The Best and Worst of Opera in 2012

Friday, December 14, 2012 - 04:00 PM

The gods of music are munificent and lavish beauty upon listeners everywhere, not only in New York. But that’s where WQXR and your intrepid reporter are based, so Operavore’s picks for the best performances of 2012 pertain to Gotham only, with not a whit of disrespect for the brilliant musicians and institutions who ply their craft elsewhere.

We've also listed five of 2012’s best vocal and opera recordings—and, yes, left a lump of coal for those who served up duds.

Share your picks for the year’s outstanding performances in the comments box below. A toast, then, to cherished memories and a bright 2013!


The Metropolitan Opera Chorus: Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina. This Met revival of Mussorgsky’s historical drama was one of the company’s strongest offerings in years. Kirill Petrenko led a taut, brooding reading of the score, and the cast (which included Anatoli Kotscherga, Ildar Abdrazakov, and Olga Borodina) was superb. Yet even in such exalted company, the Met’s chorus under Donald Palumbo stole the show with their heart-stopping Act I prayer and otherworldly singing in the final tableau. For their efforts, they garnered something much rarer than a standing ovation: long seconds of spellbound silence before the audience dared to breathe and then broke into roars of approval (Feb. 28 review). 


Theo Bleckmann: “Out Cold” by Phil Kline (BAM). In the BAM world premiere of Kline’s Schubert-meets-Sinatra song cycle, Bleckmann conjured Buster Keaton’s melancholy and Fred Astaire’s grace, transforming a black-box theater with a few café tables into a world as vast as a lover’s hopes and as stifling as regret. Directed by Emma Griffin and backed by the splendid American Contemporary Music Ensemble, he sang with sweetness, clarity, and self-lacerating woe. His performance of Kline’s Zippo Songs, a post-modern classic, was no less shattering. DVD, please, and soon.


Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, The Murder of Crows (Mostly Mozart Festival). While this immersive “sound play” may never enter a mainstream opera company’s repertory, Murder partakes of the form’s multimedia aspirations. It weaves together words and music, shards of song (human and animal) and other sounds on some 800 computer tracks relayed by dozens of speakers. Its visual elements include a dismembered gramophone horn, but its uncanny drama plays out mostly in the primal recesses of each listener’s psyche and soma. The Park Avenue Armory in association with the Mostly Mozart Festival brought Murder to New York. (Watch a video of a 2008 German production.)


Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater: John Corigliano, The Ghosts of Versailles. The world awaits the long-rumored Met revival of Ghosts starring Angela Gheorghiu, who surely was born to sing and play Corigliano’s Marie Antoinette. But without elaborate trappings and with enormous heart and imagination, Manhattan School of Music mounted a powerful staging of this 1991 “grand opera buffa” using an orchestra reduction by John David Earnest. Director Jay Lesenger worked magic with an ensemble of young artists who soared, scampered, and broke hearts.


New York City Opera: Mozart’s Così fan tutte. Regie clichés marred Christopher Alden’s nightmarish take on the last Da Ponte/Mozart comedy, including catatonic, rapid-fire delivery of recitatives and (yawn) characters dressing and undressing on stage. And it’s anyone’s guess why Don Alfonso slipped on a bear suit at one point. All of that said, the show was transfixing from first note to last, and the fearless cast under the baton of Christian Curnyn sang and acted with scorching intensity. Best of all, was the chance to see and hear Così in a human-sized house, the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College.



The Metropolitan Opera: Massenet’s Manon

Someone at the Met is channeling Otto von Bismarck. It’s the only way to explain the indignities that the company inflicts upon French music and la belle langue. The latest assault was last spring’s shabby new production of Massenet’s Manon, sung and played for the most part with all the finesse of a tenth-rate provincial Cavalleria rusticana.


The Best Recordings of 2012

Christian Gerhaher 'Romantische Arien' (Sony). Baritone Gerhaher opts for some prodigiously slow tempos in this program of arias by Schubert, Schumann, Wagner, and others. But you may need to go back to the historic Wolfram von Eschenbach in the 12th century to hear a more rapt and poetic performance than the one he gives of “O du mein holder Abendstern” from Tannhäuser. Like that old-time religion, Gerhaher’s patrician and heartfelt singing will take us all to heaven.


