And we’re back. And as has become the tradition here at OperaWire, we have asked our writers to select their choices for the opera performances that truly marveled them in 2023.
So without further ado, here are our writers’ picks. Enjoy!
This year, in my opinion, the best performance was Aix-en-Provence’s “Picture a Day Like This,” a world premiere of George Benjamin’s work. I attended the opera twice—and I wished I had gone more times. The theatrical pace was perfect; Marianne Crebassa was amazing, as was John Brancy in his high notes and larger-than-life melismas. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra was surreal. However, the greatest proof of “Picture’s” greatness was that months after the performance, I could still play and sing some of the opera motifs in my mind without glancing at the score or a recording of it. When I watched the medici.tv streaming of it, I was even more amazed. Truly an impeccable production and a great opera.
In a wonderful year of opera at the Royal Opera House, I was blessed to see American tenor Brian Jagde, whom I consider to be somewhat underrated, notwithstanding that he is surely the leading spinto/dramatic tenor of his generation. In 2023, he commanded the stage in TWO Verdi powerhouses: “La Forza del Destino” and “Don Carlo.” Jagde is a big guy with an even bigger voice to match. He is also blessed with remarkable stage presence, and he positively exudes charisma, and I’m hoping that 2024 elevates him further towards the pinnacles that his talents deserve.
It really has been an excellent year. I cannot remember one with so many wonderful productions that remain so vividly in my memory. Amsterdam’s production of Raskatov’s new opera, “Animal Farm,” was absolutely stunning, thanks to its strong score underpinned by its detailed orchestration, marvelous stage direction, and fast-moving narrative! There was a wonderful new production of “Boris Godunov” from Innsbruck‘s Tiroler Landestheater, and Cilea’s neglected final opera “Gloria” proved to be a real surprise in a fine production given by Cagliari Opera.
Yet, the best of the year was undoubtedly Wexford Festival Opera’s production of Marco Tutino’s “La Ciociara.” Anyone who thinks opera is an art form stuck in the past should see it. It is full of rich, engaging melodies, possesses a captivating narrative, and can be emotionally overwhelming; it cannot fail to delight and impress anybody who likes opera. The stage director, Rosetta Cucchi, and conductor, Francesco Cilluffo, did a magnificent job of bringing it alive, and the cast, led by mezzo-soprano Na’ama Goldman, was truly excellent.
“Behold the Man” made its world premiere at the Nicholas J. Horn Theatre for Opera Las Vegas’ 25th season on September 30th and October 1st, 2023. What began as a curious and fun project between creative team members, composer Paul Fowler, librettist Andrew Flack and producer Barbara Duff, has now evolved into something beyond their wildest dreams – a successful modern comic opera with extraordinary insight about what makes social media a “social benefit.”
This performance especially inspired young singers and audience members to engage with opera while being themselves. The cast was full of life and excitement as they told the story of the “Ecce Homo” (Behold the Man) fresco, by Spanish artist Elías García Martínez. One cannot deny the necessity of opera’s outreach to inspire younger generations. Experiencing this happening live was my favorite performance of 2023. “Behold the Man” is about cherishing what matters most in life and connecting as a whole to something brighter.
This year, there were a great deal of incredibly interesting performances given, some being incredibly innovative while others were pushing the hand of authenticity to places unseen for quite some time. For me personally, while I didn’t go to as many performances as I had wanted, my highlight was the Swedish Radio Choir’s performance of my all-time favorite Bachian cantata (i.e., BWV 140). The ensemble’s triumphant performance was nothing short of bliss and divine transcendence, made even more so by the soloists and their impeccable musicality.
The other performance that I must put on my list is Detroit Opera’s “Ainadamar,” Osvaldo Golijov’s brainchild. While the theatre is undergoing a sizable change in repertoire and worldview, its original artistic director David DiChiera having unfortunately passed not too long ago, it’s far too easy to reprimand Detroit Opera for turning its back on classical repertoire. Even the Metropolitan Opera House has had to choose to program more modern works over its museum pieces. In any case, the house ended its 2022-23 season in a wonderful and show-stopping way and this following season, we are going to be promised Cagean opera, operatic repertoire, mind you, which is hardly ever performed anymore due to its novelty and difficulty on top of its experimental nature all these years later. I’m looking forward to where opera is going and I hope our readers are too. There is a lot to expect and to wait for on the precipice of 2024 and I hope you’ll come with us.
