Tuesday, January 1, 2019

My Review of my Opera and Theater experiences for 2018

As 2018 draws to an end here is my run-down of my top opera, musical and theater experiences of 2018. I will begin with opera. The order is not necessarily relevant in every case except the few at the top. Also, please forgive my overuse of superlatives. This is after all a list of my favorites.

1. “Regina” by Marc Blitzstein – Opera Theater St. Louis with Susan Graham, James Morris, Rob Raines and Susannah Philips. This mid-20th century opera is based on the play “The Little Foxes” by Lillian Hellman (not the movie). I had the opportunity to see both the movie and the play this year also and it was fun to compare. I had seen the opera once before in Chicago but it made no impression. But this production and performance was incredible – one of the finest performances of any opera I have ever seen. The cast was outstanding! In fact, one cannot imagine a better cast. Susan Graham was amazing as Regina, and James Morris brought an appropriate affability to the scheming Ben and his closing “arietta” Greedy Girl was a highlight. Rob Raines as Oscar was terrifically horrible especially to the Birdie of Susannah Philips whose extended monologue near the beginning of act 2 was one of the most touching moments of the performance. Most of the rest of the cast were young artists and were also outstanding – Leo and Zan in particular. The opportunity to experience this opera with this cast and then also see the movie and play was the top overall theater/opera experience of 2018 for me.

2. In 2nd place is the Met’s new production of “Cosi fan Tutte,” - the “Coney Island” production. It is not surprising that this production has been criticized but I have found that most of the criticisms seem to be based only on the complainer’s pre-conceived notions of this great opera that in my view conveys a complete lack of understanding of the opera and it’s much maligned libretto. I have posted multiple essays on this opera and for me Cosi is not only Mozart/Da Ponte’s shining jewel in a crown of jewels, but it is Da Ponte’s own statement on issues of sexual politics, especially as practiced in the Enlightenment period of the late 18th century. If you do not understand this you will not understand Cosi. The opera stands over and against the patriarchal misogyny of its time bringing women down from their pedestals and up from the gutter – Cosi fan Tutte They (women) are all like this - that is - they are human beings just like men. Sadly the issues raised by the opera are still current in our own horribly misogynistic times. This production not only presents the opera in a way that expresses the basic foundational themes of the opera in a very comprehensible manner, but it actually takes the original setting into account (something that is rarely done in “traditional” productions of this opera). The opera is originally set in the resort of Naples – what happens in Naples stays in Naples. It is a place not unlike the internet now and places like Coney Island in the 50’s. A place where there is anonymity and the opportunity to explore without societal constriction. Not only that but this production also takes the parody element seriously and presents it brilliantly (The chorus repeating their movements as the boys prepare to disembark and especially the staging of “Come scoglio” which was nothing short of brilliant IMHO and very funny). It was Da Ponte’s stated desire that Cosi always be set in the time and location of the audience, and the choice of Coney Island enables this to be done and also for the production to work with the issues created by the fact that it assumes an 18th century worldview. I absolutely loved this production – it is my favorite of all the myriad productions I have ever seen of this opera. In short, this is because it takes the libretto so incredibly seriously. And in my view the cast was also terrific. This was a perfect cast, especially Kelly O’Hara who gave us one of the most nuanced and profound performances of Despina I have ever experienced. I also loved Amanda Majeski as Fiordiligi, her “Per pietá” was gorgeous and the staging on the Ferris Wheel was deeply moving for me.  Lastly, I’ll mention the Coney Island performers who added amazingly to this production. Their constant presence gave us an ongoing sense that we were in a unique and special place (like Naples) and consequently the events could unfold in their beautiful, tragic and unique way.

3. An American Soldier by Huang Ruo with a libretto by Henry David Hwang, performed by Opera Theater St. Louis. This new opera tells a brutal story of racism within the ranks of the US Army – the story of Danny Chen. I was deeply moved by this work. It was musically outstanding and the libretto was incredible albeit very difficult to watch, but essential, especially in our day when despicable racially based hate seems to be so in vogue. This incredible opera presents racism in all its ugliness.

