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!

 

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Saturday by the Lake: A Review of the Met’s La Donna del Lago

On Saturday afternoon I attended my second ever performance of Rossini’s La Donna del Lago at the Met. The cast was virtually identical to last season’s run, with the exception of Lawrence Brownlee singing the role of Uberto, or King James V in disguise, instead of Juan Diego Flórez. Joyce DiDonato, John Osborn, and Daniela Barcellona triumphed again in their efforts to combat Rossini’s merciless coloratura and extreme tessituras.

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John Osborn, Joyce DiDonato, and Lawrence Brownlee in La Donna del Lago, Credit: Sara Krulwich/New York Times

I was shocked to see how sparse attendance was for a Saturday matinee of a performance with singers as well renowned as Joyce DiDonato and Lawrence Brownlee. The new production by Paul Curran sold very well last season, possibly with the help of Juan Diego Flórez who has been notorious for being one of the few twenty-first century artists to repeatedly sell out houses. La Donna del Lago has not yet been fully embraced as a permanent member of the circle of custom bel canto repertoire, however, it surprised me to see multitudes of empty seats for a Rossini opera with such acclaimed singers of that very repertoire.

Joyce DiDonato was fabulous as always, bringing down the house after her glorious aria “Tanti affetti”, which ends the opera. Her voice soared over the orchestra while also blending with other soloists, especially in her Act I duet with Daniela Barcellona, “Vivere io non saprò/ potrò, mio ben, senza di te”. At times, it was difficult to hear Ms. Barcellona over the orchestra. However, her lower register opened up and was audible enough to sound very impressive. Lawrence Brownlee’s Uberto was driven and focused, making his multiple high As, Bs, and Cs sound very exciting. John Osborn’s extension up to his upper register seemed effortless, so much so that his high Ds sounded just as facile as the rest of his upper register. The battle of the “high Cs” between the two tenors, moderated by Joyce DiDonato as part of a trio, at the beginning of Act II left me on the edge of my seat.

The conducting of Michele Mariotti made an afternoon of Rossini all the more enjoyable. He stressed for lightness and character which by no question the versatile Met Orchestra was able to match. The chorus sang robustly to fit the spirit of the camaraderie in the Scottish highlands.

To conclude, here is a bit of fascinating trivia which my father Garry Spector pulled out of the air for both last Saturday’s and this coming Saturday’s double bills: For the first time in history, the Met on both December 19 and 26 will put two Rossini operas on the stage the same day, La Donna del Lago and Il Barbiere di Siviglia. This coming Saturday, La Donna del Lago will switch with Il Barbiere to be the evening show.

A Recollection of the Met’s 2013-14 Season

Hi, followers!

I know I have not blogged in a long time, since November in fact, but I am hoping to get back on here this summer with more posts and reviews. I have had a lot going on with the obligations (complications) that come with junior year in high school, such as AP exams, SATs, ACTs, and the rest of the alphabet. I have also been doing a lot with music, including studying both voice and French horn at Manhattan School of Music Precollege this year, taking piano lessons, singing and playing recitals, and continuing to see performances at the Met, as well as at l’Opéra Bastille (My family and I took a trip to Paris for Spring Break). This year has been a great challenge for me, however, I have enjoyed it thoroughly because of the more rigorous environment in which I have been placed to prepare for senior year and college, musically and academically.

This year may have been exciting, however, I have not had time to talk about all that I saw at the Met last season! I was very impressed with the performance level last year, and was not expecting to enjoy it as much as I did. There was no Wagner last season, which is my absolute favorite, and I am not as big a fan of Donizetti and Bellini, which came in abundance. However, I enjoyed going to the opera last season not only as a relief from the constant studying that came with junior year, but also how great the singing was! My top three favorite performances last season were Die Frau ohne SchattenWerther, and  La Cenerentola.

