A year at the Opera: A 2010 report card

A scene from 'A Quiet Place.' (Photo by Carol Rosegg.)
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I’ve decided to start putting together a short report card of the opera performances I’ve seen each year because I’m fearful that unless I start keeping score, a lot of things are going to fade into the ether.

Then, much of what I saw this year was good or pretty good—but not great; and only a couple of things were truly disappointing.

At its best, opera is the most powerful art form out there and it’s perplexing to see it lurch forward on a global scale so haphazardly. I think its future is extremely dark unless its promoters find a way to appeal to aging baby boomers (a generation that starts turning 65 this year) and a way to convince members of Generation X and Generation Y that opera is relevant. The explosion of blogs has been a great thing as younger and edgier writers suddenly have venues and a platform.

Enough gloomy ruminating. I’m excited about City Opera under the guidance of George Steel and hopeful that Francesca Zambello can really excel at Glimmerglass as she takes over there this season. This was the first time I’d been to Santa Fe and I was very impressed with their setup and I’m excited about going back this summer.

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The Report Card

A Quiet Place (City Opera): A.

You don’t need Moby Dick or Streetcar Named Desire to create a great American opera. With a story that’s reminiscent of John Cheever, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Wadsworth sew a musical crazy-quilt that covers one family’s life in the wake of a tragedy. The biggest surprise of the year.

Albert Herring (Santa Fe Opera): A. A pitch-perfect production of Britten’s comic take on small-town life. (Think Peter Grimes on Prozac.) Alek Shrader and Christine Brewer are at the helm of a cast that’s clearly having fun.

Ariadne Auf Naxos (Metropolitan Opera): B+.

Nina Stemme gives a stand-out performance in this twisted opera within an opera.

Armida (Metropolitan Opera): B-.

A vehicle for Renee Fleming that almost crashes. Lawrence Brownlee outshines Fleming in an opera that’s understandably not in heavy rotation in most repertories. This should have been ditched in the planning stages or radically overhauled.

Attila (Metropolitan Opera): B-.

Only a powerful conducting job by Riccardo Muti and great singing (starting with Ildar Abdrazakov) save this shockingly uninspired production from a much lower grade. With the possible exception of the first act, a dream team of designers and producers draw up an awful game plan. Muti, though, shows that this opera deserves much more attention in the United States.

Boris Godunov (Metropolitan Opera and via HD): B+.

Director Stephen Wadsworth is the opera reliever of the year, filling in for Peter Stein who—only a little more than two months before opening night—threw in the towel after having visa problems. A very strong production led by Rene Pape in the title role. As enjoyable as the production was (with a particularly powerful and disturbing final scene), one wonders if the opera would have been even better had Wadsworth been given more time to come up with his own production rather than use Stein’s playbook.

Cosi Fan Tutte (Metropolitan Opera): B+.

A young cast having a great time in a production that could use a little bit more umph. Still, quite enjoyable.

Das Rheingold (Metropolitan Opera and via HD): B-.

The much-ballyhooed production by Robert Lepage was mostly a dud. A high-tech version of "park and bark”, this Rheingold has a very strong cast (with an extremely impressive Eric Owens as Alberich) that seemed a little lost on opening night—culminating with a technical malfunction when the bridge to Valhalla was supposed to be revealed. I’m hoping things improve with Die Walkure this coming spring. Somewhere Otto Schenk is giggling.

Das Rheingold (La Scala, viewed in a live transmission at Symphony Space): B.

Another so-so new production with good singing. The female leads—Ekaterina Gubanova as Fricka and Waltraud Meier as Sieglinde—are quite strong and Daniel Barenboim makes the orchestra sound great.

Der Ferne Klang (Bard SummerScape): A-.

I’m hardly the first person to express shock that this isn’t a standard or at least something that has been produced before in the United States. In what feels like a lost Berg opera, Franz Schreker tells a compelling tale of a young composer who foregoes love to pursue The Distant Sound. Yamina Maamar leads a strong cast.

Don Carlo (via HD): A-.

Wow. Perhaps this should be graded on some sort of curve because I didn’t actually see this at the Met—but I can only grade what I saw on HD at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. All of the performances are stellar but Ferruccio Furlanetto steals the show as Philip II and creates an operatic King Lear. With a withering take on political and romantic relationships, this is worth repeated viewings. An engimatic ending.

