The First Annual Excellence in Opera Awards (AKA The Freddies)

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I have heard so many opera lovers complain about what they perceive as the sorry state of the art form that I decided to conclude 2013 by citing many of the excellent achievements in opera I have witnessed this year. 

The low point of this operatic year, and young century, was the death of the New York City Opera. What I found most appalling is that I seemed to be one of the very few people to broach the issue of how to save the NYCO. Most everyone else, from government to finance to many in the opera world, were just too willing to let this precious company expire like Manon Lescaut in the so-called deserts of Louisiana, alone, lost and abandoned.

But there was a lot of excellence in 2013. It may seem strange—but it is necessary—to point out that I have seen and heard every performance that entered my consideration for a Freddie (a practice not always observed by competition juries). This year I attended 104 opera performances. The theater I have frequented the most is, not surprisingly, the Metropolitan Opera. However, in 2013 I attended performances by 35 different companies. Herewith, the recipients of the Freddies—the 2013 Excellence in Opera Awards:


Sustained Excellence in Performance. No artist can match the achievements of soprano Patricia Racette, whom I saw this year in seven leading roles. She appeared as Leonora in Il Trovatore at the Met; Manon Lescaut at the Washington National Opera;  Madame Lidoine in Dialogues des Carmélites at the Met;  Il Prigioniero at the New York Philharmonic; Dolores Claiborne (San Francisco Opera); Margherita in Mefistofele (San Francisco Opera); Tosca at the Met. She learned Dolores Claiborne in a very short period of time, while rehearsing and performing in Mefistofele, replacing Dolora Zajick and saving a world premiere. I am very much looking forward to her first Met Maddalena in Andrea Chénier starting March 24.


Best Individual Performance, Male Singer: Ferruccio Furlanetto, Murder in the Cathedral, San Diego Opera. This artist takes total command of a stage through his splendid voice, acting and engagement with roles. This is not a question of hogging attention but that his gifts draw you to him. His performance as Thomas à Becket made a real case for the worthiness of Pizzetti’s 1958 opera. I am looking forward to the Italian bass as Massenet’s Don Quixote at the Canadian Opera in Toronto this May. [Honorable mention: Anthony Dean Griffey as Peter Grimes, St. Louis Symphony at Carnegie Hall; Jonas Kaufmann as Don Carlo in Salzburg; Peter Mattei as Amfortas and René Pape as Gurnemanz in Parsifal at the Met.]


Female Singer: Anja Harteros as Elisabetta in Don Carlo at the Salzburg Festival (right). Because the soprano cancelled the previous three times I had tickets to hear her in an opera, I gasped when she actually appeared onstage in Salzburg. I gasped many more times thanks to her gorgeous singing, affecting acting and remarkable chemistry with Jonas Kaufmann in the title role. For me, Harteros has been the gold standard in recent years of each role (Donna Anna, Violetta, Elsa, Elisabetta) I have seen her in. [Honorable mention: Cecilia Bartoli as Norma in Salzburg; Joyce DiDonato as Maria Stuarda at the Met; Christine Goerke as the Dyer’s Wife in Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Met; Karita Mattila as Marie in Wozzeck at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.]


Star-making Performance

Male: Michael Fabiano in I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata, Opera Orchestra of New York (April 6). The tenor wowed the audience with his golden-age style singing.

Female: Elza van den Heever in Maria Stuarda as Queen Elizabeth I. This formidable young South African soprano went all out in her Met debut and was a wonderful match for Joyce DiDonato in the title role.


Prick Up Your Ears: Sometimes we see and hear familiar artists in new and gratifying ways. Both Jennifer Check as Elisabeth and Jennifer Larmore as Eboli at the Caramoor Festival’s French-language version of Don Carlos in July revealed unexpected gifts that I hope opera companies will capitalize on.


Conducting, Individual Performance: Antonio Pappano’s Don Carlo at the Salzburg Festival was so clear, vibrant, fresh, profound and alive to dramatic moments as well as narrative arc that one heard this glorious score as if for the first time. [Honorable Mention: Harry Bicket, Giulio Cesare at the Met; Christian Thielemann, Lohengrin, Dresden; Philippe Jordan, Elektra in Paris; David Robertson, Peter Grimes, St. Louis Symphony at Carnegie Hall]


Comeback of the year: James Levine, of course. This fact is no less gratifying because it is obvious. His conducting with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in concert on Carnegie Hall (May 19), Così fan tutte and Falstaff made one feel all is right with the world.


Opera Orchestra: Hands down, the Metropolitan Opera. This ensemble is leagues ahead of every other and is the essential reason why it is exciting to hear opera at the Met.


