2017 Year in Review – Opera

2017 was another interesting year in opera in New York. Even with the mediocrity on the boards of the Met and the unevenness coming from New York City Opera these days, I’m happy to report that I still caught signs of exciting activity in the genre – just elsewhere. Here’s my year-end report.


A year of beguiling new works, really

Matthew Aucoin's "Crossing" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Matthew Aucoin’s “Crossing” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Who said that opera was dead? This year saw at least four meaningful premieres of new operas in New York. The headliner at this year’s Prototype Festival was Missy Mazzoli’s harrowing operatic adaptation of Lars Von Trier’s heartbreaking breakthrough film Breaking the Waves, and it was daring, bold, and stylish. Also exemplary was Michel van der Aa’s multimedia stunner Blank Out, which brilliantly used music and technology to examine the nature of memory and time. The Brooklyn Academy of Music saw the New York premiere of young wunderkind Matthew Aucoin’s accomplished Crossing, which managed to convey Walt Whitman’s experience during the Civil War on both an intimate and cosmic scale; it also proved to be heart-stopping theater (thanks in no small part to Tony-winning director Diane Paulus’s contributions). Last but not least was Thomas Adès’s audacious and musically exciting The Exterminating Angel at the Metropolitan Opera. Mr. Adès’s opera, based on Luis Buñuel’s allegorical film of the same name, proved compelling and unsettling, particularly in our unstable times.


World-class opera sprouting where you least expect it

Paola Prestini's "The Aging Magician" at the New Victory Theatre.

Paola Prestini’s “The Aging Magician” at the New Victory Theater.

These days, one can find top-notch opera beyond the hallowed walls of the Metropolitan Opera House. In 2017, I came across world-class opera in the concert hall – unadorned, and powerfully so – and more shockingly, at a children’s theater. For one of Alan Gilbert’s farewell concerts as the music director of the New York Philharmonic, he led a tremendous account of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, featuring an emotional, noble reading of Wotan by bass-baritone Eric Owens, as well as a well-rounded, surprisingly sympathetic performance by Christopher Purves as Alberich. Of all places, Paola Prestini’s inspired opera The Aging Magician graced the stage of New York’s premiere presenter of children’s theater, the beautifully-appointed New Victory Theater on 42nd Street. The experience was an unexpected revelation; I found the opera, and the production, to be more sophisticated and thought-provoking than most of the stuff that finds its way onto the stage of the mighty Met.


Iván Fischer: Opera and classical music’s hero?

The Budapest Festival Orchestra's rendition of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" at Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival.

The Budapest Festival Orchestra’s rendition of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival.

A few years back, I caught a transcendent production of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro as an offering at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival. The minimalist production (a semi-staged concert, to be truthful) was performed by Iván Fischer and his astounding Budapest Festival Orchestra; it was a joyous account that felt so completely attuned to the humanity in Mozart’s score. This year, Mr. Fischer had a tougher assignment: how to stage and conduct a completely compelling Don Giovanni, one of the toughest operas in the repertoire to get right? Well, Mr. Fischer has done it again. To be fair, he’s successfully staged the remarkable if problematic seriocomic opera in the past, but this year’s mounting (also a part of the Mostly Mozart Festival) sustained, with limited resources and time, a strong point of view throughout while making a case for the opera’s gorgeous arias as gripping dramatic monologues. Aside from staging a Don Giovanni for the ages, Mr. Fischer and his musicians also performed, in New York this year, a jubilant, soul-stirring rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth at the Geffen Hall, in which the unsuspecting audience was thrust into the very guts of the music. Genius.


Two noteworthy new productions at the Met

Robert Carsen's new production of Richard Strauss's "Der Rosenkavalier" at the Metropolitan Opera.

Robert Carsen’s new production of Richard Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier” at the Metropolitan Opera.

The excitement around The Exterminating Angel aside, 2017 was a somewhat tame, even mediocre, year at the Metropolitan Opera, which tended towards the tried and true (another round of Zeffirelli’s La Bohème, anyone?). Amidst this stagnancy, two new productions of repertory staples caught my imagination. First was Robert Carsen’s perceptive new production of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, perhaps my favorite of all operas, replacing the Met’s creaky but much-loved traditional staging. Mr. Carsen’s acute sense of theatricality injected heat and texture to Strauss’s ravishing score and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto, and was the perfect vehicle for Renée Fleming’s departure from grand opera. Even if Ms. Fleming’s voice no longer has the bloom it once had (she still sounded lovely), it was a joy to see her acting the hell out of the Marschallin, one of her signature roles. The other production of note was Mary Zimmerman’s menacing new production of Dvořák’s Rusalka. Although soprano Kristine Opolais voice sounded thin and strained in the title role, Ms. Zimmerman’s dark concept for the opera made for fascinating, challenging theater.

Categories: Music, Opera, Other Music

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