Ms.OperaGeek’s Favorite Classical Music Performances from 2015

2015 was a great year for classical music performances given in New York. From some of the new productions put on stage by the Met to visiting orchestras at Carnegie Hall, the stages of New York oozed with talent. I estimate having attended around fifty to sixty performances just this year, but here are some of my favorites, in chronological order, as I look back on 2015:

Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 and the Schumann “Rhenish” Symphony, January 2015

This program featured Maestro Riccardo Muti conducting both Yefim Bronfman in Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto and the Schumann “Rhenish” Symphony. What I took especially from this performance was the honor of being in the same hall as the CSO brass section. Even without the leadership of Dale Clevenger, the longtime Principal Horn of the CSO who retired two years ago, the notoriously clear and rich sound of their brass section plays on. Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 begins with a gentle horn call, followed by the “Rhenish” which gives very generous parts particularly to the horns. The symphony itself is in E-Flat Major, a heroic key and a favorite among brass players. The Chicago Symphony played it heroically at that.

Iolanta and Bluebeard’s Castle at the Metropolitan Opera, January and February 2015

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Nadja Michael as Judith in Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle”. © Marty Sohl, Metropolitan Opera, 2015

With the help of two ghoulish new productions by Mariusz Trelinski, a terrifically haunting evening of two rarely staged works was presented. It is doubtful that Iolanta would have been performed at the Met without the help of Maestro Valery Gergiev, who conducted it superbly. Both Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala, Iolanta and Vaudémont respectively, gave proof of how their voices have grown and how they are going to take on heavier roles in the future. Nadja Michael’s intensity as Judith in Bluebeard’s Castle drew the audience in with her, as Mikhail Petrenko contrasted with an eerily passive portrayal of Bluebeard. Trelinski’s production made the evening. His use of eternally dark moving projections and ominous voices and noises coming from speakers around the house made it like a ride in the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland rather than a dismally dark experience.

La Donna del Lago at the Metropolitan Opera, February and December 2015

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John Osborn, Joyce DiDonato, and Juan Diego Flórez in La Donna del Lago at the Metropolitan Opera; Photograph: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

I had never seen such a battlefield of coloratura singing before the Met finally brought Rossini’s La Donna del Lago to the stage in 2015. Both casts, in the 2014-15 season and the 2015-16 season, were made up of all-star bel canto repertoire artists: Juan Diego Flórez, Joyce DiDonato, Daniela Barcellona, Lawrence Brownlee, and John Osborn. Each time the trio in Act II between the two tenors and Ms. DiDonato came back, I would sit at the edge of my seat, frozen and immovable, as I witnessed the “battle of the high Cs” between John Osborn and Juan Diego Flórez and later Lawrence Brownlee. Then came the final aria of the opera for Elena, “Tanti affetti”, or “so many emotions”, which is exactly how I felt hearing Ms. DiDonato nail all her runs every single time she went for them. It was amazing to not only hear a new addition to the Met’s bel canto repertoire, but to also hear an entire cast of artists who are always consistent and perpetually prepared.

Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, Ein Deutsches Requiem, March 2015

As part of their US tour, the Vienna Philharmonic brought with them one of their specialities: Brahms’ German Requiem. Listening to those Viennese musicians play that music was like comfort food. It felt as if the music was coming straight out of their veins as they played and breathed together as one being. Daniele Gatti conducted gently, exactly what the piece deserves. Diana Damrau and Christian Gerhaher, both accomplished singers of lieder, gave personal and intimate performances as the two soloists. The Westminster Symphonic Choir exemplified versatility, as they sang powerfully in the trembling “Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras” and later came all the way down for a very moving “Selig sind die Toten”. One could pick up on the great amount of care given by every person on stage to deliver Brahms’ non-liturgical messages to humankind.

Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, Beethoven Violin Concerto, Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10, Mahler: Symphony No. 6, April 2015

In April the Boston Symphony toured to Carnegie Hall with Christian Teztlaff and the Beethoven Violin Concerto, Shostakovich 10, and Mahler 6, all conducted by Andris Nelsons. The Beethoven was played tenderly by Teztlaff with a very interpretive and relatively long cadenza. Both the Shostakovich and the Mahler were fluid and chamber-like under Maestro Nelsons. Instead of going for the big band sound like many conductors do, Nelsons went the other way for a smoother, more velvety sound even out of these two huge works. His animation on the podium, even solely in his eyes as they connect with his musicians, is always worth the price of admission.

Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, Beethoven: Symphonies No. 4, 7, and 9, November 2015

The Berlin Philharmonic is the rock star orchestra of the twenty-first century. Tickets to see them at Carnegie Hall are the highest for the entire season each year they tour. From Karajan to Abbado to Sir Simon Rattle, their sound has been transformed into possibly the best in the world as far as classical orchestras go. These rock stars gave it their all as they brought with them a cycle of Beethoven. Out of the three symphonies I saw them perform, my favorite had to have been Symphony No. 7. Yes, many complain that it is performed too often, but when it is performed that well and with such high standards as those of the Berlin Philharmonic, it is a perfect choice.