Die Frau ohne Schatten:

Before last season, I had never sat down and listened or watched a Frau in its entirety. I knew that it was by Strauss, and that I loved Strauss, so why wouldn’t I love it? I also never knew that it would become my favorite opera, and that I would return to the Met to see it three more times after the final dress rehearsal. From listening and seeing most of Strauss’ operas, I have found that each one has its own unique tone and style. For example: I feel that Elektra is just the craziest of the crazy, Der Rosenkavalier features a lot of personifications of both people and objects in the orchestra, such as trilling clarinets for candles, and Capriccio is very talky and light. Last season, I determined that Frau is my favorite style of Strauss: Wagnerian. The way in which the motif for Keikobad kept returning in its natural form or arrangements, as well as the repetitive C sharps to signal the Falke, reminded me a great deal of the style of my favorite composer: Wagner.

The music of Frau not only struck me, but all of the performances just drew me in and left me in awe at the end. I had never heard Christine Goerke live before, but boy did I ever hear her whenever she opened her mouth as the Dyer’s Wife. She had such control and maintained her superb vocal quality throughout her entire range. She also brought energy and personality to each of the performances I attended, I especially loved how hilariously she treated Barak’s three brothers by spraying them with water, and how she acted lavishly whenever the Nurse conjured up the paradise she would live in if she gave up her fertility. Through all of the performances of Frau that my dad and I attended, we found each other constantly turning to each other with our mouths gaping open, later saying, “Could you believe how freaking amazing she sounded?!”

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra also outdid itself in this Strauss masterpiece. The swells and waves of sound that constantly emerge from this piece came off as magnificent, yet natural for an orchestra of that level. Even at the relatively fast tempi that Maestro Vladimir Jurowski took, the Met Orchestra went right along and produced big, magnificent, perfect Strauss sounds.

Photo: Die Frau ohne Schatten, production by Herbert Wernicke

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Finally, I also absolutely fell in love with the Met’s production of Frau, designed by Herbert Wernicke. There were two main elements of the productions: Mirrors and stairs. Colorful lights and crystal-bedecked costumes yielded extraordinary reflections on the mirrors. The stairs were a key element of the production, because they were constantly used to move between the spirit world and the real world. I found that this abstract, colorful design really worked for Frau, as it is a magical fantasy more than a relatable story. I truly wonder why the Met decided not to feature Frau as an HD broadcast in movie theaters around the world. The mirrors may cause problems with camera reflections, and the opera is also lengthy, but it is an absolutely beautiful production that people around the world should see! This production really caught my eye and drew me further into Frau.

Werther:

I decided to watch Massenet’s Werther on DVD (the 2010 one with Jonas Kaufmann from the Bastille) last summer in preparation for the Met’s coming season. I think I went through one box of tissues through watching the short fifteen-minute fourth act in which Werther (spoiler!) shoots himself. My dad came upstairs and asked why I was sobbing and I said, “You told me it was sad, not this sad!” Yes, I did cry over how sad the plot is, but I also enjoyed Massenet’s music, the French style, and of course, Jonas Kaufmann.

I attended three performances of Werther at the Met last season, all of which left me moved to tears, not only because of the plot, but the unbelievable level of singing. As much as I like Kaufmann in heavier German repertoire, I loved his lush and sensitive portrayal of the fragile Werther. His dark tone worked especially well as he sorrowfully sang “Pourquoi me réveiller”, as well as the duets with Sophie Koch as Charlotte. Just as he does in every role I have seen him perform, Kaufmann inhabited the role of Werther, conscientiously displaying his despair and desperation. Sophie Koch was a magnificent, reserved Charlotte, who worked with Kaufmann very well, possibly because they did the same opera together in Paris in 2010. Lisette Oropesa was a delightful Sophie, she truly held up the only joy and happiness that emerges from the opera. Werther has a very easy structure: If Sophie is on stage, things are going fine, everything is beautiful, life is grand; If Sophie is not onstage, and either Werther, Charlotte, or others are onstage, things are depressing and melancholy. Oropesa’s voice soared when she sang about the sun and flowers and all of the delightful things that Sophie sings about, and kept a healthy balance between the happiness and the gloominess of the opera. Finally, the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus did a fantastic job, both the seven solo roles for the siblings of Charlotte and Sophie and the chorus that sings “Noël! Noël! Noël!” at the end.

