Best of 2018: OperaWire Staff Picks Most Memorable Opera Performances Of the Year

By OperaWireStaff

Yes, it’s that time of the year where we wax poetic about transformative experiences we have had over the course of the last 300 or so days. Sometimes we curate these experiences as rankings to fuel some individual emotions, and at other moments we simply do what we are doing with this piece – let a few different people chip in and provide unique perspectives.

This is actually the very first time that the OperaWire staff comes together for one article and we couldn’t be happier. OperaWire is nothing if not the result of our numerous contributors putting together incredible reviews and interviews in the name of opera. We are happy to present our picks for the top performances we witnessed throughout 2018.

Matt Costello – “Sketches From Frankenstein,” Angel’s Share

For me, there are a lot of contenders for the title of most memorable performance.

Perhaps the moving performance of the New York City Opera’s mariachi opera, “Cruzar La Cara De La Luna.” Many moment’s during that performance produced goose-bumps, the cross-generational tale of immigration and loss so very moving – all to stunning mariachi music!

Or perhap, the Czech Philharmonic’s recent Carnegie Hall performance of Mahler’s great choral symphony, the “Resurrection,” led by Semyon Bychkov. The detail and the power of the choral piece was never more on display than in this definitive performance.

But if I simply must select a single performance, above all, then that is actually quite easy: Gregg Kailor’s “Sketches from Frankenstein.” The work in progress, “staged” at Brooklyn’s historic Green-wood Cemetery, inside the catacombs, was both a physical and operatic “experience” unlike any other. The tomb-filled catacomb, lit by dozens of candles, was beyond eerie and atmospheric. And the matching physicality and power of the trip of performers made this intimate experience completely unforgettable — and suitably haunting.

Freddy Dominguez – “Marnie,” Metropolitan Opera & “The Flying Dutchman,” Dallas Opera

Despite the imposing influence of directors, conductors, and composers, opera remains primarily a singer’s art. The extraordinary performance by a talented singer can make electricity out of middling music or a drab production.

This year I experienced  two thrilling performances that reminded me of this truth. First up was Isabel Leonard’s sensuously, passionately sung “Marnie” at the Metropolitan Opera’s premiere of Nico Muhly’s opera.

The second featured the torrential power of Greer Grimsley’s Dutchman in Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” at the Dallas Opera. Both of these performances evoked the sublimity of darkness and the beauty that can lurk beneath  apparent evil.

Xenia Hanusiak – “Marnie,” Metropolitan Opera & “Rocking Horse Winner,” Saratoga Opera

There were two contemporary opera highlights of the 2018 season that brought audiences, but not necessarily the chorus of mainstream critics unanimously to their feet. The first opera to catch my attention was Saratoga Opera’s production of “Rocking Horse Winner” by Irish composer Gareth Williams.

“Rocking Horse Winner” is a finely crafted work by a radiant composer who should soon be having the opera world at his call. Based on a short story by D.H. Lawrence, the chamber opera was deeply indebted to the stellar and heart-breaking performance by tenor Tyler Nelson in the lead role, and Michael Hidetoshi Mori’s choreographic direction.

American composer Nico Muhly, on the other hand, already has the operatic world at his feet. I caught the final performance of “Marnie” at the Metropolitan Opera. The production, a co-commission with English National Opera, is an elegant work that unfolds as a cinematic narrative, both musically and theatrically. This may account for its popularity with audiences rather than conservative opera critics.   Like “Rocking Horse Winner,” Muhly’s opera was served by a super production. With Michael Myer at the helm and exquisite costuming by Arianne Phillips, the naturalistic approach took the audience on a musico-theatrical journey that emphasized the psychological journey of the characters.  This cool, crisp and intelligent production was riveting. In reinforcing the lesson from “Rocking Horse Winner” and the adage that casting is everything, Isabel Leonard, in the title role, was consummate.

Both “Marnie” and “Rocking Horse Winner” were mesmerizing operatic experiences. Both works represent the catalysts of how the future of opera should feel, see and be heard. Both composer-librettists teams in cahoots with their creative teams are committed to crafting work, that bypasses (the usual but should not be expected) hyperbole of opera and moves us with relatable, current narrative techniques for the 21st century – for audiences more Netflix than Norma.

Sophia Lambton – “Falstaff,” Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

The Royal Opera House’s “Falstaff” was a rare production for our time: opting to honor the music, style and theatrical shenanigans of its mother-work. These sound like fundamental criteria for any realization of an opera but grow scarcer with each passing season – probably across the globe.
While the revival was well-known and didn’t crack open discoveries of voices, highly intellectualized characterization or a novel staging, Bryn Terfel’s classical approach to both acting and singing allowed him to embody a gluttonous, cantankerous, rapacious old man with both a voice that had been sculpted to resound like boorish Falstaff and a recognizable bodily lexicon that made the personage a realistic archetype.
Nicola Luisotti’s conducting, while imperfect, adhered to the composer’s zappy, rarely heard comedic rhythms. Although the production was by no means the ideal to which all others ought to strive, its value was a blunt reminder that while off-kilter re-tellings of opera plots by directors can entertain or intrigue, for an easy and modest success, a return to the score and libretto won’t backfire.

Polina Lyapustina – “Lucia di Lammermoor,” Teatro Real de Madrid & “Otello,” Bavarian State Opera

When I’m thinking about the most memorable thing in opera this year, I’m trying to get what touched and changed me the most. And somehow it’s not a performance, but a voice type – the Soprano.

This year I witnessed two performances: “Lucia di Lammermoor” with Lisette Oropesa in Madrid and “Otello” with Anja Harteros in Munich. These  two women, a beautiful lyric coloratura and amazingly rich lirico-spinto soprano, turned my understanding of what is my favorite voice type (which is Jonas Kaufmann and several baritones) upside down. What they both succeeded to do was to go beyond their own roles and own voices, creating absolute heroines, and becoming the most believable characters in sometimes absolutely improbable circumstances. 

Logan Martell – “Medea in Corinto,” Teatro Nuovo

For me, the most memorable performance this year was Jennifer Rowley in the title role of Simone Mayr’s “Medea in Corinto.” I enjoyed the mythic setting, and the focus on music and drama through the concert staging.

Given the opera’s place just before the rise of Romanticism and Bel Canto, and its influence on these styles, it was fascinating to watch these elements unfold onstage.

Throughout the performance, Rowley showed not only radiant lyricism, but hellish fury truly fitting for a character as devilish as Medea. The sheer intensity of Mayr’s work and the passion of Rowley’s artistry both made for a highly memorable experience.

Alan Neilsen – “Richard III,” Teatro la Fenice

Looking back over 2018, over the 51 operas I have been lucky enough to attend at festivals and opera houses throughout Italy and other parts of Europe, it is almost impossible to select a single opera that stood out. Personally, I enjoy attending new works, not necessarily modern operas, just ones I have never or at least rarely seen before. It would have to been unthinkable for me to select a production of “La Traviata” or a “Don Giovanni” no matter how excellent the singers, orchestra or staging as the standout opera of the year. It has to be something new for me.
Three works just about assert themselves above the others: the serenata, “Semele” by Hasse, written in 1726, in which the entire cast consisted of just three singers: Francesca Aspromonte, Sonia Prina and Roberta Invernizzi, all of whom performed superbly in a wonderful staging at Innsbruck Festival for Early Music. The second would be “Dinner at Eight” by the US composer William Bolcom and librettist Mark Campbell, a brilliantly dark comedy, starring Mary Dunleavy, directed by Tomar Zvulun at the Wexford Festival Opera. And the third was “Richard III,” a dark and bloody opera by Giorgio Battistelli, starring Gideon Saks in the title role, at La Fenice in Venice.
Of the three, I must opt for “Richard III.” It is a deep psychological portrait of one man’s desperate bid for power, in which nothing is off limits. The cast, led by Saks’ breathtaking performance in the title role was without exception, excellent. Robert Carsen’s direction, supported by Radu Boruzescu’s imaginative, dark and functional staging, brilliantly captured the psychological complexities of the character, and the work’s dynamic. Battistelli’s music is a heterogeneous mix, which is accessible, atmospheric and emotionally extreme, and was given a wonderful performance by the Orchestra Teatro La Fenice under the direction of Tito Ceccherini.

David Salazar – “Don Carlo,” Washington National Opera

There were several top performances that I witnessed throughout 2018 from all over the world. Michael Fabiano’s turn in “Il Corsaro” in Valencia was a display of an artist really carrying a show on his shoulders and lifting it to a completely different level. “Pelléas et Mélisande” at the Teatro Colón was a visceral and potent performance of the glorious Debussy’s opera; I think that one could say the same for the Met Opera’s “Parsifal” led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin in arguably his finest performances of his young Met career. And the Met Opera’s revival of “La Fanciulla del West” was so fantastic that I saw it three times during the run.

But I can’t overlook a performance of “Don Carlo” that I witnessed at the Washington National Opera at the start of March with an all-American cast of superstars. “Don Carlo” is such a challenging opera to mount, mainly because finding the right balance in the cast can be a virtually impossible task; someone is bound to steal the limelight from his or her colleagues. But this “Don Carlo” was the epitome of balance with each performer (Russell Thomas, Leah Crocetto, Quinn Kelsey, Jamie Barton, Eric Owens, and Andrea Silvestrelli) truly mesmerizing at different moments throughout the performance.

Topping it all off was a superb production by Tim Albery that almost felt like a mirror being held up to the audience about the current state of Washington politics, all without disrespecting the nature of the opera itself. I don’t really like the four-Act version of “Don Carlo,” always feeling that the Fontainebleau scene is crucial to our emotional connection to the characters. But on this night, I not only didn’t mind its absence, but found it all the more crucial to the understanding of the work’s fatalistic nature. With that opening Act, love and hope blossoms at the start. But without it the opera ends on gloom and doom, perfect for how the entire creative team interpreted this veritable masterpiece.

Francisco Salazar – “Florencia en el Amazonas,” Teatro Colón, Bogotá

It has been a year of ups and downs but many revelations. For one, Anna Netrebko’s Tosca and Lady Macbeth were triumphs and Anna Caterina Antonacci’s Elizabeth in “Gloriana” was one of the most immaculate interpretations I have seen in years. Then there was Kristine Opolais’ “Suor Angelica,” which was heartbreaking and one can not forget the incredible musicality of Piotr Bezcala in “Lusia Miller.”

But for me the most striking opera I saw this year was at the Teatro Colón in Bogotá, Colombia. The performance of Daniel Catán’s “Florencia en el Amazonas,” may not have been perfection and for all its defects there was something enlightening about hearing and seeing this opera for the first time in such an intimate space as the Bogota theater. Catán’s work is special in the way he mixes the indigenous and Latin colors with modernistic writing. But he is also able to bring romanticism to his music, sometimes quoting the verismo composers. In many ways this is the modern Puccini opera and a work that is impossible to forget.

The Teatro Colón’s performance was a special evening for me, especially with Pedro Salazar’s visually stylish and compelling production. It allowed the viewer to be taken on a trip through the Amazon without ever distracting from the action and instead allowed the work to take on a deeper meaning. Topping it off was Riccardo Jaramillo’s beautiful and sensitive conducting that was subtle but also powerful in climaxes. The cast was also solid led by Ana María Ruge, who gave a heart-wrenching performance in the title role,  and Camilo Mendoza, who displayed a solid and promising baritone.

Lois Silverstein – “Parsifal,” Bavarian State Opera

What I loved about “Parsifal” in Munich this past June 2018, was its fastidious attention to the immediate and the beyond. The exquisite harmony of sound and meaning, the textural and layered staging, the musical brilliance in solo and choral voices and the conducting, led me not only to want to see and hear it again as soon as possible, but to return to the score and text to probe the human and sacred tale with serious intention.

Set in a nameless wood, Baselitz and Audi combined the ordinary with the fantastic in archetypal ways, reminiscent of Dante’s “Wood of Error,” and Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” where exploration and recreation of community life occurs. Here are trees that turn fuchsia when nature moves from wasteland blacks, greys, deep browns and humans try to penetrate life’s deep questions; bones that shelter, when there is nothing but them; castles that collapse as evil is conquered.

Kirill Petrenko conducted and Kaufmann, Pape,  Stemme, Gerhaher sang the main roles. Baselitz’s design and Pierre Audi’s direction enhanced the interiority and speculative exploration of the performance. Heart and head reached new perspectives, personal and transcendent. Hovering over the whole production could have been Wagner himself, his final words on the subjects of life and its meanings swelling across every note.

Paris, Berlin, Vienna lit sparks of fire by Anja Harteros, Anita Rachelishvili, Sondra Radvanovsky, Magdalena Kozena and Elina Garanca, all gorgeous and glorious, but “Parsifal” rang the truest. I wait in expectation for the reappearance of the mystery to enfold me once again.

Jonathan Sutherland

With the continued assault on opera audience’s sanity and sensibilities by self-serving directors such as Ole Anders Tandberg (Carmen,” Deutsche Opera Berlin); Pierre Audi (“Parsifal,” Bayerische Staatsoper Munich), and Florentine Klepper (“Salome,” Oper Graz), it was welcome to see Sir David McVicar leading the return to regisseur rationality with some stylish stagings including “Ariodante” and “Les Troyens” for the Wiener Staatsoper and “Gloriana” at Teatro Real Madrid.

Despite the continued presence of many enfant terrible directors, opera is still about singing and 2018 had no shortage of stellar performances. The following were particularly memorable.

Best soprano performance: Sondra Radvanovsky, “Andrea Chénier (Maddalena),” Teatro del Liceu Barcelona

Best mezzo performance: Clémentine Margaine, “Carmen (Carmen),” Deutsche Oper Berlin

Best tenor performance: Javier Camarena, “I Puritani (Arturo),” Teatro del Liceu Barcelona

Best Countertenor performance: Jakub Jósef Orliński, “Rodelinda (Unulfo),” Opéra Lille

Best baritone performance: Christian Gerhaher, “Parsifal (Amfortas),” Bayerische Staatsoper Munich

Best bass performance: Dmitri Oulianov, “Attila (Attila),” Opéra de Lyon

Best conducting: Teodor Currentzis, “La Bohème,” Festspielhaus Baden-Baden

Best choral work performance: Giovanni Antonini/  Il gardino armonico, “Haydn Missa in tempore belli,” Wratislavia Cantans, Festival Wrocław Poland

Best concert performance: Joyce DiDonato, “War and Peace,” Hagia Eirene Istanbul

Best production: Bernd Mottl, “Il Viaggio à Reims,” Oper Graz

Santosh Venkataraman – “Regina,” Opera Theatre of Saint Louis & “Proving Up,” Opera Omaha

I consumed plenty of great opera this past year, and the most enjoyable of them would be “Parsifal” at the Metropolitan Opera on balance.  However, for the purposes of this review, I believe two other performances resonate with me both from a musical perspective and from a topical one given our current times in 2018.

That’s because it is clear that we are in an era in which the effects of neo-liberalism have run amok with political headwinds swirling in crazed fashion.  So, it was appropriate to see the much neglected yet masterful “Regina” by Marc Blitzstein presented in outstanding fashion at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis this summer. Blitzstein was an unabashed Communist who savagely showcased the greed of capitalism in this gem of a work. A superstar cast was headed by Susan Graham in a robust portrayal as Regina Giddens alongside heavyweights James Morris, Ron Raines, Susanna Phillips and an ensemble for the ages.

A different aspect of the terrors of capitalism could be discerned by Missy Mazzoli’s “Proving Up” at Opera Omaha in the first fully staged version of her newest creation. Mazzoli’s dark and melodic music was all too appropriate for the fictional Zegner family’s attempt to settle in Nebraska in the aftermath of the Homestead Act of 1862. Neatly set in traverse staging, “Proving Up” also featured a gripping and taut libretto by Royce Vavrek and was punctuated by the chilling appearance of bass Andrew Harris as the mysterious and unforgettable Sodbuster.

Mauricio Villa – “Lucia di Lammermoor,” Teatro Real de Madrid

The performance of “Lucia di Lammermoor,” which took place at Teatro Real on July 7, 2018 was something to be remembered. It was broadcast live via internet and cinemas around the world and I guess that created a magic atmosphere on stage which spread widely through the auditorium. The audience went so wild that it requested an encore of the sextet “Chi mi frena,” which was offered with the soprano Lisette Oropesa pouring down tears of emotion.

It was a pure festival of Bel Canto, with Camarena restoring all the high notes that Donizetti wrote for Duprez in the score and that are rarely sung. Among those was the high C sharp in “Tu che a Dio,” which Camarena sung in pianisimmi in a legato phrase.

Certainly one of the best Lucias I have ever heard live on stage.

Gordon Williams – “Satyagraha,” Los Angeles Opera

This year, I found myself thinking deeply about the meaning of “non-violent resistance,” its effectiveness as a discipline and tool, and how it evolved in Mohandas Gandhi’s mind. For that reason, I would nominate the Los Angeles Opera’s production of “Satyagraha,” Philip Glass and Constance DeJong’s  1980 opera, as “my memorable opera production of the year.” It took me beyond a consideration of musical interpretation.

I have to admit that in 2018 LA Opera awakened me to the wonderful darkness of Verdi’s “Don Carlo” and enticed me with a delightfully candy-colored “Hansel and Gretel”, and I was pleased to get to see Russell Thomas perform “Otello,” a relatively new role for him, courtesy of an LA Phil opera-in-concert at the Hollywood Bowl.

But I would consider LA Opera’s “Satyagraha,” a re-mounting of an earlier production by English National Opera and the Metropolitan Opera in collaboration with the British improvisational puppetry theater, Improbable, one of the great overall theatrical experiences of my life.

What were your favorite performances of 2018? Please let us know in the comments below!

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