4. Fanciulla del West at the Met with Jonas Kaufmann, Eva Marie Westbroek and Zelko Lucic. Great production! Wonderfully sung! Terrific chorus and supporting cast. The act 2 card game was incredibly intense and well done. I loved this performance.

5a & 5b – Santa Fe Opera – Our first trip to Santa Fe and I loved it. What a wonderful venue and we enjoyed the location very much. We saw three operas – Candide, Dr. Atomic and Ariadne auf Naxos. I found Candide an odd piece though the production was colorful and inventive. But I particularly enjoyed the Ariadne auf Naxos (with Amanda Majeski again) and the Dr. Atomic, which I consider to be a masterpiece. An added attraction was the opportunity to meet the librettist/stage director Peter Sellars. He was animated and it was fun to listen to him speak.

6. Any opportunity to experience Wagner would have to be on this list. So in their build up to the complete Ring next year Lyric Opera Chicago performed “Siegfried” this season.  Musically it was very strong – Eric Owens as the Wanderer and Christine Goerke as Brunnhilde were the standouts in a really outstanding cast. I found the production a bit odd though. I thought the director’s Walküre worked better, his Siegfried just didn’t seem to me to really hang together well. But on the whole it was good and I am looking forward to the complete Ring next season.

In St. Louis we have 4 (count them) 4 opera companies and they are all good. My next two positions are taken by performances given by two of the other St. Louis companies – Union Ave Opera and Winter Opera.
7. Union Ave Opera picks up where OTSL leaves off in July and performs three operas between the beginning of July and the end of August. This last summer their final work was a not often performed work of Kurt Weill’s “Lost in the Stars” which deals with apartheid and racism in South Africa. It was a riveting work incredibly well performed by a large cast. In this work, the majority of the cast are black with a few white roles and the chorus is also mostly black. UOA had to recruit black artists from the community and hats off they found the best of the best. The cast was outstanding. In fact, the actress who played Addie in OTSL’s “Regina” was on stage for UOA’s “Lost in the Stars” and was equally outstanding. The plot is complex so I won’t attempt to review it. But if you ever have a chance to see this opera, do not miss it!

8. Winter Opera presented “L’Elisir D’Amore” by Donizetti.  Ho hum, right? This charming opera is a bit overdone, but leave it to Winter Opera to come up with the interesting approach of setting the opera in St. Louis in one of the old storied neighborhoods, and their genius scenic designer to recreate the exact street setting complete with local landmarks and a well known church. The opera was engaging and really, really fun. And the young cast (led by the founder and company director Gina Galati) and chorus obviously loved this production because they were terrific and so energized! It is one of the most fun productions of this opera I have ever seen.

9. In the middle of the summer I found myself in NYC after helping my daughter move and took the opportunity to attend the Bard College opera festival. They have for a number of years produced a festival which included a usually rather obscure opera performance. This year the opera was “Demon” by Anton Rubinstein. A rather creepy plot line accompanied with a soaring and beautiful late 19th century score. I enjoyed it quite a lot. Demon was worth seeing, but I don’t expect it to become anyone’s favorite. Still it was a colorful production and beautifully sung; and all accompanied by a major downpour – all in upstate New York.

10. Lastly I will include the Washington National Opera production of Don Carlo which featured Russell Thomas (Carlo), Quinn Kelsey (Posa), Eric Owens (as King Philip), Leah Crochetto (Elizabetta), Jamie Barton (Eboli) and Andrea Silvestrelli (Grand Inquisitor). The score of Don Carlo is gorgeous and this is one of my all time favorite operas. I found the production concept a bit odd and not terribly colorful but it didn’t distract me from the glorious score and the beautiful singing. I have to say, however, that anytime I see Don Carlo without the Fontainbleu scene I feel as though something is missing. The opening scene sets up what follows both musically and dramatically, in fact one major motif is first presented in the opening scene and without it there is no reference for that musical theme.

