The 5 Performances From 2017 I Will Remember the Most

By Santosh Venkataraman

It’s popular to make year-end lists, and I saw between 30-35 performances during the calendar year. Much of what I saw was terrific and, of course, there were many more outstanding performances that I didn’t see. These are the five that I will remember the most from what I saw; they are not necessarily the best but will remain in my memory for various reasons.

5. Tancredi, Opera Philadephia – February 15

Upon entrance into the Academy of Music, I attended a lecture by Michael Bolton, the excellent Vice President of Community Initiatives at Opera Philadelphia. He said that this was only the third staged performance of this rare Rossini gem in the United States since the turn of the century. This opera seria is based on a story by Voltaire and was composed in less than a month by Rossini, known more for his comedic ability with “Il barbiere di Siviglia” and “L’italiana in Algeri.”

The outstanding mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe has shown that she enjoys the challenges of lesser-known works and her performance in the pants role of the title character was the absolute highlight of the night. Blythe has the talent and personality to carry big occasions and used this one as a vehicle for her luminous instrument. Soprano Brenda Rae excelled as Tancredi’s lover, Amenaide, and the updated 20th-century setting in a production borrowed from the Teatro Municipal de Santiago and Opera de Lausanne served to highlight the glorious music at hand.

4. Grapes of Wrath, Opera Theatre of St. Louis – June 17

Ricky Ian Gordon’s opera based on the famous John Steinbeck novel premiered at Minnesota Opera in 2007 and was nearly four hours long. He and librettist Michael Korie reworked the piece to make it a more manageable length this summer that can be envisioned in many ways as a new work.

I was not able to see the original version but what I saw in St. Louis packed as big an emotional punch as any opera I have ever experienced. Steinbeck’s story provides fertile ground as an opera subject, and Gordon’s music taps into this by using numerous styles. His music has a very American feel that is altogether appropriate for the somber subject matter – and sorely needed in the world of opera. I regretted not having any tissues with me since I was absolutely sobbing throughout the first act, so moved by this telling of the Joad family’s relocation from Oklahoma to California.

An excellent ensemble cast shined with veteran mezzo-soprano Katharine Goeldner as Ma Joad, baritone Tobias Greenhalgh as the hard-luck Tom Joad and soprano Deanna Breiwick as sister Rosasharn. This is an opera that should be seen around the country and embodies the spirit of the United States in a way that no other work does.

3. Fra Diavolo, Opera di Roma – October 8

Being at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma for the first time was memorable enough. Seeing this rarely performed 19th-century French opera by Daniel Auber on opening night in an innovative production by Giorgio Barberio Corsetti that was highlighted by holograms on stage made it even more unique.

Much of the local press centered on how this work is a send-up of Italian culture from a French point of view; to me, it was simply hilarious on its own merit. It is loosely about the bandit Fra Diavolo and how he manages to get involved in a number of capers while the town is in hot pursuit of the criminal.

John Osborn was in the title role and the American is a former Operalia winner who performs almost exclusively in Europe these days. Osborn is a tenor who can do it all vocally and he successfully navigated the ups and downs of Diavolo’s mood through the various escapades.

This opera also marked the rare occasion in which I had a great view of the conductor, and watching Rory Macdonald in action was itself a spectacle. The maestro mouthed along much of the lyrics, acted in part as a prompter to the singers and was assured and in control in the pit with so much occurring on stage. His orchestra produced a delightful, breezy rendition of Auber’s score. Macdonald was as much a star as anyone on stage.

2. Idomeneo, Metropolitan Opera – March 13

The Mozart epic was back on stage in New York for the first time in 11 years with the classic Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production the vehicle for what was simply amazing. The Met assembled a superstar cast that included the indulgence as Eric Owens making a cameo as Neptune!

Matthew Polenzani has called “Idomeneo” Mozart’s best work; with the way the tenor led the way on this night, that case can certainly be made. With all due respect to everyone else in the cast who were all marvelous, Polenzani’s performance in the title role stood out with a “Fuor del mar” that embodied the character’s conflict within. Then there a was a sumptuous love duet between rising soprano Nadine Sierra as Ilia and mezzo-soprano Alice Coote as Idamante. When you add in Elettra portrayed by Elza van den Heever – who shame on me I was seeing sing for only the second time – the result was sensational and I wandered onto the streets of Manhattan thoroughly satisfied as the clock neared midnight.

This performance also marked the last time I saw James Levine in the pit, with the disgraced maestro now a symbol of opera’s failures as an institution as opposed to anything else. I will remember that as well.

1. Tosca, Opernhaus Zurich – October 21

I had to venture slightly out of my way to see this production by Robert Carsen in Zurich and there was one reason why: Anja Harteros. The star soprano has limited her appearances to a small radius outside her Cologne home and it requires a pilgrimage to either Zurich, Munich, or Paris to experience her out-of-this world voice.

Harteros’ “Vissi d’Arte” was like a moment in time frozen. The anticipation was rife within the audience for the kind of moment that can so often disappoint because a singer fails to live up to lofty expectations when performing iconic arias. In this case, Harteros actually exceeded them with a delivery that was masterful to the point of disbelief. I know I had a big smile on my face because this was what I came to see and it was completely worth it.

The American tenor Brian Jagde made his Zurich debut that night as Mario Cavaradossi and more than held his own; he seemed just about as star-struck on social media about the experience of co-starring with Harteros as the rest of us were watching her. There’s very little doubt that I will carefully check the great Harteros’ schedule before my next trip to Europe.


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