An entire section of violins sounded like one violin, their blend was that melded. The winds’ first priority was to listen to each other, as they moved and made eye contact as they commingled. Albrecht Mayer, the Principal Oboist of the Berlin Philharmonic, paid particular consideration to listening to his fellow musicians and blending his sound. The brass playing sounded magnificent. As always, they were perfectly in tune and created a big, clear sound together. Sir Simon Rattle looked like he was having a blast as he danced and leaped on the podium. At times, however, he would stop conducting the orchestra entirely, demonstrating that the trust between him and the musicians is unquestionably mutual.

Lulu at the Metropolitan Opera, November 2015

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Marlis Petersen in Lulu at the Metropolitan Opera; Photograph: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

To call Marlis Petersen a stage animal is an understatement. How she ran around the stage while simultaneously singing Lulu’s long and strenuous part boggled everybody’s mind. She practically won the Olympics. A busy new production by South African director William Kentridge allowed some of the attention drawn to Ms. Petersen to be drawn elsewhere, as projections of newspaper clippings and encyclopedia entries were blotted with inky drawings of people, including the characters on stage, Alban Berg, and others. It was eccentric, but for an opera as kooky as Lulu where everyone is busy dying, the production was allowed to be busy too. The Met Orchestra outdid themselves by effortlessly playing Berg’s complicated twelve-tone rows.

With 2016 coming in, I am very excited for all the performances the new year has to offer. Thank you, 2015, for a fantastic year of performance-going!

 

Welcome Back, Dmitri Hvorostovsky!: A Review of the Met’s Il Trovatore

On Friday night, the Met began its run of the second Verdi opera of the season Il Trovatore. The role of Manrico was sung by Yonghoon Lee, Anna Netrebko was Leonora, and Dolora Zajick sang Azucena. The spotlight, however, was on Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who sang Count di Luna and made his first return to the Met after announcing that he is in the midst of a battle with a brain tumor and is currently undergoing treatment. He is scheduled to sing two more performances of Trovatore, after initially canceling many of his performances for the rest of the 2015 year.

Upon Hvorostovky’s first entrance, the Met audience went absolutely nuts. Many were standing and clapping as loud as possible, so much so that Maestro Marco Armiliato had to stop the orchestra and wait for the applause to cease. He and the orchestra gladly joined in the applause despite the halt of the performance. Hvorostovsky put a hand to his heart and bowed his head as thanks for the support. The performance continued after about an entire minute of applause.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky during the finals bows after Il Trovatore on Friday night. Photo credits to Met Oboist Susan Spector

Dmitri Hvorostovsky during the finals bows after Il Trovatore on Friday night. Photo credits to Metropolitan Opera Oboist Susan Spector

That was nothing, however. At the conclusion of the performance during the sequence of final bows, Hvorostovsky was given yet another standing ovation and overwhelming round of applause. This time, however, the orchestra not only applauded, but each member threw a white rose from the pit onto the stage for him to collect. This simple gesture was comforting not only for him, but for everyone in the opera house. It showed that the Met is not just a boasting center of entertainment made up of the essential employees for each department: It’s family. As Canio describes in “Vesti la giubba”, there is more behind an actor than just what is on the surface, the makeup and costume; they can experience pain and suffering just as regular people do. Unfortunately, Hvorostovsky is currently experiencing that very human pain. His illness has hit the Met at a personal level, because every orchestra and chorus member, stagehand, you name it, knows him as a man with and without makeup. On Friday night, Hvorostovsky was as ordinary as any individual in the audience, and more importantly, acknowledged as a beloved member of the Met family.

His performance as Count di Luna might have been a little rocky simply because of his immediate return, however, his vocal power and astounding breath control were still exhibited. Yonghoon Lee used volume as his main tool throughout the evening, enough so that I was concerned he was not going to make it. However, he managed to make it through the evening even while keeping a consistent forte volume. Ms. Zajick was fabulous as always in her honed role as Azucena. Her push for forward resonance makes for a very powerful sound up and down the register. Singing-wise, Anna Netrebko was the star of the evening. Her move towards the Verdi sphere and out of the bel canto belt has benefited her well. Her voice has grown into an authoritative instrument by using the rigid breath support needed to handle Verdi’s difficult ascents and descents on the scale. She also managed to do all this while acting in her adopted “stage-animal” method, as she climbed and hung from the metal grating of the prison during her Act IV aria “D’amor sull’ali rosée”. It was an unbelievable stunt, similar to the ones she pulled as Lady Macbeth last season.

On any opening night, there are always a few disconnections between pit and stage. Maestro Armiliato led the orchestra and chorus with his Italianate cantabile line, allowing them to play and sing freely and beautifully. At some points soloists made wrong entrances, some early some late, but none were trainwreck-worthy.

Performances this fall of Il Trovatore run through October 17 before its return in early February with a different cast. Buy tickets to see it today, and to welcome back Dmitri Hvorostovsky for the next two performances!

Seeing Double: A Review of the Met’s Double Bill: Iolanta/Bluebeard’s Castle

On Thursday night the Met put the premiere of Iolanta/Bluebeard’s Castle on the stage. Both new productions directed by Mariusz Trelinski were supposed to open on Monday night, however, the impending “blizzard” did not allow for that to happen. On Thursday the weather was still blustery and nippy, giving an appropriate feel for both the Tchaikovsky and the haunting Bartók.