Opera Chorus: Tie: the Metropolitan Opera and Teatro alla Scala. The Met’s chorus, expertly guided by Donald Palumbo, is as musical as it is versatile. For Italian repertory, La Scala’s chorus brings remarkable depth and connection to words and music.


New Production: Tie: Parsifal at Met and Elektra at the Paris Opera. See Stage Direction award below.


Revival of a ProductionDialogues des Carmelites at the Met in May. John Dexter’s perfect production was brought back with a fine cast, conductor (Louis Langrée) and a sense of purpose. A shame it was only given three performances.


Opera in Concert: Peter Grimes. David Robertson splendidly led the St. Louis Symphony and Chorus and a perfect cast at Carnegie Hall on November 22, the centennial of Britten’s birth.


Concert performance of Non-Operatic Music by an Opera Composer: Gianandrea Noseda led Maria Agresta, Daniela Barcellona, Gregory Kunde and Kyle Ketelson in Rossini’s Stabat Mater at the Mostly Mozart Festival, Lincoln Center, August 13. Unforgettable artistry by all involved.


Recital Era La Notte (Nov. 14 at Lincoln Center’s White Lights Festival) was not a recital in the strictest sense but an hour of concert arias and scenes sung and acted by the wondrous Anna Caterina Antonacci. Her connection to, and expression of, the music of Monteverdi and other early Italian composers were so profound that it prompted Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times to encourage the Metropolitan Opera to engage her immediately to sing whatever she wants. I expressed this sentiment in June 2011 and would propose that she sing Cherubini’s Medea.


Stage Direction: Tie: François Girard, Parsifal at the Met, and Robert Carsen, Elektra at the Paris Opera. Both drew their ideas for acting, movement and, I believe, design from the music and the libretto. This should be the normal approach, but most directors treat the text like a play and have little feeling for the music, as if it were something to get around. These two productions were so thoroughly inspired by music that they gave an unmatched level of thrills. Elektra is compact and intense while Parsifal is long and opulently emotional. Both require the same precision and openness to feeling, and that is what these stagings had. Both had a single directorial choice I would have asked to change if I were in charge, but those choices were informed by taste and intelligence rather than gimmickry. [I should note that Carsen’s Falstaff, new at the Met, was excluded from consideration because I saw and loved it in London in 2012. The same applies to Ambrogio Maestri, its brilliant star.]


Design: Scenery: Michael Levine for both Parsifal at the Met and Elektra at the Paris Opera. I was impressed to discover that my two favorite productions had the same designer. Both were at once modern and timeless, and not overly literal, providing an ideal context for these stories to be told. Costumes: John Macfarlane for Maria Stuarda at the Met (right). Lighting: Robert Carsen and Peter van Praet, Elektra in Paris. On a dark set, the specificity of the use of light introduced details that would suddenly capture the eye and then, just as suddenly, vanish. It made the storytelling absolutely riveting while never overwhelming the music and the acting.


Small Company Performance: Loft Opera Company—Don Giovanni in May and Le Nozze di Figaro in November. This is the most exciting little company I have encountered in a while. Performances are done with limited means but great intelligence and seriousness in a loft in the Gowanus Canal area of Brooklyn. Audiences, mostly quite young, sit on benches, drink Brooklyn Beer and are surrounded by the performers. The secret to Loft Opera’s success is that they take the music, words and dramaturgy as composer and librettist intended. In so doing, these operas become more relevant and pleasurable than any gimmicky concept could offer. They will perform La Bohème in the last two weeks of February.


Operas new to me: Where there is life, there is hope. All of these deserve commendation: Kevin Puts's Silent Night (Opera Company of Philadelphia, February); George Benjamin’s Written on Skin (Royal Opera, Covent Garden, March); Luigi dalla Piccola’s Il Prigioniero (New York Philharmonic, June); Tobias Picker’s Dolores Claiborne (San Francisco Opera, September); Mark-Antony Turnage’s Anna Nicole (New York City Opera, September); Nico Muhly’s Two Boys (Metropolitan Opera, October).


Most insightful comment I heard this year “An opera production should look the way the music sounds.” --Lady Valerie Solti


Special Freddie to audiences who continue to believe in and support live opera performances rather than hearing them in cinemas, on the computer, DVDs and other media. Opera is a live art form meant to be seen and heard in a theater. Make it one of your resolutions for 2014 to attend more opera performances wherever you live and travel.

Photos: 1) Anja Harteros as Elisabetta in Don Carlo at the Salzburg Festival (© Charles Duprat/OnP) 2) Parsifal (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera); 3) Maria Stuarda (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera).