Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Best of 2010 (1): Directors and Conductors

I saw very many wonderful shows in 2010, and to me this was one of the most exciting years ever (opera-wise, of course.)

On one hand I realize how blessed we are to have more than a few great directors (creative, competent, inventive, and audacious), superb conductors, and amazing singers/actors who throw their hearts and souls into bringing the best from most of the operas on the repertoire today. Their work sometimes brought new insight in known operas, sometimes emphasized a particular thread that escaped the attention of other performing artists before --  all  that leading to a reassuring conclusion that opera is not locked dead as art, but rather an art form that still thrives on change.

Personally I can say I was 'wise' [and lucky!] in rightly picking what to see in 2010 and so --apart from some setbacks in Paris-- I truly enjoyed most of what I could see in 2010.

Now, after having seen so many great shows it is hard to come up with a Top-10 list. To compile it, I feel, I would necessarily be unfair to some singers, directors, conductors. The other day I went through a list of all wonderful male singers whose singing I thought was excellent or tickled some fine emotion and I ended up with a list of 59 names. So I'll try and focus on those whose work in 2010 I though genuinely stood out.


We saw this year with Bieito and friends that opera is not a virtual object taken from the shelves of an old museum, unfolded to entertain the traditionalists, and then stored back to catch more cobweb. Instead it is a medium that can be combined with creativity of men of our time to result in subtle emotional experiences that no other art form can achieve.

What a year this was for Calixto Bieito! Besides three revivals (Entführung, Armida, and Carmen), in 2010 I could see three of his thrilling new productions: Parsifal in Stuttgart, Aida in Basle, and Fidelio in Munich. Each of these three creations were monumental for their audacity, its strong relevance and reference to our time and our worries. At the same time in each production Bieito remained  faithful to the libretto, but enriched it by his neat directing to highlight a new side, new sens, and bring the opera closer to us.
What is extra impressive in his work is that each of these three productions is very different from the others -both in spirit and approach- each conveying a different director's message but all of them sharing the same quality, namely communicating the universal essence of these operas to the man of our time (I know I'm repeating myself.) I hope I don't exaggerate much if I say that highly emotional experiences of these shows made our life richer.

In 2010 Krzysztof Warlikowski produced one of his best shows ever, Macbeth, as well as the most extraordinary The Rake's Progress. Whatever is his methodology of working with singers, he manages to make them all act out of their minds, to shape characters they are supposed to incarnate in a way to fit their personalities, making each of his shows a particularly thrilling theatrical experience. Every Warlikowski-production looks like a project in which he had a guiding idea that are then being developed together with his team so that everyone seems closely attached to the creative process. Result is regularly breathtaking. Warli-magic is by now visually recognizable thanks to the brilliance of Małgorzata Szczęśniak, Felice Ross, and Denis Guéguin.

I was extremely happy to be able to see Stefan Herheim's Parsifal in Bayreuth this year. I believe that production requires at least two viewings as it is extremely rich in ideas and it shows an outstanding amount of research-time invested in studying Parsifal and German history. Only the overture can be used to write a long essay just by sifting the details and their highly nontrivial relevance to the history of Wagner and that of Parsifal. His magic seduced everyone and many did not even realize how strongly deconstructing this production was. Pity this production was not kept hidden until 2013, as it would have made a perfect icing on the cake celebrating Wagner's 200th birthday. Lulu in Copenhagen was a very good show too, although somewhat toned down in terms of Herheimian deconstructing attitude. I didn't have to wait too long to find that feature again -- his superb Rusalka in Dresden provided the most gesamtkunstwerkish experience this year: clearly the most spectacular and the most intelligent new opera production I could see this year.

When it comes to pure and subtle theatrical expression, Dmitri Tcherniakov is clearly one of the most talented directors of our time. A control freak which he is --he does not only direct, he also design the sets and costumes for his shows-- guides actors to not act with big gestures only; instead, every tiny facial expression, every look, ... everything matters. You just need to be careful and pay attention to those details. I probably exaggerate but what he does to opera producing today is comparable to what Chekhov did to playwriting in his time. He slightly but responsibly alternates  librettos but in such a way that it completely restructures a work in hands. His production of Don Giovanni in Aix is groundbreaking in so many ways, his Wozzeck was perfectly adapted to the worries of man living in a big city today. What I thought was the most humanistic idea was his modification of ending of Les dialogues des Carmélites, suggesting that no religious or ideological belief is worth a single human life.

Martin Kusej's Flying Dutchman was audacious, clean and surprising - socially engaging and superbly constructed, without any old cliché involved. His Rusalka in Munich was an amazing theatrical experience as it found a perfectly congruent support in the Fritzl case that kept us in shock for months in 2008. As a result Kusej's compelling Rusalka showed us that opera is everywhere around us -- you just need to seize the right moment and see through it. Kusej's shows are never rosy or über-optimistic, so none of these two shows is not crowned with happy-ending. Instead, they leave an open end for you to think more seriously about the issues you thought were 'clear-cut'.

Apart from these 5, even if I saw only 1 show by Andreas Homoki this year, I must say that his Meistersinger was a major demonstration of how important is acting to make the magic of theater work. Once you see that show, you realize it is the standard-riser as most of the opera shows you've seen before suddenly look tired in comparison.

Of course, not only the above 5-6 guys produced good shows in 2010, but I felt they really stood out for the reasons I mentioned.

Having said that I should mention 2 superb young directors who are now my new faves: Benedikt von Peter and David Hermann.

Please - please, read this post  on Opera Rocks in which Andrew Richards makes a [hilarious] comparative analysis of his work with four various Regie directors. 


Of many-many fantastic conductors I was able to see this year performing, I believe there are at least 15 who delivered particularly brilliant stuff. As an example, before listening to Paul Daniel's reading of Verdi's Macbeth, I did not particularly like that opera;  but I won't forget a goosebumps-y moment in Act-2 when I felt like I was discovering an orchestral dimension of this piece, unknown to me before.
Or Vasily Petrenko who made me re-discover Eugene Onegin when I thought I was too jaded to be able to appreciate any orchestra playing Onegin. What about Patrick Lange who flies with the orchestra, making his music sound like a spectacular weaving machine?! And so on, and so on...

  • Paul Daniel - Macbeth in Brussels 
  • Vasily Petrenko - Eugene Onegin in Paris
  • Patrick Lange - Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in Berlin 
  • Hartmut Haenchen - Der Fliegende Holländer in Amsterdam 
  • Donald Runnicles - Les Troyens in Berlin 
  • Daniele Gatti - Parsifal in Bayreuth
  • Manfred Honeck - Parsifal in Stuttgart 
  • Ingo Metzmacher - The Rake's Progress in Berlin & Dionysos in Salzburg 
  • Jeffrey Tate - Billy Budd in Paris
  • Michael Boder - Lulu in Copenhagen
  • Marc Minkowski - Roméo et Juliette in Amsterdam
  • Tomáš Netopil - Rusalka in Dresden
  • Kent Nagano - Dialogues des Carmélites in Munich 
  • Teodor Currentzis - The Passenger in Bregenz 
  • John Eliot Gardiner - Pelléas et Mélisande in Paris

I should also mention Gabriel Feltz [The Queen of Spades in Basle], William Christie [The Fairy Queen in Paris], Yannick Nézet-Séguin [Roméo et Juliette in Salzburg], Jean Deroyer [Amour coupable in Rouen], Christophe Rousset [La Calisto in Paris], Peter Rundel [Massacre in Paris].

1 comment:

  1. My list of highlights (general list, not specified) would be something like this - obviously I have seen less performances than you (not too difficult). Of those seen my highlights would be:
    -Palestrina with Workman
    -Macbeth with Serjan, Calleja
    -Billy Budd with Maltman, Daszak, Bayley
    -Figaro with Kwiecien, Bonitatibus
    -Rusalka (because of the music)
    -Boheme with Harteros, Secco
    Maybe I am forgetting some.