Met HD – 2018
This is awkward since the season runs from September through May, so to do an HD favorites now necessarily requires mixing two seasons. But be it as it may, this isn’t hard and my top two are the same as my good friend Nigel’s:
1.    Cosi fan Tutte – March (see above)
2.    Fanciulla del West – October (see above)
3.    Luisa Miller – April
4.    Marnie – November (A terrific opera – stunning production)
5.    Cendrillon (Massenet) – April

Theater and Musicals
I will list these without much commentary
1.    “The Band’s Visit” – New York. This is the best new musical I have seen in a long time. The music is beautiful and the story is very powerful, especially in this day of exclusion and hate.

2.    “Mean Girls” – New York. The new musical by Tina Fey and her husband. I loved this show. I felt that it took on some really serious issues and dealt with them very well. Plus the cast was terrific. Some of the reviews have not liked all the music, but I liked it fine and for me “Apex Predator” is the best musical song of 2018.
3.    Shakespeare “King John” at the Folger in DC. This particular play brings me within one play of having seen the entire canon of Shakespeare plays, with the exception of the lost plays like “Sir Thomas More.” But this production was outstanding. And when done this well one wonders why it is not done very often. It seemed to me that the story of a completely incompetent ruler driven by his own ineptitude, selfishness and prejudice is rather timely. Hats off to the cast, especially the young actress who played the boy prince. What a part and what a job she did. She deserves a prize. It was a virtuoso performance.

4.    “My Fair Lady” at Lincoln Center Theater. I have always loved MFL. I played Higgins in high school (in the play “Pygmalion”) and I simply adore this musical. The only thing I don’t like about the musical is the way it ended, which is completely removed from the play. BUT – this production restores Shaw’s ending for the characters. I loved the way they did that. The cast were all terrific (though I didn’t much like Freddie). The Higgins and Liza were especially wonderful. And Higgin’s mother stole the show IMHO.
5.    “Hamilton” – Not much to say. Because this is a great show! Historically accurate and detailed it tells the story of the founding of the nation through a focus on Alexander Hamilton. It is a wonderful show in every way.
6.    St. Louis Rep produced “Evita” and even though it is an older show I really enjoyed it. I especially liked the Juan Peron and the company.
7.    We have a lot of theater in St. Louis too and my favorite theater company (Clayton Community Theater) is managed by my friend Sam Hack and his wife Marilyn. Two of their plays I felt were outstanding. 7. “Brighton Beach Memoires” directed by Sam himself. I had never seen it, though I had heard of it certainly. I really enjoyed it. It is a wonderful play and very touching. And then…
8.    “Laramie Project” – another play I had heard of, but had never experienced. I was not sure what to expect. I wish the issues it deals with – hate and homophobia were things of the past, but unfortunately the hate spewed at the LGBT community is disgusting and odious and seems to be worse than ever. I have personal experience dealing with that, as a pastor, and frankly this play and the event it chronicles are among the reasons that I have run out of patience for that kind of hate. It isn’t Christian it is despicable. But what a masterful creation this play is. And it was brilliantly cast and performed.

9.    I mentioned “Little Foxes” above in relation to “Regina.” Another StL theater company produced and performed this play in a rather hole in the wall theater. It was very well done. For me, the opera and then the play are the best. The movie is fine, but I don’t really like Bette Davis and I hate the added love interest for Zan.
10.                  St Louis Shakespeare Festival in Forest Park produces one play a year and it runs almost 6 weeks from the end of May through all of June. Weather is often an issue, but they always do a great job. In 2017 they did a beautiful production of “Winter’s Tale.” And this year it was “Romeo and Juliet.” At first I thought, eh, sigh, R&J. Not my favorite play, overdone, maybe I’ll skip it this year. Boy, am I glad I didn’t. It was an updated production that was really well done. A great cast and the fights were incredibly exciting – hats off to the fight director. This is easily the best R&J I have ever seen.  Lately I have watched the opera pretty often and it was nice to be reminded of the depth of the play. There is a lot in the play that is missing from the opera. The opera is really about the love story, but despite the hype in the play the love story is a vehicle to deal with irrational hate.