Renée Fleming: 'Poèmes' (Decca). Fleming could do nothing but re-record “Depuis le jour” and “O mio babbino caro” and still be a very well-to-do lady with adoring fans. Luckily for us, her intelligence and honor inspire her to take a road less traveled by. She shines in Henri Dutilleux’s Le temps et l’horloge, a work written for her, and lavishes ardor and tonal allure on Olivier Messiaen’s ecstatic Poèmes pour Mi.


Haydn: Die Schöpfung (Linn). This audiophile release of Haydn’s oratorio ("The Creation") by period-instruments stalwarts Boston Baroque gets an Operavore nod for the supple, radiant, and unfailingly musical singing of soprano Amanda Forsythe. Her 2013 opera engagements include Handel’s Teseo with the Bay Area’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Almira at the Boston Early Music Festival.


Joyce DiDonato, 'Drama Queens' (Virgin). Read the Operavore review. How blessed we are to be living in the age of DiDonato.


Rossini, Guillaume Tell (EMI). Though Sir Antonio Pappano’s recording of Rossini’s final opera was made during concert performances, it has the whiff of the theater about it. Leading a strong cast, Gerald Finley sings the title role with musicianly grace, and Pappano and the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia musicians lovingly mine the seemingly endless beauties of Rossini’s score, making the several sizable cuts all the more regrettable. P.S. Don’t anyone tell Verdi or Wagner, Berlioz or Bizet, but Guillaume Tell may be the greatest opera of the 19th century. Liberté, redescends des cieux !



Vocal recitals (Major labels)

With notable exceptions, most major-label vocal recitals have no reason to exist. Who needs (or buys) the nth version of the same old arias performed by singers apparently signed on the basis of looks and not ability? Worse still, opera companies end up casting these ciphers because they have recording contracts. Please, give us instead more recordings of new music and of newly reconsidered music (sets based on the Verdi and Donizetti critical editions, for example).

Credits: Manon & Mussorgsky photos: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera; Corigliano photo: Carol Rosegg


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Comments [14]

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

ELINA GARANCA is IMHO the singing sensation of the current scene. She is a singing actress, with charisma and a vocal timbre that stands out. Maestro Dudamel is a phenome, whose youth promises a long distinguished career. Updating of opera in sets and costumes and locales and time-setting is and has always been a method for attaining undeserved fame as a uniqueness is sought, rather than adhering to the authors' and composers' intentions. Phooey on these charlatans explaining it away as art. IT'S MORE LIKE FART ! In everyone there exists a knowing or merely absorbing judgment on people, places, food, ideas and tyhe panoply of objects that surround ius from birth on. Osmosis features strongly on our prejudices, loves and hates. I have sung in opera, 4 SOLO Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall concerts [on Valhalla Records CDs, night clubs, radio and TV, singing in every format classical and pop, folk, rock, spirituals, blues, lieder, oratorio, and operetta, but never entertained the notion of doing rap or country music or hip hop. Artur Rubinstein was asked why he did not play much modern music. He honestly repeated, "I don't feel it." That's my response to friendly requests for me to sing music that I do not relish performing. "Chacon a son gout" . I am a romantischer heldentenor. I have sung four solo concerts in the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall. As part of my Ten Language Solo Debut concert at the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall, I opened my three hour concert with the Invocazione di Orfeo from Jacopo Peri's opera EURIDICE composed in 1600, the first opera, composed in the same year as Shakespeare wrote HAMLET. It, and from the same concert, can be heard my singing Florestan's "Gott, welch Dunkel hier ! from Beethoven's FIDELIO and "Sound an Alarm" from Handel's JUDAS MACXCABAEUS in the live performance on my three websites,, ,, and It received rave critical notices in newspapers and magazines. My voice teachers were the legendary MET OPERA singers Alexander Kipnis, Friedrich Schorr, Frieda Hempel, Martial Singher, John Brownlee, Karin Branzell and Margarete Matzenauer. As an opera composer myself ["Shakespeare" and "The Political Shakespeare"] I fully comprehend the assumed urgency of recognition of the still living. I am the director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute in Boonton, NJ where I train actors in all the Shakespeare roles and big-voiced singers in all the Wagner opera roles. My singing of TRISTAN, GOTTERDAMMERUNG SIEGFRIED, SIEGFRIED, SIEGMUND, RIENZI, LOHENGRIN, WALTHER VON STOLZING PARSIFAL, ELEAZAR, FEDERICO, ORFEO and OTELLO can also be heard at RECORDED SELECTIONS on my three websites.

