FRED PLOTKIN is one of America’s foremost experts on opera and has distinguished himself in many fields as a writer, speaker, consultant and as a compelling teacher. He is an expert on everything Italian, the person other so-called Italy experts turn to for definitive information. Fred discovered the concept of "The Renaissance Man" as a small child and has devoted himself to pursuing that ideal as the central role of his life. In a “Public Lives” profile in The New York Times on August 30, 2002, Plotkin was described as "one of those New York word-of-mouth legends, known by the cognoscenti for his renaissance mastery of two seemingly separate disciplines: music and the food of Italy." In the same publication, on May 11, 2006, it was written that "Fred is a New Yorker, but has the soul of an Italian."
The Fourth Annual Excellence in Opera (aka The Freddie) Awards
Monday, December 19, 2016 - 09:34 AM
The time has come to recognize some of the most memorable achievements in opera in 2016. This year I attended 101 opera performances and many recitals and concerts. Not surprisingly, more were at the Metropolitan Opera than any other theater, but I saw operas presented by 26 different companies in the United States, Canada, Austria, England, Germany and Italy.
As readers recall from the Excellence in Opera Awards bestowed in 2013, 2014 and 2015, these honors only go to artists and productions I actually heard. Therefore, if you saw something marvelous that I did not, I did not exclude your favorite because of merit, but just because I did not have the pleasure to attend it. In the comments section of this article, feel free to describe the most memorable achievements in opera in 2016 that you experienced.
There is plenty to be preoccupied about in the current state of opera (and the world in general), but I saw a lot of superb work in 2016. Any year that can give us two new operas (Fellow Travelers and Breaking the Waves) that are instant masterpieces, and two world-class productions (Le Comte Ory and Macbeth) at the always surprising LoftOpera, is a lot be grateful for. I heard lots of amazing singing from artists ranging from age 25 to 75, more so than in recent years. Herewith, the winners of the 2016 Excellence in Opera Awards:
Sustained Excellence in Performance: I simply cannot choose between two artists who had incredible achievements in 2016, so I will name them both. SONDRA RADVANOVSKY became the first singer in Met history to perform the queens in the Donizetti Tudor trilogy: Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Elizabeth I in Roberto Devereux. She was sensational in all three. To my knowledge, only the last role was committed to video, which is regrettable. They are seared in my imagination but I would want more people to see Radvonovsky at her zenith.
Dramatic soprano NINA STEMME also had an amazing year. I heard her as Turandot, Elektra and Isolde at the Met and Brünnhilde at the Washington National Opera (I only heard her in Die Walküre but she also sang in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung). Not only did Stemme display protean, superhuman stamina and engagement, but also unerring artistry.
Honorable mention: Christine Goerke maintained a thrilling high standard as Leonore (Fidelio, Cincinnati), Turandot (Opera Philadelphia) and Cassandre (Les Troyens, Chicago).
Best Individual Performances
Male Singer: This category had many superb performances, any of which could have been named the best. PIOTR BECZALA made a huge leap in going from his Italian and French romantic roles to create a mesmerizing Lohengrin, his first Wagner part, in Dresden. In the presence of a discerning audience and opposite the Elsa of Anna Netrebko in her first major Wagner role, Beczala created magic as the heroic knight who refuses to reveal his name.
Honorable mention: Plácido Domingo (Simon Boccanegra and Nabucco at the Met); Michael Fabiano (Don Carlo, San Francisco Opera); Gerald Finley (Guillaume Tell, Met); Ferruccio Furlanetto (Don Quichotte, Lyric Opera of Chicago); Craig Irvin (Macbeth, LoftOpera); Luca Pisaroni (Maometto II, Canadian Opera Company, Toronto); Matthew Polenzani (Roberto Devereux, and Nadir in Les pêcheurs de perles at the Met); Bryn Terfel (Boris Godunov, Royal Opera House, London); Russell Thomas (Florestan, Fidelio, Cincinnati Opera; Ismaele, Nabucco, Met)
Female Singer: Soprano KIERA DUFFY, perhaps the least-known name on this list of singers, turned in the performance of the year as Bess, the heroine of Breaking the Waves, presented by Opera Philadelphia. Her portrayal scored on all levels — musically, dramatically, psychologically and in terms of making a lasting impression as a tragically naive and trusting young woman who goes to great extremes in the name of love. New Yorkers can see her at the Skirball Center of NYU Jan 6-9, 2017.
Honorable mention: Maria Agresta (Mimì, La Bohème, Met); Leah Crocetto (Anna, Maometto II, Canadian Opera Company, Toronto); Joyce DiDonato (Charlotte, Werther, Royal Opera House); Barbara Frittoli (Nedda, Pagliacci, Met); Elina Garanca (Sara in Roberto Devereux, Met); Anja Harteros (Arabella, Vienna State Opera); Karita Mattila (Kostelnička, Jenůfa in San Francisco and New York); Liudmyla Monastyrska (Abigaille, Nabucco, Met); Elza van den Heever (Leonore, Fidelio, Caramoor Festival).