Digital Online and Movie House Streaming of 2018 Opera and Theater
Well, I assembled my initial list and had a total of 28 performances. I will endeavor to cut it to 12 and leave the others listed as honorable mention. The numbering is not that significant frankly, but I have to put them in some order so here goes:
1.    The “Ariadne auf Naxos” from Aix 2018 was not enjoyed universally, but I thought it brilliant. It was directed by Katie Miller and included Eric Cutler as Bacchus and Sabine Devieilhe as Zerbinetta (who wins my award for the most incredible performance of the Queen of the Night ever in a production I didn’t really like from Brussels). Clever staging.

2.    “Otello” live streamed from Munich 2018 with Jonas Kaufmann, Anja Harteros and Gerald Finley. This was an incredible performance. I agree completely with Nigel who felt that Jonas completely inhabited the role of the Moor. I also loved the staging and thought it to be very powerful.
3.    “Lohengrin” from Bayreuth 2018 with Piotr Beczala (replacing Roberto Alagna at the last minute), Anja Harteros, Tomasz Konieczny as Telramund, Waltraud, Meier as Ortrud and Georg Zeppenfeld. The production was odd and a bit perplexing. I don’t really like insects and didn’t really get that. Nevertheless the production was visually arresting and musically brilliant. Piotr was magnificent and I have to add that for some reason I read a review that panned Konieczny that I completely disagree with. He is a brilliant bass/baritone and was a terrific Telramund.
4.    “The Coronation of Poppea” (Monteverdi) from Salzburg 2018 with Sonja Yoncheva, Kate Lindsay (as a terribly decadent and repulsive Nerone), Stefanie d’Oustrac, and James Christie & Les Arts Florrisent - Terrific!!!

5.    Macbeth” from the Royal Opera House, Covet Garden was, in my view the best Macbeth of the year, though the Venice Teatro la Fenice production was a close 2nd. I loved the detail and thought the cast excellent - Netrebko, Lucic and D’Archangelo. I should mention that just around the same time I saw this I also saw the play on NTLive from the RSC and it was really excellent. In particular they cast three little girls as the weird sisters and let me tell you, despite their Pink outfits (“Mean Girls” comes to mind here – On Wednesdays we wear pink!) they were really creepy!
6.    I never thought I would ever include “L’Italiani in Algeri” as a favorite on any list. In general I have never really warmed to the opera, or the plot. But the production from Salzburg 2018 starring Ildar Adbrazakov, Cecelia Bartoli and Alessandro Corbelli was both terrific and hilarious. If you have a chance to see it. Don’t miss it!

7.    I had never seen Die Tote Stadt by Krenek before, though I had listened to it. Not the same experience at all. The Robert Carsen production at the Berliner Komische was a magnificent introduction to this opera. It is both beautiful and deeply disturbing.
8.    Staying with Berlin, this time Unter den Linden and their production of Rameau’s “Hippolyte et Aricie” is one of the most thrilling baroque opera experiences of the year for me. Beautiful cast and wonderful production.
9.    This year the opening of La Scala in Milan featured a new production of “Attila.” I loved this! The production and performance is terrific. Ildar in the title role with Georg Petean in the cast as his foil. Wonderful performance.

10.                  One of the nice things about the free opera streaming service Opera Vision is that they intersperse popular operas from name companies with unknown works from companies that are not among the best known. Sometimes what you get is a real gem – such as Rozycski’s “Eros & Psyche” performed by the Polish National opera. What a wonderful opera and a terrific production.
11.                  “Medea” by Cherubini from the Staatskappelle Berlin with Baremboim conducting featuring Sondra Yoncheva as Medea and  Castronuovo as Jason. Terrific!

