12 Pivotal Moments in Opera in 2013

Wednesday, December 18, 2013 - 12:00 AM

Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role of Bellini's 'Norma' Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role of Bellini's 'Norma' (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

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.


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Comments [6]

Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

VLADIMIR JUROVSKI's conducting passion and skills top my most memorable operatic occasions this year. HE IS A HOLLYWOOD DREAM come true for what the ideal opera conductor should be !!! The passing of singers REGINA RESNIK, EVELYN LEAR and DIETRICH FISCHER-DIESKAU and composer MARVIN HAMLISCH and conductor WOLFGANG SAWALLISCH and director PATRICE CHEREAU deserves considerable tributes to their own special talents and accomplishments. AND NOW WE LEARN OF THE PASSING OF MARTA EGGERTH at age 101, surely the last link with the golden age of VIENNESE OPERETTA of performers who premiered in the original productions of the LEHAR and KALMAN and JOHANN STRAUSS, JR productions. MARTA EGGERTH was a colorful radiant personality with a joie de vivre whom I got to meet at the New York College of Music where I was studying voice with ALEXANDER KIPNIS and her son studied piano and at a RICHARD TAUBER TRIBUTE EVENT with JARMILA NOVOTNA and GEORGE JELLINEK at the old Aquarium, formerly the Fort Clinton on the Hudson River built to confront a possible British naval invasion in the pre-Revolutionary War era at the Battery, Manhattan's most southerly landscape, that P.T. BARNUM converted into the Castle Clinton concert auditorium to serve as the debut site in the USA for the touring world-renowned JENNY LIND. Like NOVOTNA and my teacher FRIEDA HEMPEL she was a stunningly beautiful woman in her heyday and her voice was clear and silvery, the very ideal icon of her age for everything bourgeoisie Viennese. My own background with famous opera singer [ FRIEDRICH SCHORR, ALEXANDER KIPNIS, MARGARETE MATZENAUER, FRIEDA HEMPEL, JOHN BROWNLEE, MACK HARRELL and MARTIAL SINGHER ] and acting teachers [ LEE STRASBERG and PHILIP BURTON ] and conductors [LASZLO HALASZ, FAUSTO CLEVA, GEORGE SCHICK and EDWIN MC ARTHUR ] and my own performances consort to evaluate so highly her longtime performance achievement, totally amazing. ] will sing the four song cycles that are most often performed in their orchestral garb: Wagner's "Wesendonck Lieder," Mahler's "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen," Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde" and Schoenberg's "Gurre-Lieder" at the New Life Expo at the Hotel Pennsylvania in NYC on Saturday March 22nd at 6 PM. I have sung four three-hour-long solo concerts in the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall including programming the Wagner and the first named Mahler song cycle. I am an opera composer, Wagnerian romantischer heldentenor and the director at the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute of Boonton, NJ. where I teach voice and train artists in all the Wagner and Shakespeare roles. One may download, free, my singing at CARNEGIE HALL by going to Recorded Selections on my websites www.WagnerOpera.com, www.ShakespeareOpera.com and www.RichardWagnerMusicDramaInstitute.com
www.wagneropera.com and www.shakespeareopera.com

Dec. 28 2013 02:35 PM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

Fact check time. You say the role of Norma even "frightened" Renee Fleming. Not true sir. According to interviews and statements from her publicist, at one time Ms. Fleming simply said, "The role of Norma is not for me."
It is indeed refreshing to see a top Opera performer realize that not every role is right for his/her voice.
Lets try and stay away from the sensational when reporting facts, not every role is right for every voice.
God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Dec. 27 2013 12:25 PM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, va.