Male: Tenor AARON BLAKE and baritone JOSEPH LATTANZI played Timothy Laughlin and Hawkins Fuller in Fellow Travelers (Cincinnati Opera). I had never heard either man before. They sang and acted with such assurance that they made the world premiere of a new opera an unforgettable experience. Beautiful voices, gorgeous singing, stupendous acting.
Female: Italian soprano ELEONORA BURATTO showed vocal and comic gifts in a Met revival of Don Pasquale with a wonderful Ambrogio Maestri in the title role and the show-stopping Javier Camarena giving encores as Ernesto. Yet, Buratto excelled in ensembles and solos, helping to make this revival much more consequential than could have been anticipated.
Italian mezzo-soprano MARIANNA PIZZOLATO stepped in to replace a colleague as the charmingly indomitable Isabella for the entire run of L’Italiana in Algeri at the Met. She brought musicianship and genuine comedic gifts to her portrayal. When the final performance was cancelled after an opera fan foolishly tossed human ashes into the orchestra pit, Pizzolato went onto Lincoln Center plaza and sang for disappointed ticket holders.
Prick Up Your Ears
GAËLLE ARQUEZ was a splendid Idamante in Idomeneo at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival. Her singing and acting made her the central figure of the opera, which actually makes sense, much like Sesto in La Clemenza di Tito. This was not scene-stealing, but the revelation of a great talent paired with the perfect role.
JULIEN BEHR, tenor, only had one significant aria as Arbace in Idomeneo at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, but the beauty of his voice and naturalness of his declamation captivated the audience and resulted in huge applause.
BRIAN MULLIGAN was Paolo in Simon Boccanegra at the Met in a cast that included Plácido Domingo, Lianna Haroutounian, Joseph Calleja and Ferruccio Furlanetto, yet he managed to make a strong vocal and dramatic impression in a role that is one of the most villainous in all of opera. But he gave the character variety and depth and sang superbly.
TOMASZ KONIECZNY Although he is a major artist in Europe, I had not had the opportunity to hear him until he played Telramund in the starry production of Lohengrin in Dresden in late May. Even with luminaries such as Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala in role debuts as Elsa and Lohengrin and the experienced Evelyn Herlitzius as Ortrud, Konieczny was a standout for his singing and acting, making his wife Ortrud subservient to him rather than the other way around as is typically performed.
Sustained Excellence in Conducting: The Met seems to have let FABIO LUISI, its principal conductor, get away. He is much in demand in Europe and has important positions in Zurich and Florence. He made clear in an interview that he felt his services were not fully appreciated by the Met, despite saving crucial productions many times as a fill-in for an ailing James Levine. I doubt Luisi will again have the opportunity to lead outstanding performances of six operas (Cavalleria Rusticana, Pagliacci, Manon Lescaut, Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Guillaume Tell) in a calendar year at the Met as he did in 2016. No matter what one might have thought of the productions themselves, the music-making under Luisi was superb.
Very honorable mention: James Levine (Simon Boccanegra, Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail, L’Italiana in Algeri, Nabucco at the Met).
Conducting, Individual Performance: SUSANNA MÄLKKI made an outstanding Met debut leading the company premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s modern classic, L’Amour de Loin. She captured all of the intricacies and sumptuousness of the orchestral score in a way that was alive to the fact that this was live theater and not an academic exercise. I hope the Met has her back often.
Honorable Mention: Andrew Davis (Don Quichotte, Lyric Opera of Chicago); Sean Kelly (Macbeth, LoftOpera); René Jacobs (Idomeneo at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival); Gianandrea Noseda (Les Pêcheurs de perles, Met; La Bohème, Teatro Regio in Turin); Antonio Pappano (Boris Godunov, Royal Opera, London); Esa-Pekka Salonen (Elektra, Met); Christian Thielemann (Lohengrin, Dresden); Franz Welser-Möst (Le Nozze di Figaro, Teatro alla Scala).
Comeback Of The Year: NEW YORK CITY OPERA. There have been bumps in the road for this new company using the name of a venerable old one that died an ignominious death. Their opening production of Tosca was unremarkable and a double bill of Aleko and Pagliacci was mixed. A more serious tone was successfully struck with a new work, Fallujah, and now City Opera is on course to present a sold-out Candide in a 10-performance run January directed by Harold Prince, followed by rare works by Respighi, Literes and the New York premiere of Péter Eötvös's Angels in America. We all want this company to thrive.