Starting with Iolanta, the production was very much focused on the stark differences between what Iolanta, sung by the fabulous Anna Netrebko, pictured despite her lack of sight versus what everyone else around her could see. Her bedroom, small and isolated on the big Met stage, lacked any color except for some lifeless deer heads mounted on the wall. The only instance when color came into play was when Vaudemont, sung by Piotr Beczała, arrived and questioned Iolanta about the red and white roses. As Iolanta is somewhat of an obscure opera written by Tchaikovsky immediately after his masterpiece The Queen of Spades, the production’s darkness and ambiguity did not bother me.

Anna Netrebko in the title role of Tchaikovsky's "Iolanta". © Marty Sohl, Metropolitan Opera, 2015

Anna Netrebko in the title role of Tchaikovsky’s “Iolanta”. © Marty Sohl, Metropolitan Opera, 2015

The music for Iolanta fits like a glove in Netrebko’s voice. Her sound was truly voluminous, just as it was earlier in the Met’s season when she sang Lady Macbeth. Her rich middle register is something in which one can just sink him or herself. Beczała’s voice was very silvery as Vaudemont. There is nothing artificial or fake to his sound; it has become increasingly pure, at least to my ears, over the last few seasons at the Met. Aleksei Markov played a boyish Robert, high-fiving and performing an elaborate handshake with Beczała at one point when he returns to the stage. Ilya Bannik did a great job filling in for Alexei Tanovitski as King René, Iolanta’s overbearing and protective father. As my dad said in regard to Iolanta’s family keeping the fact the she is blind hidden from her, “These people really need to get out more”.

The Met Orchestra played superbly in both the Tchaikovsky and the Bartók, with only a few minor disconnects that will be fixed as the run continues. The chorus sounded magnificent in Iolanta, as they do not have a role in Bluebeard. The final scene in which Iolanta is finally cured of her blindness is movingly accompanied by the chorus and the rest of the cast.

The performance was dampened, however, by an unfortunate event that occurred during the bows before intermission. During the week, I had seen protests outside both Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera against Maestro Gergiev and his “friendship” with Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia who has faced a lot of controversy in the last year over his policies towards homosexuals and his attitude towards Ukraine. In light of these events, security at the Met was tighter than usual on Thursday night. That did not stop a protestor from hopping onto the edge of the pit on the Stage Right side, walking around the rim onto the stage, and unfolding an anti-Putin, Gergiev, and Netrebko poster with a Ukrainian flag drawn on it to the audience, and then to the cast. Scarily enough, it took more than just a half-second for a stage manager to point the protestor off stage left, let alone tackle him, so he could then be arrested. That excitement left a bit of a bad taste in all of our mouths as we left the theater for intermission.

As all of us hesitantly walked back into the theater after that awful incident. I never would have guessed that I would grow increasingly scared and haunted through the rest of the evening. Bluebeard’s Castle truly left me shaken, not only because it is a terrifying opera in and of itself, but because the production was so downright creepy. The opera began with the traditional poem read in Magyar booming through amplified speakers throughout the theater accompanied by creaking noises. As we were listening to this ominous, deep voice speak, the entire theater’s lights were dimmed to black, as we virtually walked through a dark forest thanks to Trelinski’s vivid projections. The production was overall very dark and dismal; lighted scenes came as a shock. For example, the flashes of red and white light in the torture chamber as well as the immaculate-looking, white-tiled bathroom containing the Lake of Tears came as real surprises. At several points, Judith was blind-folded by Bluebeard before opening the doors, connecting Judith’s being “blinded” from the truth and Iolanta’s physical blindness. The most terrifying factors I found in the production were the almost three-dimensional projections that allowed audience members to feel as if they were walking with Judith down the corridors of Bluebeard’s Castle, and the amplified noises that echoed throughout the house.

Nadja Michael as Judith in Bartók's "Bluebeard's Castle". © Marty Sohl, Metropolitan Opera, 2015

Nadja Michael as Judith in Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle”. © Marty Sohl, Metropolitan Opera, 2015

Nadja Michael played the innocent ingenue Judith very well. Her looks allowed for her to be enticing and sexy at the same time; at one point she appears completely nude coming out of a bathtub behind the door of riches. Her high C upon opening the fifth door positively rang through the house. I felt as if she had much more control in this role than when she sang Lady Macbeth in the 2011-12 season. Mikhail Petrenko played a somewhat quiet, held-back Bluebeard, acting as if he had been down the road three times already with three previous wives preceding Judith. He blended well with the production in his pitch black suit and wig while showing off his gloomy castle to Judith. At some points it was difficult to hear him, but that was made up by his sound being creepily amplified at other times when Judith was alone on stage. Amplified noises and voices in an opera house may not be traditional, but for a horrifying opera like Bluebeard, I felt like it really worked.

I look forward to returning to see Iolanta/Bluebeard’s Castle in the movie theater Saturday, February 14, if not before at the Met!