Der fliegende Holländer (Metropolitan Opera): B+.

Kaz Ono doesn’t do the greatest job with the Met orchestra here and it may be time to retire August Everding’s dark production. That being said, Debbie Voigt is a terrific Senta and how bad can even a so-so production of Dutchman be?

Grapes of Wrath (Concert production, Carnegie Hall): A-.

Paging City Opera. Paging City Opera. If only Anthony Dean Griffey had not bowed out.

Intermezzo (City Opera): B.

I heartily salute City Opera for putting this on but the production seems to need a little bit of a jumpstart. Mary Dunleavy is great as Christine in this parlor drama that’s inspired by an episode in Strauss’ marriage. Still, worth seeing.

Le Nozze di Figaro  (Glimmerglass): B.

On an austerity budget, Glimmerglass challenged its directors to do more with less—basically sharing the same elements in four different operas. And this was clearly the fourth-place finisher. Dreary drabness can’t defeat solid singing, however.

L’Etoile (City Opera): B+.

A lot of fun. A very nice comic production and Julie Boulianne is impressive.

Life is a Dream  (Santa Fe Opera): A-.

Believe the hype—and the Pulitzer. A powerful opera that deserves to be seen. Great sets and costumes augment a stellar performance by Roger Honeywell. Good stuff.

The Nose  (Metropolitan Opera): A-.

The Met actually feels like it’s doing something daring and exciting—and relevant. Whoever thought that an opera by Shostakovich would be one of the hottest tickets of the spring season? The much-deserved success of this production hopefully teaches Peter Gelb a valuable lesson.

Lulu (Metropolitan Opera): A-.

From Marlis Petersen on down, everything about this is first-rate. Conductor Fabio Luisi shows that it isn’t just James Levine who loves Berg.

Il Mondo della Luna (Gotham Chamber Opera): B+.

Producing an opera in the Hayden Planetarium is the musical equivalent of the N.H.L. Winter Classic: the jaw-dropping venue eclipses the actual event. Diane Paulus (full disclosure: she’s my boss’ sister) puts together a show that’s dreamy, entertaining, and funny.

Partenope (City Opera): B.

Not my favorite music but a good production and a strong cast.

 Der Rosenkavalier (Metropolitan Opera): B+.

Forget Armida, this is where Renee Fleming shines. And it’s why I’m looking forward to seeing her in Capriccio in a few months.

Summer and Smoke (Manhattan School of Music): B+.

What a nice opera! Maybe Lee Hoiby’s music is pedestrian at times but he does a terrific job with transforming this small gem of play into a moving opera.

Tales of Hoffmann (Metropolitan Opera and Santa Fe Opera): B+.

Two different—and very strong—productions that both feature the wonderful Kate Lindsey as Nicklausse. Both directors (Bartlett Sher in New York and Christopher Alden in New Mexico) are too clever by half and overstuff the opera with their ideas, sometimes veering into high-concept confusion. Still, they bring a lot of emotional depth to the stage.

The Tender Land (Glimmerglass): A-.

While the music is often beautiful, Aaron Copland’s opera lacks a central conflict at the story’s core. Director Tazewell Thompson comes to the rescue and milks every ounce of drama and intrigue out of a lukewarm plot. With bare-bones ingredients, Thompson puts together a set that’s visually satisfying. My surprise favorite at Glimmerglass.

Tolomeo (Glimmerglass): C.

Director Chas Rader-Shieber sabotages this Handel revival by trying to turn it into an absurdist comedy. A complete suffocating mess that cannot be saved by great singing by Anthony Roth Costanzo, Joelle Harvey and Julie Boulianne. An exercise in vanity.

Tosca (Glimmerglass): B+.

Sorry Luc Bondy, this is the Tosca that most people pay to see. Lise Lindstrom and Adam Diegel give standout performances and Lester Lynch is a strong Scarpia.

Stuff I’m looking forward to in 2011: Nixon in China at the Met; Die Liebe der Danae at Bard College; Le Rossignol at B.A.M.; Midsummer Night's Dream at Boston Lyric Opera.

Bob Hardt is the political director and executive producer at NY1.