Best of 2021: OperaWire’s Staff on the Best Performances of the Year

By Operawire Staff

Over the past few weeks we have returned to an old end-of-year tradition, spotlighting some of our standout artists of the year. And we will conclude that series with a return to our spotlight of the year’s best performances.

As in the past, we have compiled the efforts of different members of our staff to create a list of our favorite performances of 2021. So without further ado, here they are.

Alan Neilson – Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria (Maggio Musicale) & Teodora (Ravenna Festival)

Choosing the best opera performance I attended in 2021 is not difficult. Bayreuth Baroque Festival’s production of Nicola Porpora’s “Carlo il Calvo” would actually be in contention for the best opera I have seen in the past 40 years. It was simply stunning, it had everything!

However, as it was a revival of a production from 2020, I am inclined to preclude it from the list of possible choices. Instead, I shall opt for Florence’s Maggio Musicale’s production of Monteverdi’s “Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria,” directed by Robert Carsen and conducted by baroque specialist Ottavio Dantone. In what was an imaginative staging, the gods sat in theatre boxes and watched Ulisse play out on the stage, intervening when they felt inclined, much to the amusement of the others. The excellent cast led Charles Workman included a standout performance from Arianna Vendittelli in the role of the goddess Minerva.

During 2021, I had the good fortune to attend nine new contemporary operas. Although many people are still very suspicious, and hold deep prejudices against new works, they rarely turn out to be anything other than interesting, engaging and imaginative pieces of theatre. I thought it appropriate, therefore, to select my favorite from 2021, and this had to be Ravenna Festival’s presentation of Mauro Montalbetti’s “Teodora,” starring Roberta Mameli in the title role. Not only was it a musically beautiful and accessible work, but its presentation in the 6th century Basilica of San Vitale with its with its huge cavernous spaces and thick columns created stunning acoustic effects, while the colorful mosaics on its walls created the perfect visual backdrop.

Polina Lyapustina – Sun and Sea (Marina)

After spending most of the year in Italy, catching every possible performance of Zubin Mehta and Daniele Gatti, I was sure that it wouldn’t be a problem to choose one of them as my favorite one. And yet, last week’s performance of the modern opera “Sun and Sea,” returning to Lithuania after two years of touring the world after winning the Venice Biennale 2019 left no doubt about it.

This time, set in the Soviet-time Taxi park, with eight levels of a view down, this opera seems to draw the spectator into the world of an anxious beach, where the vacationers cannot free themselves from the presentiment of catastrophe covering our planet. But this opera burns not only through Vaiva Grainytė’s burning words and Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė’s captivating production. The music dramaturgy (by Lina Lapelytė) combined many styles perfectly to each of the characters to make “Sun and Sea” a real piece of art, able to make you not just think but feel and live this story through.

Logan Martell – Porgy and Bess (Metropolitan Opera)

While there were understandably fewer performances to choose from this year, my choice for best performance goes to the Metropolitan Opera’s season premiere of “Porgy and Bess.” The stellar music of Gershwin was treated with celebratory jubilance, and the energetic numbers provided ample opportunity for the ensemble to make the most of it through the expressive choreography. The harmonious marriage of music, drama, and dance saw no one aspect lacking, and truly succeeded in immersing the audience within the work.

The pairing of Eric Owens and Angel Blue was consistently breathtaking, and I would recommend the production based on these two alone, but the cast had no shortage of experienced performers such as Alfred Walker, Frederick Ballentine, and more.

My honorable mention goes to the Met’s season premiere of “Tosca.” I’ve seen some truly splendid leading ladies tackle the title role, but Sondra Radvanovsky’s performance was revelatory, with Brian Jagde was a stalwart and passionate Cavaradossi.

Chris Ruel – Amici e Rivali (92Y)

Best Performance of 2021 goes to Lawrence Brownlee and Michael Spyres in concert at New York’s 92Y. The duo sang Rossini barnburners that pushed the pandemic’s clouds away with sizzling vocal energy and playful delivery. Pianists Myra Huang, Thomas Lausman, and Bryan Wagorn’s performance of a 30-finger rendition of “The Barber of Seville” overture set the lighthearted tone for an unforgettable display of bel canto virtuosity. The concert’s encore was an epic duet performance of “Ah! Mes amis,” for which the duo split the high C’s, until the last, which they sang in pitch-perfect unison. It was an electrifying evening of music.

Honorable mention goes to Teatro Nuovo’s semi-staged production of “Il barbiere di Siviglia.” The July 30, 2021 presentation was the first live opera performance in New York City, and the young cast heralded the art form’s return to the Big Apple with a truly solid performance of Rossini’s hit.

David Salazar – Fire Shut Up in My Bones (Metropolitan Opera)

I don’t think any event this year defined opera, its past, and its future communing as one than the Met Opera’s opening night performance of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.” Here was a monumental event years in the making, months in the waiting, and it was pulled off as well as anyone could ever ask for.

The opera itself was a dramatic masterstroke with a fantastic story structure and transcendent themes. The music blended the past with the present and undoing so, showcased a possible path for opera’s future. The production was simple and yet complex, managing this multi-faceted story quite beautifully. And to top it off we got some of the most towering performances of recent Met history. Will Liverman and Angel Blue doubled down on their star power, but it was Latonia Moore who continues to shine in the brightest moments. Check out my full thoughts here.