Opera Orchestra: Again this year, the METROPOLITAN OPERA ORCHESTRA was simply in a class by itself. I heard it in many marvelous performances in all kinds of repertory. A few of the many that come to mind are Les pêcheurs de perles, Manon Lescaut, Simon Boccanegra, Elektra, Tristan und Isolde, Guillaume Tell, Jenůfa, L’Amour de Loin and Nabucco.
Opera Chorus: The METROPOLITAN OPERA CHORUS under Donald Palumbo continues its superb work, most recently in Guillaume Tell and Nabucco.
Honorable mention: Boris Godunov (Royal Opera, London); Idomeneo (Arnold Schoenberg Choir from Vienna at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival); Lohengrin (Semperoper, Dresden); Macbeth (LoftOpera’s 16 choral singers did outstanding work); Les Troyens (Lyric Opera of Chicago).
New Production: Le Comte Ory and Macbeth at LoftOpera. The former was audacious and fun, the latter chilling.
Stage Direction: KEVIN NEWBERY directed Fellow Travelers at Cincinnati Opera with an awareness of music, words, text andthe mores of McCarthy-era America and beautifully conveyed how much that can be experienced between two human beings is felt rather than stated.
Honorable mention: John de los Santos (Le Comte Ory, LoftOpera; Hannah Rose Gorman (a senior who staged The Judgment of Paris, Columbia University New Opera Workshop); Richard Jones (Boris Godunov, the Royal Opera, London); Àlex Ollé (La Bohème, Teatro Regio, Turin); Laine Rettmer (Macbeth, LoftOpera).
Scenic Design: MIRIAM BUETHER’s set for Boris Godunov at the Royal Opera was compact, having just a few steps on a lower level where the chorus and some principal characters would appear. The upper level, an egg yolk yellow half-crescent, became the place where powerful characters and the court would appear and, periodically, the visions in Boris’s tormented dreams. This intimate take on a sweeping grand opera made Bryn Terfel’s portrayal of the troubled tsar even more overwhelming.
Revival of a Production: LOHENGRIN at the Semperoper in Dresden. I had seen this production in 2013 and it felt tired. The original staging dated back to the early 1980s and had a staid, East German feeling to it. All of that was stripped away even though the scenery and costumes were unchanged in the scintillating revival last May led by Christian Thielemann and starring Piotr Beczala, Anna Netrebko, Evelyn Herlitzius and Tomasz Konieczny. The superb music-making miraculously enlivened the colors of the production and the impassioned acting made this anything but a routine revival.
NABUCCO just opened at the Met and runs through Jan. 7. The Elijah Moshinsky production has been smartly staged in this revival by J. Knighten Smit, with the Met orchestra and chorus performing magnificently under James Levine’s baton, Plácido Domingo reaching dramatic heights in the title role, Liudmyla Monastyrska singing with fearless abandon as Abigaille, Dimitry Belosselskiy a sober Zaccaria, and the luxury casting of Jamie Barton (Fenena) and Russell Thomas (Ismaele). One of the best nights of opera all year.
Recital: I heard outstanding recitals by many singers, mostly further on in their careers. A couple of them had back stories that colored the event. Illness was a metaphor in DMITRI HVOROSTOVSKY and IVAR ILJA'S appearance at Carnegie Hall in February. Even without that shadow, this may have been the best recital of the year. KATHLEEN BATTLE'S evening of spirituals at the Met was quite moving, but left me pondering all kinds of what-ifs. JOYCE DiDONATO did a superb program of baroque music inspired by war and peace that I will discuss in an upcoming article.
Small Company: LOFT OPERA, founded in 2013 and now with 12 productions to its name, probably has the highest success percentage of any opera company. This year’s Tosca and Cosí fan tutte had a couple of weaknesses but were quite accomplished. Le Comte Ory took big comedic risks and succeeded brilliantly while Loft’s lean, mean and musically splendid Macbeth might have been their best show yet. Their 2017 season of Rossini’s Otello, Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle is very promising.
Operas New To Me: Two operas I saw this year, BREAKING THE WAVES (Missy Mazzoli/Royce Vavrek, Opera Philadelphia) and FELLOW TRAVELERS (Gregory Spears/Greg Pierce; Cincinnati Opera), are stunning additions to the opera canon that merit wide exposure and productions by many companies. Breaking the Waves comes to New York in January and I am sure other companies will present Fellow Travelers.
L’Amour de Loin (Kaija Saariaho/Amin Maalouf, Met); Fallujah (Tobin Stokes/Heather Raffo, New York City Opera); The Judgment of Paris (a 1701 work by John Eccles and William Congreve, Columbia University New Opera Workshop).
"Una cantante deve conoscere i propri limiti. Ma per superarli, non per adagiarvisi." ("A singer must know her limits. But to exceed them, not to settle for what they are.") — Renata Scotto, when asked what is the relationship between pride and humility.
"I think it is easier to find truth in the musical world than in the political world." — Valery Gergiev to the Financial Times on Oct. 15, 2016.