I love opera, bluegrass, burger joints and fictional detectives. Mostly, but not always, in that order. Formerly of Dunedin, formerly of Sydney, now travelling the world with the tenor in my life (Stuart Skelton) and blogging as I go.
December wouldn't be December without the customary plague of year-in-review posts, and while generally speaking I abhor a bandwagon, this kind of list making and awarding of prizes is something I just cannot resist. And so...
Is it really only twelve months since that season opening La bohème? Apparently so. We had a pretty solid summer season: plenty of fun (and the fabulous Joshua Bloom) in La Cenerentola and a mixed bag in the aforementioned Puccini: Aldo di Toro was his golden self as Rodolfo, José Carbo stole the show (as always) as Marcello, but Hye Seoung Kwon, lovely as she is, possibly isn't quite a Mimi yet. Antoinette Halloran, however, made quite a splash when she took over the role in February. A yawn-a-minute revival of Un ballo in maschera proved one of few genuine disappointments, although there are those who'd vociferously disagree with that. Hot in its heels, however — and from the selfsame director, John Cox — came a thing of rare beauty, the massively overdue Australian première of Strauss' Arabella. Cheryl Barker and Peter Coleman-Wright were individually wonderful, but it was the extraordinary chemistry between them which proved the real star of the show. Meanwhile we had the dubious pleasure of Francesca Zambello's visually lavish but ultimately shallow Carmen, made enjoyable, for all its crowds and frocks and animals, by the quality of singing therein, particularly from our two Carmens — one thoroughly idiomatic (Kirstin Chavez) one less so but strangely alluring (Catherine Carby) — but also from Tiffany Speight, as a delightful Micaela, and the oh-so-promising Sian Pendry as Mercédès. Rosario La Spina wasn't the most compelling Don José in history, but did at least prove why if he belongs anywhere, it's in this sort of repertoire and not heavy Italian stuff, despite his name. And somewhere in the midst of all that, Richard Hickox led a revelatory concert performance of Vaughan Williams' The Pilgrim's Progress, with practically the entire contracted ensemble singing in it somewhere.
After the usual Melbourne-induced hiatus (during which, true to form, I took in a sixth Arabella) the company returned with Elke Neidhardt's much hyped "twenty-first century" (read: drugs and tracksuit pants) Don Giovanni, a thorough, slightly shocking, and yet, in the end, not really that revolutionary re-imagining. Some were appalled, many were full of praise, I, to be honest, got a bit bored, although the opening and final scenes were undeniably highly engaging theatre. The singing was easier to praise, with particularly stellar performances from Catherine Carby (Elvira) and the show-stealing Joshua Bloom (Leporello). Otello proved to be my second obsession of the year — I attended seven of a possible eight performances — and, despite complaints from some of visual monotony, I never lost interes. Despite the Fascist flourishes, Harry Kupfer's production didn't probe too deeply into the politics of the piece, which was disappointing for some, but its exploration of the personal was compelling indeed, and it featured a first-rate cast, including the magnificently spinechilling Iago of Jonathan Summers.
Far less frightening was John Copley's much loved but now creaking production of Lucia di Lammermoor, with Emma Matthews filling the formidable shoes (and similarly formidable mutton leg sleeves) of Dame Joan. She acquitted herself beautifully, even earning a standing ovation from hard-hearted little me, but the production did her little justice — retirement and revival (perhaps by the dreaded Elke!) beckon. Handel's Orlando filled the company's annual baroque slot, in a gloriously zany production by Justin Way — a production which I adored but whose abundance of airborne livestock proved a turn-off for many. A guest appearance from Italian baroque star Sonia Prina was a treat, however, as was Rachelle Durkin's über-glamorous (vocally and physically) Angelica — although the real revelation may well have been Hye Seoung Kwon's irresistible Dorinda.
An intriguing production of Les pecheurs de perles suggested there's at least a little bit more to Bizet's exoticism than meets the eye, and gave us the gift of lovely Leanne Kenneally. A brief revival of La bohème, including a live TV broadcast, offered us a theoretical dream cast, although the result was oddly unsatisfying. Towering over such cheery chestnuts, however, was the incredible Vec Makropulos, Janacek's brilliant opera given life by Neil Armfield's haunting production and impressive readings from both Richard Hickox and Stephen Mould — not to mention an excellent cast, with, at its centre, the awe-inspiring Cheryl Barker. Last of all, we had another Hickox-Armfield triumph, in the form of Billy Budd, a magnificently sung and deeply moving production. It also proved to be Richard Hickox's final performance with the company; a couple of months later we had the shocking news of his premature death. I could hardly imagine a worthier or more fitting legacy.
