Wednesday, 24 December 2014

The Best Operas of 2014

By Mary Grace Nguyen

2014 has opened the doors for the opera world. Many things have happened this year with opera houses, opera companies and its singers. There was the wave of new productions, new operas and revived ones. When it was announced that the Arts Council (ACE) would be cutting their funding for the ENO all eyes turned on them – what was happening to the nation’s opera house?

Fringe festivals and community productions were also sprouting around the UK and attempting to make their stance on the debate on opera elitism whilst live screenings (and cinemas) were also playing a role in eliminating the stigma that opera was only suited for the affluent and older audiences. And let's not forget the contentious dispute surrounding 'dumpygate' and arguments about the validity of booing in the auditorium.

It was also a good year for tenor Jonas Kaufmann’s career; he received much media attention for his demand in prestigious concert halls and many international opera houses; yet his personal life, illnesses and countless cancellations was cause for concern (one which we won’t discuss here).
Having re-evaluated my list of operas this year (which is ballpark 60), I’ve had to think long and hard about the operas which moved me, educated me and presented the best combination of sound and voice for composer’s work. NOTE: I haven’t listed all operas I’ve seen this year simply because it’s a long list. I’ve nominated a selection of the top operas here.
Best Opera of the Year – Girl of the Golden West (ENO) Review here
Best Cast – Manon Lescaut (Royal Opera House) Review here
Best Cinema Screening - Macbeth (Met Opera)
Best Small-scale production – Werther (Grimeborn Festival) Review here
Best Experimental – Glare (Royal Opera House) Review here
Most Controversial – Anna Nicole (Royal Opera House) Review here
Best Semi-stage – Salome (BBC Proms) Review here
International – Die schweigsame Frau (Bayerische Staatsoper) Review here
Most Entertaining – Benvenuto Cellini  (English National Opera) Review here
Most Moving – Tristan und Isolde (Royal Opera House) Review here
Best Baroque Opera – Orpheus and Eurydice (Rose Playhouse Theatre) Review here
Worst Opera – Xerxes (ENO) Review here.

Best Opera of the Year – Girl of the Golden West (ENO)
ENO pushed it up a notch with its strong cast, including chorus and Susan Bullock, and an equally entertaining stage vibrantly conducted by Keri-Lynn Wilson. Puccini’s champion Western Opera deserves the first prize for opera of the year and its thanks to the ENO for executing the romance and pizazz. Must have been all that American liquor! Review here. 

Best Cast – Manon Lescaut (Royal Opera House)
Kristine Opolais as Manon, Jonas Kaufmann as Des Grieux, Christopher Maltman as Manon’s brother and Maurizio Muraro as Geronte... need I say more? It was a great combination of artistry and vocality on a somewhat awkward stage, as viewed by some who booed on its premiere night. Forget about Jonathan Kent’s production for a second and imagine what it would have sounded like on a semi-staged performance with Pappano– sublime! Review here

Best Cinema Screening - Macbeth (Metropolitan Opera)
Viewing an opera screening is one solution to seeing operas based abroad or productions that sell out. Cameras focus in on singers, their facial expressions and pan along the stage which give audiences a glimpse of the detail. Anna Netrebko and Željko Lucicas as Macbeth were an excellent match for Verdi's opera, and equally on screen, and the Met’s staging brought out the colour and mysticism of Shakespearean’s sinister drama. Note: If you’re going to see an opera on screen make sure it is big!

Best Small-scale production –Werther (Grimeborn)
A piano, the language of love, the tragedy of unrequited love, Adam Tunnicliffe as Werther, and Katie Bray as Charlotte brought all the magic and flood of tears to the Arcola theatre. It was the best thing I have seen at Grimborn Festival this year. Review here

Best Experimental – Glare (Royal Opera House)
This edgy opera by contemporary music composer Soren Nils Eichberg with CHROMA and direction from Strassberger is an eye-opener. It broke barriers, challenged norms and tried to grapple with Sci-Fi questions about ‘being’ which was nicely mashed up with high-definition electro music. One of my favourites from the Royal Opera House. Review here 

Most Controversial – Anna Nicole (Royal Opera House)
I don’t want to give Martin Kusej any credit for Idomeneo (not even for the worst opera of 2014) yet Anna Nicole gave students, new and current operagoers something to talk about. Although a revived production the staging looked new - the opera went full throttle from over the top, trashy yet glamourous at the same time. Anna sung by Westbroek had all the acting appeal and didn't disappoint audiences yet the question still needs to be answered - does it deserve to be performed in  the Royal Opera House and not anywhere else? i.e. West End. Review here 

Best Semi-stage – Salome (BBC Proms)
I remember the chills on my back from Strauss’ music which was dynamically conducted by Donald Runnicles with the Deutsche Oper Berlin orchestra. It included a tight cast with Doris Soffel, Burkhard Ulrich and tenacious Nina Stemme as our menacing sadist. It was a sold out event and no one left dissatisfied.  Review here

International – Die schweigsame Frau (Bayerische Staatsoper)
It was my first time at the Bayerische. Die schweigsame Frau is regarded as one of Strauss’ obscure operas and without English surtitles I managed to get the gist of the underlying message from Stefan Zweig.  The hilarious list of characters, multiplicity of diverse costumes and creative staging ticked my boxes. Review here

Most Entertaining – Benvenuto Cellini (English National Opera) 
Terry Gilliam has the upper hand: he is a film director after all. The Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas director has an eye for entertaining. Berlioz’s opera isn’t the most intriguing yet Gilliam got a parade going, had the punters gagging for more and turned the ENO auditorium into a party. Review here

Most Moving – Tristan und Isolde (Royal Opera House)
First came stage theatre, then technology with its acoustic speakers and visual projections. Now we have 3D imagery in cinemas, which is how I experienced Tristan und Isolde. It was the next level to opera – a sensory overload of emotions. Loy’s staging allowed Wagner's libretto, the ROH orchestra, Pappano, Gould, Connolly and more importantly Stemme to take centre stage for the audience and get a peek of Wagner's secret love for his muse Mathilda. Review here 

Best Baroque Opera – Orpheus and Eurydice (Rose Playhouse Theatre)
How best to depict Orpheus entering the underworld but in a cave. Luckily for director Pamela Schermaan she found her haven in the Rose Playhouse Theatre and took advantage of the dark excavation area. Sorrowful voices projected from the edges of this cavity with a humble quartet to heighten the romance of Gluck's much loved opera. Review here. 

Worst Opera- Xerxes (ENO)
Opening aria by Alice Coote welcomed the opera on a high which unfortunately went downhill thereafter. I wonder how I managed to endure the agony. The staging was static and even though Handel’s music was happening, the ENO stage just wasn't. Xerxes could have been more interesting but it seems that this production failed to find the solution. Review here.
List of operas I saw this year and I had to make some tough decisions.