Dec. 28 2012 08:22 AM
madison from Manhattan

How about 1/2 ton of anthracite for Peter Gelb for allowing the idiotic updated travesties of Ballo,Traviata,Macbeth,

the upcoming Rigoletto,etc. to appear onstage. Does the Met save on costumes by dressing everybody in the same

tuxedos for every opera? I second the BRAVA for Latonia Moore's Aida which I was lucky to attend.Like cover LiPing

Zhang's Butterfly about 4 season's ago, Moore's Aida was a memorable event!

Dec. 22 2012 11:40 AM
Margherita from Italy

Missing Ernani,Traviata and Ballo from the Met last seasons! They where WONDERFUL! Especially for the singing even if David Alden's production of Ballo is so vivid and thoughtful!

Dec. 22 2012 06:50 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

I forgot to mention a tractor trailer full of coal for whoever was responsible for the awful "change of venue" for Macbeth. It's Scottish, duh. At one point, Verdi wrote in music for the cornamusa (bagpipe) for this opera. I think the Met has gone overboard for these updates.

Dec. 18 2012 01:58 PM

Jonathan Dawe's Così Faran Tutti, which just premiered at The Italian Academy this past weekend, secures my vote for funniest, sexiest and most challenging opera of 2012. There are very few composers bold and innovative enough to attempt a prequel to Mozart's Così fan tutte and who could pull it off with such flair!

Dec. 17 2012 07:55 PM
BGW from NYC

The Tempest was a highpoint, and some of us thought Latonia Moore's last minute Aida was too.

Dec. 15 2012 11:26 PM
Franklin from Riverside, CT

Bravo to Delphine of NY for her comment "stay true to the material as written and don't turn it into a circus for the ego gratification of the director." Based on that, quite a few lumps of coal could appropriately be awarded for some recent productions at the Met Opera.

Dec. 15 2012 07:02 PM
Virginia from NYC

Here at the end of the year I saw an elegant old production from the Met's 1984 season, La Clemenza di Tito, with a singer who has it all, Elina Garanca, as Sesto.

Dec. 15 2012 05:08 PM
Concetta Nardone from Nassau

Lumps of coal to Manon, LaTraviata, staging of Tosca.

Dec. 15 2012 03:27 PM
Bernie from UWS

My lump of coal goes to all the people in the music industry who are propping up the Jackie Evancho phenomenon. Much worse than tacky recital compilations, her recordings sell millions but do nothing to advance either the cause of opera singing or her own future as a singer. It's sad to see the spectacle that has arisen around her, especially given the many precedents of child stars who crashed and burned as they got older.

Dec. 14 2012 07:31 PM
Delphine Brownlee from New York

On Manhattan School's "Ghosts of Versailles" comment I couldn't agree more!
Having worked with Jay Lesenger years ago in Frank Corsaro's opera class,
it was thrilling to see how he has become one of the best opera directors
I know....stay true to the material as written and don't turn it into a circus for the ego gratification of the director. Bravo Jay and all

Dec. 14 2012 06:52 PM
Kenneth Barr from Inwood, Manhattan

A lump of coal to Rufus Wainwright for his incredible self-centerdness in the lead-up to the debut of his equally excreable compostition "Prima Donna." His refusal to adhere to the original commission by the Met, his selfishness in condemning the musicians and singers of the NYCO Orchestra and chorus who were trying to protect their jobs and liveliyhood and then producing a total pipsqueak of an opera. Stay away from this form, Mr. Wainwright, you know absolutely nothing about it.

Dec. 14 2012 05:21 PM
John Greco from NYC

Your comments on the Met's new production of "Manon" are spot on. Brava! All too often, I'll add, the best singing to be heard on the Met stage these days is that emanating from Mr. Palumbo's Chorus.

Dec. 14 2012 05:03 PM
Irene from Westchester

You left out the Taconic Opera's Westchester performance of Don Pasquale. On a shoestring budget, they produced an imaginative and very funny production of the Donizetti work.

Dec. 14 2012 04:45 PM

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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, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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