Photo: Werther, Metropolitan Opera, © Ken Howard

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This production of Werther was a premiere for the Met, directed by Richard Eyre. From my first time setting eyes on it, I truly loved it. It focused very much on nature, greenery, and simplicity, and left enough of the stage alone for more attention to be drawn to the singers. I felt that because of the tremendous amount of focus on nature, as trees, various landscapes, skies, birds, snow and other elements were shown, this production could easily be used again for Siegfried! The production also enabled Werther to really stand out from the other characters, in that he was dressed in a long black coat, while the others were adorned in colorful dresses, hats, and suits. By standing out physically, Eyre allowed Werther to be perceived as an extreme outsider to the world of Charlotte and her family. My preference in opera productions is for the singers and the music to be my primary focus, and the sets and possible director’s concept to be secondary. I felt that this production matched my preference perfectly, in that it focused on a simple theme: Nature, and let my attention be drawn to the outstanding singing of Jonas Kaufmann, Sophie Koch, and Lisette Oropesa.

La Cenerentola

Cenerentola was outstanding for only one, but one very important reason: The singing. As most bel canto operas go, many people go for the thrilling coloratura and the light, happy music, rather than for the (usually) simple and uncomplicated plots. For those who attended performances of Cenerentola, including me, we were not disappointed. Joyce DiDonato, Javier Camarena, and Juan Diego Florez all outdid themselves as the leads, as well as Luca Pisaroni and others in smaller roles. From the flying coloratura and forte spots, to the precise, staccato, piano spots such as “Questo è un modo avviluppato”, the Act II ensemble, the performances of Cenerentola were extraordinary.

This run of Cenerentola included Joyce DiDonato’s last run singing the role of Angelina, as she is retiring the role. She may have been retiring the role, but she left it with a bang. Her coloratura is simply unmatched by anyone on today’s stage, as it soared through the house and made each performance I attended absolutely exciting and thrilling. In whatever she is singing, DiDonato always displays acute breath control and electrifying dynamics that always define her performances. It is always an incredible opportunity to hear her live simply for her very conscious effort of maintaining breath control while simultaneously giving a solid, thrilling performance. DiDonato also displayed fantastic acting techniques as the poor, barred, yet hopeful Angelina, as she bounced around the stage the entire evening showing a mix of annoyance and scattered-attitude as she assisted her step-sisters, and absolute starry-eyed, whimsical movements whenever she was in the presence of the Prince. I absolutely loved DiDonato’s Angelina, vocally and acting-wise.

Photo: Joyce DiDonato and Javier Camarena in La Cenerentola, Metropolitan Opera, taken by © Sara Krulwich/New York Times

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Javier Camarena had made his Met debut in the 2011-12 season in another leading Rossini tenor role in Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Juan Diego Florez was scheduled to sing all six performances of Cenerentola, however, he canceled the first three performances, allowing Camarena to fill in. I was blown away. I found that Camarena had the same flourishing, thrilling coloratura that Florez has, but he actually had a bigger voice. His voice especially rang when he sang his top Cs and Ds in “Si, ritrovarla io giro”. The audience, in fact, was so impressed, that he did an encore of the aria for the second and third performances in which he sang! It was incredible to hear him sing this aria, one or two times per performance, and I look forward to hearing more of his incredible coloratura in future seasons: Camarena is scheduled, according to Peter Gelb’s comment in the New York Times, to sing the lead tenor role in Rossini’s Semiramide opposite Joyce DiDonato at the Met in the 2017-18 season.

Juan Diego Florez, in the last three performances, was also outstanding. Even with his slightly smaller voice compared to Camarena, Florez played his usually incredible coloratura game. Florez, unlike a lot of singers, is virtually flawless vocally each time he performs. It is amazing. Very rarely, if at all, does one hear that Florez cracked this note or that note, or was sloppy in this or that passage of coloratura. For Cenerentola, Florez showed his elite vocal accuracy, precision, and consistency.

The Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra were also wonderful in Cenerentola. It is amazing how each of them can sing heavy, Strauss operas one night, and sing light-Rossini the next. Fabio Luisi did an incredible job keeping light tempi throughout, and leaving me on the edge of my sight throughout each of the performances I attended.

The Metropolitan Opera’s 2013-14 season was fantastic, and I especially enjoyed it through each of my top three operas. I am anxious and excited for the 2014-15 season to begin in the Fall! I am also looking forward to preceding the Met’s 2014-15 with a fulfilling summer of writing, playing music, watching performances, traveling, and relaxing.