It’s that time of year when it’s traditional to do best of the year lists. Fortunately this is all about music because in most other respects 2016 was a bit of a horror show. So here goes. As far as opera proper was concerned it was a pretty good year. There were no real howlers in the COC’s season. It was solid and, at its best, better than that, For me, Ariodante was the standout; an intelligent, thought provoking production backed up by extremely good acting and singing. I was really expecting to like the Claus Guth Marriage of Figaro more than I did. I enjoyed it but I was a bit perplexed by the lightening up that had taken place since Salzburg in 2006. Opera Atelier had their best show in quite a while with Lucio Silla but even Wallis Giunta couldn’t save a misconceived Dido and Aeneas.
Well not so much “best of” as the good stuff that really made my year. It was a pretty good year overall. On the opera front there was much to like from the COC as well as notable contributions from the many smaller ensembles and opera programs. The one that will stick longest with me was Peter Sellars’ searing staging of Handel’s Hercules at the COC. It wasn’t a popular favourite and (predictably) upset the traditionalists but it was real theatre and proof that 250 year old works can seem frighteningly modern and relevant. Two other COC productions featured notable bass-baritone COC debuts and really rather good looking casts. Atom Egoyan’s slightly disturbing Cosí fan tutte not only brought Tom Allen to town but featured a gorgeous set of lovers, with Wallis Giunta and Layla Claire almost identical twins, as well as a welcome return for Tracy Dahl. Later in the year Gerry Finley made his company debut in the title role of Verdi’s Falstaff in an incredibly detailed Robert Carsen production. I saw it three times and I’m still pretty sure I missed stuff.
So what was I most impressed with on the opera and related scene in in 2013?
Big house opera
The COC had a pretty good twelve months. I enjoyed everything I saw except, maybe, Lucia di Lammermoor. Making a choice between Christopher Alden’s probing La Clemenza di Tito, the searing opening night of Peter Sellars’ Tristan und Isolde; the night when I really “got” why people fly across oceans to see this piece, Robert Carsen’s spare and intensely moving Dialogues des Carmélites or Tony Dean Griffey’s intense and lyrical portrayal of the title character in Peter Grimes is beyond me. So, I shall be intensely disloyal to my home company and name as my pick in this category the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Die Frau ohne Schatten. Wernicke’s production is pure magic and Anna Schwanewilms was a revelation.
It’s been a busy year. Besides recitals and cinema broadcasts and other bits and pieces I managed to see 23 live opera performances of 19 different works. I also watched a ton of DVDs and Blu-rays. What most impressed me?
Fully staged performances with orchestra basically meant the COC and Opera Atelier. The highlights for me came early and late in the year. I loved the brilliant and spectaular production of Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin. It’s a great score and was beautifully sung by Russell Braun, Erin Wall and Kristina Szabo. The fall season brought Die Fledermaus to the Four Season’s Centre in Christopher Alden’s disturbing “Freudian” production. Great theatre with particularly fine performances from David Pomeroy and Ambur Braid.
Herewith a personal take on the best things that came my way operatically in 2011.
It was a pretty good year for live opera in Toronto. I’m certainly not going to complain about two Robert Carsen productions in the same calendar year. Good though the Gluck was though top honours in the fully staged opera in a real theatre go to the COC’s Ariadne auf Naxos. Neil Armfield’s production was fairly conventional but the music making was superb. Adrienne Pieczonka, Jane Archibald and Alice Coote headlined with strong support from Richard Margison and a whole bunch of past and present Studio Ensemble members. The orchestral playing too was absolutely first class and Sir Andrew Davis conducting looked like he was enjoying it as much as the audience. Later in the year I think we had a bit of “a star is born moment”. Christopher Alden’s Rigoletto was challenging enough that I wanted to see it a second time so took the chance to get a cheap ticket for the B cast. Thus I got to see the extraordinary chemistry between two very fine young singers; David Lomeli and Simone Osborne. Go see them if you get a chance. Actually, nothing at the COC seriously disappointed in 2011 (well maybe the The Magic Flute had a bit of a 200th performance of my career feel to it.) It looks like we are moving at last into an era when Toronto gets consistently high class singers and conductors in decent or better productions. It’s a shame there are only seven productions per year.
As for smaller venues, highlights included Against the Grain’s funky La Boheme in the highly outlandish setting of the Tranzac Club and Queen of Puddings’ world premiere of Ana Sokolov’s Svadba – Wedding; an hour long piece for six unaccompanied female voices. There were also any number of excellent free lunchtime concerts in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre.
The surprise highlight of the year for me was the restored print of the 1961 Rosenkavalier from Salzburg. Everything about it is surprising and wonderful and undermines a great deal of received wisdom about opera in that era. Other personal discoveries were the Salzburg King Arthur (who knew Germans could be funny?) and Calixto Bieito’s truly disturbing Wozzeck starring Franz Hawlata at his very considerable best.
I started the year thinking I didn’t really like John Adams much. I had hated the Met broadcast of Doctor Atomic and while I liked some of the non-operatic stuff rather more I wasn’t a fan. After watching Nixon in China twice in 24 hours (COC on the Friday night followed by the Met broadcast on the Saturday) and attending a lunchtime concert of arias introduced by the composer and sung by Peter McGillivray and Betty Wayne Allison I was converted. I even went back and watched the Amsterdam production of Doctor Atomic on DVD. I still think Doctor Atomic has its weaknesses but Nixon in China is pretty much a masterpiece.
I started this blog as a way of keeping up writing analytically while I wasn’t working. It’s helped keep me sane. Through this and Twitter and other on-line stuff I’ve met some really cool people in 2011; some in meatspace including Lydia of Definitely the Opera, Cicely Carver from COC, couturier Rosemary Uhmetsu and up and coming soprano Simone Osborne. On-line folks who have helped this year along are really too numerous to mention individually but thanks anyway!
Other stuff that happened
I met Lawrence Brownlee and Leonardo Vordoni in the cinema at a MetHD broadcast! I discovered that baritone Brett Polegato (one of the funniest people in opera) has a little grey cat called Lady Jane Grey just like my little grey monster.