Dear Mr. Stearns, Interesting list above. However to say that regional opera companies fear audience competition from the Metropolitan Opera's HD transmissions I fear is a stretch.
First, although the major New York, Boston, and Philadelphia markets may be saturated with movie houses playing these transmissions many rural and small cities have no such transmissions. In my case I live about 70 miles from Washington D.C. and still the closest theater showing Met HD is 45 miles away. This is a big country, outside of New York City.
Second, anyone who has ever attended a live opera performance, even from a youth oriented regional company can never equate sitting in a movie theater watching a "live" HD performance, with its blasting multiplex speakers and a huge screen. There is just no comparison.
If anything I would think that a person going to a Met. HD transmission might be motivated to see a live performance of their local regional company after being exposed to opera.
Regional Opera companies such as our Virginia Opera produce their shows in three different cities, Richmond, Norfolk and Fairfax, Va. In Fairfax, at the 2800 seat George Mason University Center for the Arts they provide free tickets to University students and faculty.
It is only through sharing of productions, tight fiscal management and creative marketing plus aggressive grant writing and involved local board members, that regional companies can exist.
To say that many regional Opera companies learned from the demise of the City Opera has little if any basis of fact.
The City Opera was burdened with very high overhead, and unions that would not give enough wage concessions to allow it to breath, gross mismanagement and poor performances. They existed in the shadow of The Met, and the AIDS epidemic robbed it of many of its most ardent supporters over the years, something most regional companies do not have to deal with.
Most regional companies are not held hostage to union thugs who could care less about art and are focused on collecting dues.
Regional companies may use a combination of a few professional musicians in their orchestras along with supplemental local highly skilled amateurs or local College music performance majors looking for performance experience.
Opera is an art form that has been written off before, but as long as regional companies produce quality performances and know their audiences many will continue to thrive.
I am sure the shadow of The City Opera while having a major effect of those New Yorkers who supported it does not reach into rural America and have any impact on the status of well managed regional Opera companies.
God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Dec. 27 2013 09:42 AM
Charles Perry from New York City

Either Mr. Stearns has a limited travel budget or a limited interest in opera beyond a few East Coast venues or perhaps limited vision. Did he either not see or not consider pivotal any major premieres (Dolores Claiborne, Doubt, Two Boys, Champion, Oscar)or anything from Beth Morrison, Opera Parallel, or The Industry? What about the launch of the PROTOTYPE festival, a true inflection point for operatic innovation? He contends to be "too sophisticated" for "crude polarities" and yet he goes through Jennifer Higdon's garbage for plot spoilers for a work in progress? It's doesn't get much cruder than that.

Dec. 19 2013 03:28 PM
Jason from New York

I find it amusing that WQXR has been airing audio segments in its daily programming in-between the music that serve to diminish the role of religiousity/Christ in Christmas Carols.

I just heard an audio segment that carols originated (and I am summarizing) from some form of 12th century royal court tradition where individuals danced a little and sang. As Jeff Spurgeon goes on to say (paraphrasing) "Carols had nothing to do with religion or Christmas ... " Yesterday I heard a clip that undermined the religious origin of Mendelssohn's "Hark the Herald Angels Sing". The audio clip stated that the music was originally composed by Mendelssohn for an advertising jingle and subsequently the words for "Hark the Herald" were written to match the music. Again the narrator emphasized and clearly stated that religion/Christmas had nothing to do with the origins of the song's music.

While some might say that I am being a stickler, these people would be incorrect. As Plato said "Those who tell the story rule society." While the facts I mentioned in the previous paragraph may be true, mentioning only these facts while omitting the truth about the praise that is given to Christ via these forms of music is disingenuous at best. In airing clips where EACH clip conveys an "interesting fact" that "inadvertently" diminishes the religious underpinning of the subject matter song(s) is a calculated choice by WQXR.

I might add that during the recent month of Mozart, WQXR aired similar interesting fact segments that diminished the role of religion (i.e. Christianity) in Mozart's life. Similarly, WQXR significantly reduced the role of Catholicism and its influence on John Taverner's music in the recent obituary that they wrote and displayed on their website. How shameful, calculated and obvious WQXR's agenda is.

It is apparent persons within WQXR (and NPR by extension) would like to eliminate Christ from the public sphere. This is sad because Christ is TRUTH and JOY. His love informs the political and social consciences of close to 2 Billion people throughout the world! When any belief system is systematically trivialized, misrepresented and (some would argue) vilified by the media then WE ALL, Catholic - Jew - Muslim - and even atheist, are in serious trouble.

I for one will no longer donate money to WQXR until this blatant bias is addressed AND remedied. A public explanation by WQXR posted on this forum would be a good start.

Just something to reflect upon. God Bless you all. Merry Christmas, and may everyone have a peaceful and prosperous New Year!

Dec. 19 2013 10:30 AM
Nick Norton from Los Angeles, CA

Ummmm you missed Invisible Cities. It was one of the most inspiring and innovative pieces I've ever seen.

Info here: http://invisiblecitiesopera.com/

and here:


Dec. 19 2013 01:43 AM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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