Honorable mention would go to the Met’s “Meistersinger von Nürnberg” with Antonio Pappano leading a fantastic cast spotlighted by the incredible Lise Davidsen. Props must also go to Bard Summerscape’s “King Arthur,” which was a wonderful discovery for me.

Francisco Salazar – King Arthur (Bard Summerscape)

While I didn’t get to go to the theater well until the end of 2021 when New York theaters finally opened, there were so many great streams that I took advantage of at the beginning if the year. One of the performances that stuck with me was the Bayerische Staatsoper’s performance of “Tristan und Isolde” for its sheer musicality and impressive leads in Anja Harteros and Jonas Kaufmann. The chemistry between these two singers and their bel canto approach to the music made for an incredible afternoon in my living room. Other streams I enjoyed were the Teatro alla Scala’s “Macbeth,” “Linda di Chamonix” from the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino with a fantastic Jessica Pratt, the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma’s “I Puritani,” also with Pratt, and the Teatro Amintore Galli’s “Aroldo” with Lidia Fridman, who keeps getting better.

And when I was finally able to go to the theater, it was incredible to discover rare works from the repertoire. Thanks to Bard, I was able to see “Le Roi Arthus,” a true masterpiece and the only opera Chausson ever wrote. Filled with a Wagnerian orchestration and passionate lines that melded French with Germanic romanticism, this was an unmissable evening at the opera. The cast was led by the incredible Norman Garrett and his imposing stage presence as well as Sasha Cooke and Matthew White, who had some steamy scenes that were reminiscent of “Tristan und Isolde.”

Lois Silverstein – Parsifal (Vienna State Opera / Online)

Two of the digital performances I saw this year, “Jenufa” and “Parsifal,” weren’t live, but they were altogether LIVE. Neither felt confined, though that was both their subject and their format, with music heard from human voices and instruments thousands of miles away. Not only was it the stirring voices and the artists’ effective dramatic input, but it was also the consequence of the style the productions themselves.

Kirill Serebrennikov’s production of “Parsifal,” in Vienna, conducted by Philippe Jordan, was directed online, from Russia. Besides heightening the production’s sense of detachment, along with its shifting sense of “here” and “there,”  kept us questioning how we live our own lives behind bars. He casts a young man, Nikolay Sidorenko, as silent double to Jonas Kaufmann’s well-acted older Parsifal, creating a kind of Hamlet-style introspection. He uses film to heighten Elina Garanca’s voyeuristic photographer-Kundry, her riveting role debut, checking her motivation as she shoots photos of the young Parsifal and yearns to seduce him. He breathes terror in bass Wolfgang Koch’s Klingsor and pity from baritone Ludovic Tézier’s Amfortas. The continually shifting time, place and circumstance ultimately deconstruct the old story already re-invented by Wagner in his last opera. Perhaps inside the opera house, the production would only sweep us in; the digital format regulated the worlds, giving us the spectatorial one as well.

John Vandervert – The Barber of Seville (Welsh National Opera)

Although the menace withheld my attendance to a myriad of performances, I was fortunate enough to attend a riotous interpretation of Giachino Rossini’s comic opera “The Barber of Seville,” whose eternally relevant personification of the mayhem of love and life was excellently embodied by The Welsh National Opera in late October. From well executed meta-narratives and comical jocularities to divine coloratura, chesty bravado, and brilliant leggiero lyricism, the roles on stage became embodiments of paradigms of life. The parodistic nature of Rossini’s take on stock commedia dell’arte characters, while not technically intentional, does color this beloved classic in a satirically-tinted veil of anthropological topicality. Rossini found a way, among his florid effusements and tender revelations, to represent the many, archetypal variations of human tenacity and our ability to complicate even the most “simple” of sentiments, love! Maybe Rousseau was right when he said, “Our affections as well as our bodies are in perpetual flux!”

Mauricio Villa – Tosca (Opéra de Paris)

The best opera performance of this year that I have attended would be “Tosca” at Theatre de la Bastille in Paris on June 4, 2021. There were two factors that made this performance unique: to begin with it was the first time that performances restarted in Paris after nearly 16 months of closure due to COVID-19. Secondly, it marked the debut roles of Maria Agresta and Michael Fabiano as Tosca and Mario. The Paris Opera had been working hard, rehearsing new productions throughout the lockdown with the hope of reopening as soon as the health situation improved, and the government allowed it.

The atmosphere in the theatre that night was incredible, with the audience overexcited to enjoy live performances again. And the artists delivered. Tosca and Mario turned out to be ideal roles for their interpreters Agresta and Fabiano who were both vocally and dramatically outstanding. Tézier, who had created Baron Scarpia when the production premiered was really committed to the tragic drama, drawing a sadistic character with his rotund strong voice and hypnotic stage presence. The night Paris Opera reopened with its revival production of “Tosca” was memorable and will stay in the memory of all the people involved, both audience and artistic/technique crew, for quite a long time.


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