12.                  Last but not least, also from Staatskapelle Berlin was their Tristan, live streamed back last March. It was a deeply psychological production, but very well done. In particular I loved the English Horn and the way he was woven into the staging in the last act. Andreas Schager was Tristan and he was excellent.

Here are the honorable mention:

“L’Enfant et les Sortiledges” Ravel - Berlin Philharmonic
“Ariodante” (Handel) – Vienna 2018 – performed by Les Arts Florrisants – An incredible performance. But this opera’s plot I find horrible. People are so quick to accuse Cosi of being misogynist when it is not in any way, but Ariodante – yeah, big time. But the music is divine especially when sung and performed by William Christie and colleagues.
“Begger’s Opera” by Pepusch again with Christie & Co. This was an amazing production and performance.
“Jesus Christ Superstar” – NBC Live – John Legend, Alice Cooper – Best performance of this show I’ve ever experienced. Great band and brass (horn!)
“Julius Caesar” and NT Live presentation with Ben Wishaw as Caccius – terrific!
“War and Peace” (Prokofiev) – Mariinsky 2018 (on tour in Paris) with Gergiev, Garifulina, Bondarenko, Diadkova, Aleksashkin, Petrenko. I saw this opera at the Met with Netrebko and Dima, both at the beginnings of their careers in 2000 about 6 months after 9/11.
“Semele” – Komische Oper Berlin – Directed by Kosky (I loved this production).
“La Nonne Sanglante” (The Bloody Nun – Gounod) – Paris, Opera Comique – Spyres, Santoni, Boutiller – When do you ever get to hear any Gounod besides “Faust” and R&J?” This opera is a terrific ghost story and great fun with a terrific score! Beautifully performed!
“Macbeth” (Shakespeare) RSC 2018 – NTLive – Named above
“Fiery Angel” (Prokofiev) – Aix 2018 – Edgy and challenging – Not exactly a lovely time at the opera. This piece is pretty dark. Great production!
“Magic Flute” – Garsington 2018 – The production is excellent, singing is good. This is the “Handmaid’s Tale” MF! I found it very provocative and effective.
“Les Troyans” – Vienna – DiDonato, Jovanovitch, Antonacci, Park, Plachetka – McVicar – Outstanding beautiful production, beautifully performed.
“Faust” (speaking of Gounod) performed at the Teatro Real with Piotr Beczala, Luca Pisaroni, Marina Rebeka, Stephane Degout and Serena Malfi – Terrific singing and a great cast – Mostly rather traditional production with some interesting and whimsical updatings. This production included the Spinning Song which is almost always sadly cut but, alas, they did cut Siebel’s 2nd aria. I really liked what they did with Walgurgis Night though the finale was a little disappointing.

“King and I” from London with Kelly O’Hara and Ken Wantanabe, but Ruthie Ann Miles as Lady Thiang just about steals the show. She is terrific.  Saw it live in NYC with the same cast and it is still a great production.
“Peer Gynt” (Grieg) – Vienna Staateoper Ballet – Wonderful and beautifully danced.

“Cunning Little Vixen” performed by the Brno Opera – Excellent production and performance – in fact, the best I have experienced. Though the Berlin Phil production comes in as a close 2nd.

Last – my biggest disappointment.  “Bánk Bán” (Erkel) performed Hungarian State Opera on tour at the David Koch Theater. I watched this on OV and it was a really interesting opera and production so I was looking forward to seeing it live. The live performance was a complete mess. But I will say that the coloratura singing Melinda was terrific.

I have to mention in parting that I traveled to Chicago specifically to experience the Chicago Symphony performing the Shostakovich Symphony #13, Babi Yar. It was a wonderful performance and the presence of the composer’s elderly widow, who traveled from Russia for the event made the entire experience even more special. This piece takes on the issue of anti-semitism and is one of the most powerful works in the orchestral repertoire.