Culture Magazine

Nights at the Opera: 2011

By Singingscholar @singingscholar
Time blurs strangely together towards the end of the academic term, and I can't quite believe it's late December already... but I seem to have seen my last opera of the year, so it must be true. To cheer the longest night of the year, here's 2011's non-hierarchical, gleefully subjective round up of some of the past year's highlights: great nights, standout performances, and exploring the city's many opportunities for opera.
5 Great Nights

Not without difficulty, I've picked out a handful of the nights that reminded me of opera's glorious possibilities, by surprising me with their musical excellence and emotional immediacy. In alphabetical order:
Atys, Brooklyn Academy of Music. I saw this glorious gem in September, and it set a standard that the rest of the autumn never quite reached. The ensemble work of Les Arts Florissants was precise, elegant, and passionate, evoking seventeenth-century splendor and creating timeless enchantment. The production is now available on DVD.
Bluebeard's Castle, with the New York Philharmonic. Including a concert performance may seem like bending the rules, but so much of Bluebeard is about perception and imagination that I thought it worked well. Lighting was used well, and the musical values were superb. Esa-Pekka Salonen drew fiery and subtle playing from the orchestra, Gabor Bretz was a charismatic Bluebeard, and Michelle DeYoung a stunning Judith, emotionally rich and vocally luxurious.
Don Giovanni, with the Budapest Festival Orchestra. This production, seen at the Mostly Mozart festival, has been the year's most talked-of among my friends, often to the detriment of more costly and less creative endeavors. Ivan Fischer was behind the idea which had the cast clad in contemporary evening dress, moving among dancers who formed the sets, reflecting the titular antihero's view of the world. There were allusions to classicism and romanticism, there was very fine singing, especially from Laura Aikin as Donna Anna, and Fischer led the BFO in a hair-raising, fire-and-brimstone reading of the score in its Prague version.
Die Walküre, at the Met under James Levine. I'm breaking a bigger rule here, and ignoring the (non-)contribution of the production. But the performances I saw gave me a list of indelible moments--the twist of anguish in grüße mir Wälse, for instance--and their dramatic sweep was irresistible. The orchestra gave of their best under Levine's leadership, and the performances were deeply moving, from Siegmund and Sieglinde's first entranced encounter to the finale through which I sobbed. Twice.
Wozzeck, another highlight of Levine's curtailed spring schedule at the Met, a stunning, searing performance of Berg's claustrophobic masterpiece. All of the singers inhabited their roles fully, and sang them excellently.
10 Standout Performances
I limited myself to five of these last year, but I'm spoiling my symmetry this time, because I couldn't stand to trim the list of these performances. Not only were these portrayals deeply moving, each of them has enhanced or altered in some way my perception of the role's possibilities. In no particular order:
Terfel's Wanderer: I'm at something of a loss to pinpoint exactly what made this such a standout for me, but Terfel gave perhaps the most nuanced performance I've heard from him, and I felt that I understood Wotan's weariness, and his tragedy, better than before.
Mattei's Don Giovanni: I swear this man's voice is as rich, smooth, and intoxicating as a good port. In an otherwise dull evening, his Don gave me opportunity to ponder the protean character's possibilities, when I wasn't too entranced by his seductive singing to ponder anything at all.
DiDonato's Komponist: die Musik ist eine heilige Kunst! I adore Strauss's Komponist, I adore DiDonato, and the confluence of singer and role worked magic for me. There was a seriousness of purpose to DiDonato's passion which I haven't often seen her display, and which made the core of truth to the composer's youthful effusions deeply compelling.
Hong's Mimi. I wasn't expecting to sit through Zeffirelli's production of La Boheme again, but Hei-Kyung Hong reminded me how much I love Puccini's protagonists, and made me love Mimi--flirtatious, fragile, courageous and loving--more than ever. Hong sang the role with subtlety and commitment, and I cried.
Graham's Iphigenie: Graham brought to the role of Iphigenie a level of dramatic intensity I didn't know she had, as well as her customarily fine, expressive singing.
Pape's Mephistopheles: a snarling, smiling devil, with rich and richly charismatic singing, as completely in control of the role's vocal demands as Mephistopheles is of those around him... en somme, un vrai gentilhomme.

Isabel Leonard's Rosina: pure delight channeled through technical mastery. Leonard's lively Rosina was thoroughly lovable, irrepressibly clever, and marvelously sung.
Dessay's Lucia: the usher at the top of Family Circle drew her stool over to the center aisle to watch Dessay's mad scene, and even that didn't prepare me for its intensity. But this, while terrifying, was of a piece with the rest of Dessay's daring, involving performance.
Joint entry: Jonas Kaufmann and Angela Gheorghiu, in Adriana Lecouvreur. Both singers were on excellent vocal form, and their passionate performances ignited the evening. Cilea's opera may not be a masterpiece of the repertory, but it was sung like one.
Bonus round: Deborah Voigt, as Minnie. This is sort of cheating, as both of the Fanciulla performances I saw took place in December of 2010. But the sense of emotional frankness which Voigt brought to the role, the courage and vulnerability with which she inhabited the role and tackled its vocal demands, has stayed with me, a persistent, enriching memory.
5 places to see opera in NYC
One of my proudest opera-going accomplishments of 2011 was the expansion of my horizons beyond the (admittedly glorious) interior of the Met.
Amore Opera: nestled on East 4th Street, this is old-fashioned, family-style opera, with a theater seating 100, and an ensemble made up of a mixture of seasoned veterans and young singers, sharing similar enthusiasm.
Gotham Chamber Opera: an adventurous opera company which gave an intimate, unsettling performance of Nico Muhly's Dark Sisters.
Little Opera Theatre of New York: providing an admirable example of doing much with little, employing countertenors, and staging valuable operatic rarities.
Operamission: from modernist masterpieces to opera workshops and beyond, this company provides exciting experiences in a salon atmosphere.
Vertical Player Repertory: my first experience of this company's work was a dreamy evening under the stars with a Cavalli opera: magical metamorphoses in a Brooklyn courtyard.
1 sentimental thought
It feels a bit surreal to be looking back on almost two years of blogging (!) and I can't wait to see where the process will take me next. I'm honored, Gentle Readers, by the number of you who have stopped by, delighted by the conversations in the comment threads, grateful for the meetings, conversations, and relationships which have resulted from encounters here, and eager to embark on another year of operatic discovery. In the meantime, Gentle Readers, I wish you warmth on winter nights.

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