tue 18/06/2024

Best of 2023: Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Best of 2023: Opera

Best of 2023: Opera

A year rich in new music-dramas and perfect ensembles

Golda Schultz as Madame Lidoine attempting to comfort her fellow Carmelites at GlyndebourneRichard Hubert Smith

Choosing a limited best seems almost meaningless when even simply the seven operatic experiences I've relished in the run-up to Christmas (nothing seasonal) deserve a place in the sun. But in a year which has seen Arts Council devastation versus brilliant business as usual where possible, English National Opera – faced with “Manchester or die” – needs the first shout-out for doing everything the moneygivers want it to.

That came in the shape of Jeanine Tesori's Blue, with a powerful, unpreachy libretto by Tazewell Thompson, its very originally shaped drama of a young American Black boy involved in the shooting of a police officer performed by an outstanding Black cast who played to an audience, on the night I went, genuinely reflecting the diversity on the streets outside. It’s been a good year especially for Nadine Benjamin (pictured below by Bill Knight with Kenneth Kellogg and Zwakela Tshbalala), who went on to show true Verdi-soprano credentials as Amelia in Chelsea Opera Group’s concert performance of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. Scene from BlueENO also redeemed its unsuccessful Valkyrie with Richard Jones very much back on unpredictable form in a mock-innocent, tinseltown Rhinegold – challenged for originality later in the year by Barrie Kosky’s boldish start to a new Royal Opera Ring, unforgettable for Antonio Pappano’s close work with two great singer actors, Christopher Purves as Alberich and Sean Pannikar as  Loge. What a loss that only the Covent Garden Ring looks like going any further.

Curiously, Blue opened less than a week after Kaija Saariaho's Innocence, also at the Royal Opera, on a tangential theme of a high school shooting. I found the staging by the wonderful Simon Stone more involving than the late, much-missed Saariaho’s icy, generic, almost incidental music, but I’ll go with Alexandra Coghlan’s praise for the opera as “both reflective and deeply serious as well as an honest-to-goodness thriller, with an impressive ensemble cast”, memorably especially for Vilma Jaa’s “haunting, yipping folk-keening cutting through the classical soundworld”.

It’s been an outstanding year for new or recent operas, and it got off to an engrossing start with Irish National Opera’s Least Like the Other at the Royal Opera’s Linbury Theatre, a singular take on the harrowing of Rosemary Kennedy. A total work of art with an unorthodox score by Brian Irvine and mesmerising direction and design from Netia Jones, it also introduced many of us to a brilliant new singing actor, soprano Amy Ní Fhearraigh (pictured below by Kip Carroll). Least Like the OtherConductor Fergus Sheil was back for a very different INO production in Dublin, perhaps its most ambitious to date – Bruno Ravella’s sharpened restaging of a Strauss Der Rosenkavalier which originated at Garsington Opera at a time when Covid restrictions had meant less feeling and touching. That it could boast three Irish sopranos of such world-class quality as Celine Byrne (the Marschallin), Claudia Boyle (Sophie) and Paula Murrihy (possibly the best Octavian I’ve ever seen) says much for musical Ireland on the rise at a time when cultural Britain hangs on a precipice.

A fourth already great national singer, Jennifer Davis, gave us a great operatic moment in the final trio of Gounod’s Faust later in the year, excellently matched by an impressive young tenor Duke Kim (pictured below with Davis by Pat Redmond), and appropriately Saturnine bass Nicholas Brownlee. I’m also glad to have made the acquaintance of two more singers of very special promise, Isabel Garcia Araujo as Marie and Chris Mosz as a Tonio with top Cs and a D or two in a perfect boutique production of Donizetti’s La fille du régiment on a Wexford Festival Opera fringe full of delights and surprises. Scene from INO FaustIn Leeds, Robert Beale relished the comic touch of Opera North in Verdi’s Falstaff – “a ‘green’ production with a lot of fun, conducted by Garry Walker with (to borrow his own phrase) almost soufflé-esque lightness” and Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. Ravella triumphed again in that ultimate of culinary operas at Garsington, with the kind of superb team of singers – including yet another star tenor in the crazy role of Bacchus, Young Woo Kim (pictured below by Craig Fuller with Natalya Romaniw's superb Ariadne) – that’s been such a given in 2023.

Simply in terms of commitment and extreme emotion, Barrie Kosky’s Poulenc Dialogues des Carmélites at Glyndebourne has to take the palm ensemble-wise and probably in every other respect too. Even in such a cast, guided like the London Philharmonic Orchestra in every nuance by music director Robin Ticciati, Golda Schultz shone as the second Prioress – heart-in-mouth heartbreaking. Garsington Ariadne auf NaxosSpirituality under less stress impressed Stephen Walsh in Vaughan Williams' The Pilgrim's Progress in a revelatory semi-staged performance by British Youth Opera at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester Cathedral: “I couldn't see much from row something-or-other in the nave, but musically, under the still youthful Charlotte Corderoy and with a lively cast of recent and not-quite graduates, it hit the heights”. So, too, for Stephen, did the “stunning” Violetta of Stacey Alleaume in “WNO's moving revival of David McVicar's 2009 staging of La Traviata – strong all round, no routine revival”.

We need to make up for the omission of not covering McVicar’s much-praised Scottish Opera production of Puccini’s Il trittico when it reaches WNO next year, but I did get to see a rarity in Edinburgh: Strauss’s Daphne, again well cast throughout with appropriate leafy profusion from soprano Hye-Youn Lee and the glorious orchestra under Stuart Stratford for the nymph-into-tree final transformation. Of the other four most recent triumphs I mentioned, I’ll save one Handel for the classical “best of…” tomorrow, but praise to the skies the English Concert’s latest perfect line-up (after Serse last year) in Rodelinda, crowned by the dazzling achievements of the irrepressible Lucy Crowe: lucky we to catch it in Saffron Walden before it travelled to New York’s Carnegie Hall. I see no harm in repeating this perfect Handel singing from Crowe in an earlier recording session.

As for the highest possible standards in Italian opera, under Riccardo Muti in Ravenna, I wrote about those only yesterday, and their effects are still coursing through my veins.

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