Greetings from the 2013 edition of Landmarks in Opera (and related oddities). This is not a best-and-worst list. Opera is too complicated – and we're far too sophisticated – to view the world through such crude polarities.
And how can any one person – even myself – be so omniscient to know what, for example, was the best Wagner production of the year.
I only know what I saw and what made this year different from the others. But for all the composer anniversaries – Wagner, Verdi and Britten – this was the year of Bellini's Norma, whose title role has even frightened off Renee Fleming and has mostly been a mirage in the operatic past. Until now. Read on...
The New Norma: The number of sopranos who can sing the role has suddenly gone from zero to six. Angela Meade, for whom "Casta diva" has long been a calling card, shared the Metropolitan Opera revival with the dramatically compelling Sondra Radvanovsky. Cecilia Bartoli made a period-instrument Norma recording on Decca – an interesting experiment, even if her Norma needs anger management therapy.
Two others arrived from opposite fachs – the Wagner-sized pipes of Mariella Devia (April in Bologna) and baroque specialist Simone Kermes's "Casta diva" on her new Sony Classical disc “Bel canto from Monteverdi to Verdi.” But the most compelling reading of the opera I've heard lately was a webcast from Warsaw with a period-instrument band under Fabio Biondi and Katia Pellegrino as Norma. Keep your eye out for her. Better yet, go to YouTube.
Vladimir Jurowski: Much adored by the Philadelphia Orchestra and Boston Symphony, this London-based Russian conductor particularly distinguished himself in November's Met revival of Die Frau ohne Schatten. With swift, cogent tempos, the uncut score had sweep and clarity that allowed you to sift through the layers of symbolism and get at what the opera is really about: Our need for dreams and the hefty cost that comes with realizing them. Then there's Jurowski's new Tristan und Isolde recording on the Glyndebourne label, which is full of similar virtues.
Combattimenti: Such was the title of Le Poeme Harmonique's Miller Theater visit in October, which featured Monteverdi's so-called war madrigal Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda that is an opera in all but name. It featured the most dramatically committed, text-attentive and beautifully blended singing I heard all year.
New York City Opera (1943-2013): At least it went down at its best with Mark-Anthony Turnage's Anna Nicole emerging with more dramatic precision than the same production's appearance at London's Royal Opera House, the right singers (Sarah Joy Miller as Anna) and Broadway panache making all the difference. Yet the company died immediately after. City Opera was in such a weakened state it couldn't survive the ups and downs of adventurous producing. But lessons gleaned from its October demise are noted by regional companies trying to differentiate themselves amid competition from the Met's HD simulcasts. City Opera did not die in vain.
Patrice Chereau (1944-2013): The French director revolutionized Wagnerian staging with his industrial Era update of the Ring Cycle in Bayreuth in the 1970s and never looked back. Whether in films, spoken theater or opera, he stripped away artifice; his 2003 Phedre at Paris's Odeon-Theatre had little scenery or costumes, just actors at full-throttle intensity. His 2009 production of Janacek's From the House of the Dead at the Met was fitted with more-than-usual video monitors so singers didn't have to break character to see the conductor – proving that the innate artificiality of opera need not stand in the way of theatrical veracity.
Benjamin Britten: His 100th birthday year was full of Peter Grimes, A Midsummer Night's Dream and many War Requiem performances around the world. My best night was in August at Tanglewood with Mark Morris's plain-clothes staging of Britten's deeply moving church parable Curlew River – a story, told ceremonial style, about a madwoman searching for her dead child. It proved to be one of the few instances after Peter Grimes when the composer allowed himself to generate Puccinian pathos.
A cappella opera: There were two: Lera Auerbach's The Blind in July at Lincoln Center Festival and Ana Sokolovic's Svadba (A Balkan Wedding) presented in November by Opera Philadelphia. Based on a Maurice Maeterlinck play, Auerbach's opera about blind people freezing to death on a desert island hadn't yet found its optimum musical or theatrical form. But blindfolding the audience was a step in the right direction (it saves on production money). The more wonderful Svadba, about a sextet of female friends the night before a wedding, had singers moving and singing as if both activities are one in the same, with tight harmonies beloved by fans of the Bulgarian Women's Choir.
The Wagner Anniversary: Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducted his first Wagner opera, Lohengrin, with his Orchestre Metropolitain at the Lanaudière Festival outside of Montreal in August with a near-dream cast led by Brandon Javonovich and Heidi Melton. Deborah Voigt was to sing her first Ortrud, but her cancellation was filled by the amazing Jane Henschel – the sort of text-based authoritative singer that seemed to die out after World War II.
The Verdi Anniversary: Not that there weren't good live performances, but the 20-disc Verdi at the Met box set on Sony Classical is a journey back to a very different world of greats such as Giovanni Martinelli, Rosa Ponselle and Zinka Milanov. Their Verdi was often sweaty and raw, seizing the operas and leaving their personal stamp.
Gotham Chamber Opera: This company often takes opera goers to places they've never been and did so literally in March by staging Cavalli's racy opera Eliogabalo at The Box, a high-tone gentleman's club (if you know what I mean). But here's the odd part: The place has terrible sightlines if you were any place but the high-price seats. So it was truly a tease – especially since what I could see of the opera (which is about a Roman ruler who longed for a sex change) looked appropriately vulgar.
Cold Mountain: No, you haven't missed the Jennifer Higdon/Gene Scheer work, which premieres in 2015 at the Santa Fe Opera. But since my Philadelphia apartment is on the same block as Higdon's, I couldn't resist salvaging an apparently mis-formatted printout of Act I from the trash this summer. So what's it like? The Civil War drama begins with a man being buried alive for harboring deserters. Moving on, the main character has been wounded by a boy he was trying to help – and has otherwise seen so much horror that he wishes to be blind. This promises to be formidable.
Mozart and his Maker: Religious operas may be making a comeback on the opera stage, as suggested by Mark Adamo's The Gospel of Mary Magdalene in June in San Francisco and Harrison Birtwistle's The Last Supper several seasons back at the Berlin State Opera. But Mozart was onto the idea at age 11 with the singspiel Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots K. 35 in which characters have names like Divine Justice and Divine Mercy. The booklet in the new Signum Classics recording says Mozart wrote it in solitary confinement because the Salzburg Archbishop suspected that papa might write it for him. And it's not bad...
Photos: 1) Vladimir Jurowski (Roman Gontcharov) 2) Patrice Chereau 3) Micaëla Oeste with Baroque Burlesque Performers in Gotham Chamber Opera's 'Eliogabalo' © Richard Termine.