Monday, 27 December 2010

Opera - Best of 2010

Lists bother me.  How do you compare a fish to a pinecone? But looking back at 2010 opera is a good exercise because it makes you think "why" things appeal or don't.

At the top, several Royal Opera House productions proving that it's one of the greatest houses of all, however how some enjoy picking nits. Where would we be otherwise? How we've been enriched by Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur! What an experience, visually, musically, intellectually! This was a production where everything pulled together - stars, comprimario, designs, orchestra, conceptual ideas. Brilliant and not just because it looked good. This production had brains behind it (please see several different posts).

Next Niobe, Regina di Tebe. This generated extreme responses, understandably so, as it was baroque, unknown and given completely innovative treatment. Baroque audiences wanted spectacle, excitement, extravagance and wit. That's why Niobe was a hit with specialist European audiences. Too bad if some London audiences didn't get it. Perhaps too many staid Handel performances blunt the appetite. (And Handel can be wild!)  Artistically, this was a daringly brave.choice. Several different posts on Niobe on this blog, please search.

Tannhäuser would be top of my list for sure except for niggling doubts. Audio-only it's mindbendingly beautiful but therein lies the dilemma.  What does the opera really mean? Why are the Wartburgers and even the Pope so paranoid? It's much more than an opera about art, even though the main man's the one with the lute. It's a morality tale with a twist. As Tannhäuser says, the Wartburgers don't know what real emotion is. It follows that, no matter how beautiful art might be, it's superficial without intense, and dangerous emotional engagement. There's plenty on Tannhäuser and on Wagner on this site, so please take the time to read and think about it. Fascinating. I'm growing to love this performance (as heard on broadcast) passionately but still not completely convinced it's been thought through. Not even by Wagner himself, perhaps.But interpretation is important, because it's has a bearing on evaluating performance.

So what is the thread that runs through how and why I respond to things. For me I think it's repertoire first, understanding the work in question, its composer and its meaning.  Even completely new things like George Benjamin's Into the Little Hill which grows in stature the more it's heard.  With vocal music, there almost inevitably has to be meaning of some kind of other, conscious or otherwise. Indeed, the greater the work, there more complex the interpretation. Usually, though not inevitably.

That's why I enjoyed the Glyndebourne Don Giovanni better than the Glyndebourne Billy Budd.  That Billy Budd managed to avoid morality altogether and present the opera as a sailor love triangle. If it hadn't been for Jacques Imbrailo's outstanding performance,  the production would have been ideas-free altogether. In this opera, Britten comes close to revealing his inner conflicts. But perhaps audiences want comfort zone affirmation, not ideas. Anyway, I'll be writing more later about the filmed version of Don Giovanni that's still available on BBCTV2 on demand.  The film is so different from the actual live experience it needs a special post.

ENO's Makropulos Case would have been top of my list too if it had been in Czech.  No way will the best European singers relearn their parts in a language foreign to them and to the music. Of course the ENO helped put Janáček on the anglophone map but it's still a compromise.  ENO's Bizet Pearl Fishers would have been a greater success if all the singers had been on the level of those in the ROH concert Les Pêcheurs de Perles. Some languages translate better. Oddly enough, the more I think about ENO's Idomeneo, the more it makes sense to me. Revivable, with adjustments.

Two Rossini Armidas and one Handel Alcina this year (same theme, different angle). I walked out of the Met Armida in disgust. Massive budget, but so self-congratulatory (I could use another word) that  it was artistic constipation. In complete contrast Garsington Opera's Armida was utterly brilliant.  Garsington makes a speciality of obscure Rossini operas, so the production came from a genuine understanding of the music and meaning. The Met has money, but Garsington has taste.

Normally I don't like celebrity chasing because it's not good for art or for the kind of performers who take it too seriously. But some singers rise way above that level and have integrity. That's why I shall never forget Plácido Domingo's Simon Boccanegra.  Such artistry, such committment, such engagement. Who cares if the fit's not perfect? There are things in art that transcend all pettiness.

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