It was a great year for opera with a tremendous amount of amazing individual performances – Ermonela Jaho in the Met’s “La Traviata,” Eri Nakamura in “Madama Butterfly” at the Royal Swedish Opera, and Joyce DiDonato in “Dead Man Walking.” Then there were amazing casts in such works as “Florencia en el Amazonas,” “Dialogues des Carmélites,” “Don Giovanni,” “Tannhäuser,” and “Lohengrin,” (all at the Met).
But three performances stood tallest for me, both for different reasons. On one hand, the Met Opera’s new production of “Die Zauberflöte” continues to resonate with me months after experiencing it. As I glanced through my list of performances from 2023, there was no doubt that this one would be the one I would mention. The production is pure perfection, but the entire cast from this past season nailed every moment beautifully, transforming the classic work into something truly special and revelatory.
And that would have been all if not for two year-ending experiences at the Teatro alla Scala, my first, of “Don Carlo” followed by the legendary Robert Carsen production of “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” at the Opéra National de Paris. First, La Scala. While the “Don Carlo” is nothing to write home about and feels like it’s stuck in the past while trying to fit into the present, what pushed the needle here over other performances I mentioned above, was the perfection of its cast. Every single singer called in to take on the iconic Verdi roles nailed it from start to finish. It wasn’t sheer perfection, mind you (whatever is?), but I doubt you can find a better cast for that opera today. But what really put it over the edge for me was Riccardo Chailly, conducting Verdi with such confidence, composure, and narrative drive and understanding that I personally think no one else possesses right now. Not even close. It’s going to be hard to enjoy orchestral interpretations of Verdi after that.
Meanwhile, Carsen’s “Hoffman” is pure genius, a love letter to opera perfectly crafted and mined. I could not believe that the production is nearing the quarter-century mark because it feels so rich and alive to this day. Not one moment or character is wasted on stage. To top it off, it starred Benjamin Bernheim in the title role and I honestly can’t think of any tenor today that can sing the role with such poise, nuance, and vocal richness. In terms of the French repertory, there’s no one that comes close right now and it was incredible to experience what was his final performance of this incredible role. Throw in Christian Van Horn’s powerful turn as the four villains and this was an incredible performance to cap off my 2023.
This year I had the pleasure of traveling all over the world to see a variety of operas and had a chance to rediscover some of my favorite works. One such opera was “Florencia en el Amazonas,” an opera that finally landed at the Metropolitan Opera. While the production was quite terrible, the work by Daniel Catan is one of the great contemporary operas that pays homage to some of the great composers of the past while also adding new Latin flavors to opera. The Met brought a delightful cast to the opera led by the musically incisive Ailyn Perez, who sang with some exquisite phrasing and showcased her musical insight, particularly in the final aria “Escuchame.” Gabriella Reyes was a revelation as Rosalba, while Nancy Fabiola Herrera gave a heartfelt performance, especially in her Act two aria. The male cast was also incredible especially Mario Chang and Mattia Olivieri. Yannick Nézet-Séguin led the Met orchestra in arguably in my opinion his best conducting in years.
Other highlights included the Teatro alla Scala’s performance of “Don Carlo” which made me recall why I love the work so much and had some real vocal fireworks. There was also Anna Netrebko’s performance of “Aida” at the Arena di Verona which was nothing short of showstopping as she brought dramatic insight to the character and which showcased some of her best theatrical work and singing in years. Then there was Xabier Anduaga’s Met debut in “L’Elisir d’Amore” which you could say confirmed him as one of the most promising young talents of his generation and a singer whose voice needs to be heard on all the great stages of the world. Finally, Anja Kampe’s Senta in “Der Fliegende Holländer” at the Teatro La Fenice was impactful because of the sheer power of her voice and her great understanding of Wagner’s music which can also be sung with great lyrical qualities.