and even in a strong cast, Simon Keenlyside's haunted, haggard, heaven-storming performance was in a class by itself.

Susan Graham (Dido): As the queen of Carthage, Susan Graham was not only regal, but sensual, generous, and proud. The emotional directness of her performance brought welcome intimacy to a sometimes too-sprawling evening.

Gerald Finley (Count Almaviva): Unfortunately mired in a slipshod revival of Nozze, Gerald Finley's Count was nothing less than superb. A richly sung and deeply moving performance was crowned with an unbelievably beautiful "Contessa, perdono." I sobbed so hard that my mother became concerned.

Nina Stemme (Salome): Stemme's performance was nuanced and compelling, richly sensual, and more than a little chilling.

Karita Mattila (Emilia Marty): I had no trouble believing that Mattila's diva had been carving a swathe through Europe for almost four hundred years. She was proud, sensual, and humorous, as well as tragic.

And a special achievement award in this category: Bryn Terfel as Wotan in all three of his Ring operas. Terfel's god just keeps getting richer; his performances have brought me new insights into the character and his impossible choices. That they have also moved me to tears need hardly be said.

5 Operatic Discoveries:

Opera Lafayette: This enterprising company, specializing in French opera, brought a mildly subversive and completely charming work by Monsigny to New York this past January, and will return this coming January.

Bronx Opera: A company presenting operatic rarities in my own borough? Sign me up. Last winter it was Vaughn Williams; early Rossini is up next.

Geraldine Chauvet: Performances by this stunning French mezzo more or less bookended my opera-going year. I heard her as Adriano in January, and in her Met debut as Sesto this past month. Someone please get her lots of engagements and a website makeover.

Einstein on the Beach: Philip Glass's wild, weird, and rather wonderful opera got a revival at BAM in September, and I thoroughly enjoyed expanding my own opera-going experience by attending it.

The TempestThomas Adès' opera made it to the Met for the first time this fall, and despite some weaknesses in staging and libretto, I was intrigued by the orchestration and found the performances compelling.

And that, Gentle Readers, is my personal summary of 2012 in opera. Thanks for reading and commenting; I look forward to starting another year of ever-expanding opera attendance.


  1. If using the tropes of films of the '30s and '40s is a directorial trend, I applaud it.

    Count me out on this one, please.

    Having seen the production in HD I can only say that one must, MUST, close one's eyes to get the true beauty of Verdi's masterpiece. Actually, it wasn't the sets that bothered me so much, I happen to be a big fan of greys and silvers and like natty pinstripe suits and fancy gowns and the like, but the nutty ideas expressed were simply too much for this feeble brain.

    Why all the cigarette smoking without once taking a puff or blowing smoke out of one's mouth? Stupid, stupid, stupid. And what was that Sam doing when he lifted Amelia's scarf from the ground and decided to have a private smell contest with it? I was ready to throw up from that one. And why was it necessary to have Oscar sport these huge strange white wings? Don't tell me, I really don't want to hear the symbolism, thanks. And whose idea was it to have the King act like some kind of buffoon instead of the dignified head of a country?

    Total embarrassment.

    David Alden go home.

    1. New York is home for David Alden. Prophets in their own country and all that. Suits me, New York. Keep your Bartlett Shers and other cliched medicrities and let the rest of us enjoy the work of your most talented offspring.

    2. @Anon: Verdi's masterpiece, as I would concur in calling it, hardly presents Gustavo as the dignified head of a country. He is blind to political realities and irresponsible (at best) in his personal conduct. Some of the details you object to are, of course, the kind of thing that would not be noticed in an opera house. Your taste is of course your affair, but your abusive tone towards Alden while frankly refusing to consider his ideas is something I cannot understand or sympathize with.

      @operaramblings An apt quotation, alas. I recently found this remark in a review of a 1959 (!) Tristan: "For generations the Met has had a fatal tendency to opt for styles in design long after they became passé." Plus ca change...


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