As Australia (and the world) continues to suffer a tenor drought, the boys who stood out this season were, not surprisingly, mostly baritones, and mostly the same boys as last year. Once again, Joshua Bloom proved he's one to watch, strutting his stuff as Rossini's Dandini, Bizet's Escamillo and Mozart's Leporello — three musically and dramatically diverse roles, but all of them well within his powers. José Carbo has become one of the brightest points in any Opera Australia cast list, a guarantee that even if everything else goes completely to hell (not that it often does) there will be some fabulous singing. His Marcello upsets the balance of every La bohème in the happiest possible way, and his Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor had me siding with the villain. A series of brief but always polished and charismatic appearances added shine to tenor Andrew Goodwin's rising star. Billy Budd offered a wealth of sublime talent, with Teddy Tahu Rhodes, John Wegner and Philip Langridge each, in their very different ways, dropping jaws and stopping hearts. Peter Coleman-Wright's teddybearish Mandryka made a fan of me, while Eric Cutler's elegant Edgardo proved another revelation. But perhaps the best tenor of them all appeared not at the opera house, but at the Conservatorium — Brad Cooper, home for a flying visit, displayed the kind of ringing tone, flawless agility and engaging presence of which real stars are made. Let's hope he keeps visiting.
Among the girls, it was again the lower voice which triumphed, with several fantastic mezzos elbowing their way to centre stage. Catherine Carby pulled off a nifty hat trick, with successes in Bizet, Mozart and Janacek, while the similarly versatile Jacqueline Dark was luxury casting in each of her supporting roles, continuing to torment fans such as myself with the thought of her in the lead. Leanne Kenneally led the high, sparkly charge, with a captivating Leila. Lorina Gore was our other acrobatic heroine, sailing through the coloratura of Fiakermilli with scarcely human ease. After a couple of false starts in less than ideal repertoire, company favourite Hye Seoung Kwon came into her own as Handel's Dorinda, a graceful and utterly charming performance. Emma Matthews made an auspicious (if rather quiet) role debut as Lucia. Our undisputed prima donna, however — both by design on the part of Opera Australia, and by the sheer force of her own extraordinary talent — was, of course, the resplendent Cheryl Barker, whose three staggering performances — as Arabella, Desdemona and Emilia Marty — make selecting her finest hour a delectable impossibility.
The world beyond
Bennelong Point might be the centre of my universe, but I do take the occasional space walk. My five days in San Francisco contained an absurd concentration of favourite singers and musical magic. I realised a long cherished dream in seeing none other than my own, adored Natalie Dessay as a magnetic and fragile Lucia — alas, my stage door adventure proved fruitless, but I did manage to steal part of the set. The first installment of Francesca Zambello's so-called American Ring proved surprisingly successful, and I thank Donald Runnicles for making my first live Wagner experience such a satisying one. It was an added bonus to see Jennifer Larmore,one of my first divas, as Fricka. Susan Graham's masterful Ariodante was a revelation. But perhaps most beautiful of all was the divine Ruth Ann Swenson, lovelier and more engaging than even I had imagined.
Closer to home, I trekked to Paramatta for OzOpera's Madama Butterfly, and, despite public transport related trauma, John Bell's striking production, David Corcoran's lyrical and idiomatic Pinkerton and, of course, the fabulous Jane Parkin in the title role, made me exceedingly happy to have made the effort. A Musica Viva recital and an incredibly intimate evening of Puccini excerpts by Cheryl Barker and Peter Coleman-Wright had me falling even further for both of them, and both offered at least one Cheryl moment I'd sell my soul to repea. The McDonald's Aria final highlighted several names to watch, in particular the gorgeous Emily Blanch, while the Opera Foundation's German Opera Scholarship added Charlie Kedmenec and Emily Uhlrich to my list. Pinchgut Opera unearthed yet another baroque treasure just in time for Christmas, in the form of an enchanting (if slightly over-directed) David et Jonathas.
This year, as every year, the recorded soprano of my dreams remains Natalie Dessay, made realer than ever now by having seen her in person. Both her bel canto disc and her Bach are distinctively Natalie, gossamer delights within whose boundless prettiness lies both a brain and a wicked sense of style. In other new releases, Magdalena Kozena continued her lucky streak (I have bought and loved every single recital disc she has ever released) with Songs My Mother Taught Me, a welcome return to the Czech song literature in which she first made a splash. Patricia Petibon's Amoureuses, with seriously exciting singing and orchestral playing to match (Concert Köln, ich liebe dich), was well worth the very long wait. However, althought it's not a 2008 release, I must concede that Carolyn Sampson's mindblowing Purcell recital tops just about anything else I could name. (Except maybe the posthumous release of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing Bach and Handel at Emmanuel Music. I mean, WOW.) As for the boys, Rene Pape's classy, charismatic Gods, Kings and Demons was a highlight, and I must confess to a soft spot for Erwin Schrott's charming if uneven debut disc. Once again, though, it's early English music which comes out on tops — I'd be hard placed to name a male recital disc more swoonworthy or fascinating than Mark Padmore's recording of lute songs by Dowland, in every way a worthy male counterpart to Carolyn's Purcell.
But CD-wise, my heart is at its most content when roaming through the dark, dusty back catalogue. One of my favourite discs this year, and one of few with the distinction of having remained on my iPod for ten months (and counting) is Alice Coote's EMI debut recital, a collection of spellbinding Mahler, Haydn and Schumann. On the face of it, it might seem foolhardy to claim that such a relative newcomer might have made the recording of Frauenliebe und -leben, but still, have a listen to Alice's and you might hear what I mean. I've also had the intense joy recently of rediscovering Kathleen Battle's Pleasures of their Company, her outstanding collaboration with Christopher Parkening. Godless heathen I may be, but I never feel closer to getting religion than listening to Kathy's spirituals on this CD. This year, too, in anticipation of next year's OA season, I started amassing recordings of Dido and Aeneas, and discovered, to my only slight surprise, that for all the (considerable) charms of period recordings by William Christie, Emmanuelle Haim and Hervé Niquet, there's really nobody who can outdo the grave beauty of Janet Baker's tragic queen. Here's hoping Australia's Favourite Soprano can channel England's Greatest Mezzo when she takes the role on here.
Oh, actually, one further top new release, a disc I bought only a week ago and which you must own — My Heart Alone, a disc of operetta arias and duets by Angelika Kirchschlager and Simon Keenlyside. Two intelligent, slightly offbeat artists, both of whom have spoken of their distaste for the commercialism of the recording industry, suddenly find themselves recording some of the most commercial classical music there is. The result is exactly what you'd expect — operetta as it really should sound, with utter sincerity and zero schmalz. Both singers combine rich tone with textual sensitivity, drawing out the music's varying emotions with style but without, thank god, over-intellectualising it. When I suggested to my good natured but grumpy colleague that we should play this in the shop, his response was "If we must. If I need to vomit I'll just leave the room." Charming, no? But before the first track had even finished, his mind was already changing, and by the end of the CD he was a smitten convert. So just think what it will do for you if you already love this stuff.
Seems a million years ago I started attending the Met HD movie screenings, but in fact it's only one. My attendance during the current season has slipped, I confess, but I made to every one of the previous season's screenings. My favourite? Too obvious. Natalie and Juan Diego in La fille du régiment, of course. Running a close second was something completely different, the eerie and sublime Peter Grimes. My least favourite was probablyTristan und Isolde, purely on account of Barbara Willis Sweete's imbecile cinematic direction. Hostess with the mostess? Renée, Renée, Renée. My reactions to her singing may vary, but when she hosts, I am her most devoted fan. Natalie also put in a typically mad and charming appearance for Petergrimes [sic]. As for the rest, well, I didn't really need another La bohème, but it sure was fascinating (to say the least) watching La Gheorghiu at work, and Anna Netrebko's Juliette was hard not to love.
The magic moments
Cheryl Barker & Peter Coleman-Wright, "Und du wirst mein Gebieter sein" (Arabella), a duet between real life partners, so radiant with affection that it seemed almost intrusive to watch.
Teddy Tahu Rhodes' gripping, devastating and oh-so-soft delivery of Billy Budd's final monologue had me quite literally on the edge of my seat.
Catherine Carby's venom-spitting, neurosis-filled and unsettlingly raw "Mi tradi", the single finest moment in OA's new Don Giovanni.
The wildly imaginative cadenza delivered by Natalie Dessay during Lucia's mad scene, just one tiny miraculous part of an overwhelming portrayal.
Straight from a nightmare, Jonathan Summers' rendition of Iago's "Credo in un dio crudel", so horribly brilliant that I was as excited at hearing this seven times as I was about Cheryl.
Joshua Bloom camping it up as Dandini, just to further flummox Don Magnifico.
The final moments (well, and the rest) of Lilli Paasikivi's Angel in Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius.
Cheryl Barker and Dinah Shearing in the stunning final scene of The Makropulos Secret, beyond words.
Captain Vere's opening and closing monologues in Billy Budd, as delivered by the great Philip Langridge. Which brings me to...
Singer of the year
I figure we just take Cheryl out of the running for this. Which means that my singer of the year, believe it or not, is not a soprano, not a mezzo, not even a baritone. My singer of the year is Philip Langridge. His Vere was a wonder to behold, and his spectre haunts me still. Coming as it did in the midst of a storm, with accusations flying that standard at OA were slipping, Langridge's performance was proof of just the opposite. It simply does not get any better. Which is why my...
Opera of the year
is Billy Budd. That's right. It didn't contain Cheryl. In fact, it didn't contain any women at all. But at every level, it was the most intense, the most moving, the most beautiful operatic experience I had this year — all the more so, perhaps, because it didn't contain any of my particular obsessions. I loved it because, by its own merits, it moved me to love it. I only saw it twice. In a way, that wasn't nearly enough. And in a way, it was plenty. Running a very, very close second is, of course, Arabella. It swept the Helpmann Awards, and also won my heart. I spent the weekend after opening night in a rosy haze, a reaction which no other opera before or since has quite managed to replicate. It was a fabulous celebration of the artistry of its star, our own amazing Cheryl, and it was my first time live in a theatre with Richard Strauss. In a word, it was perfect. What a testament to the quality of this season that I end up ranking it second. And where does The Makropulos Secret fit into this tight race? Don't ask. I might faint. What a season.