With the year drawing to a close, we look back over the operas that wowed our critics in 2019. It hasn’t been easy to choose, but this is what we settled on, with a round-up from our reviewers around the country.
JO LITSON – EDITOR
Eva-Maria Westbroek and Jonas Kaufmann with Pinchas Steinberg in Opera Australia’s Andrea Chénier. Photograph © Keith Saunders
Opera Australia may have presented Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier in concert, but the stellar cast invested their performances with touches of drama and depths of emotion. And how exhilarating it was to see the calibre of singers that OA had managed to entice here. Jonas Kaufmann gave a wondrous performance as the martyred poet Chénier, while Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek sang lusciously as Maddelena. They have played opposite each other in the opera at Covent Garden and their rapport in the roles shone through. In his Australian debut, French baritone Ludovic Tézier gave a riveting, menacing performance as Carlo Gérard. Let’s hope he returns some time soon. The camaraderie between the three of them, and conductor Pinchas Steinberg, was a delight to behold. Ravishing all round.
Jacqueline Dark in Pinchgut Opera’s Farnace. Photograph © Brett Boardman
In December, not only did Pinchgut Opera present the Australian premiere of Vivaldi’s rarely staged opera Farnace, it also delivered a brilliantly conceived and sensationally performed production, conducted by Erin Helyard and directed by Mark Gaal. It’s an opera that could easily flounder, but Gaal’s gentle, tongue-in-cheek approach to some of the oddities of the libretto proved inspired. Meanwhile, the glorious music soared under the guiding hand of Helyard who led a magnificent performance by the Orchestra of the Antipodes, matched by the excellent cast. It was one of those nights when you weren’t sure what to expect, and left floating on air.
John Longmuir, Michael Honeyman and Richard Anderson in Opera Australia’s Wozzeck. Photograph © Keith Saunders
William Kentridge’s staggering production of Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck was an intoxicating, nightmarish feast for the eyes, which made you feel as if you were being sucked into Wozzeck’s paranoid delusion. Not only was it dazzling visually with its ever-changing projections, but it was pretty stunning musically too, with Michael Honeyman giving a brilliantly deranged performance in the title role, and conductor Andrea Molino uniting the disturbing dissonance and moments of lush beauty in a powerful reading of the complex, unsettling score.
ANGUS MCPHERSON – DEPUTY EDITOR
Shanul Sharma, Danita Weatherstone and Virgilio Marino in Opera Australia’s Ghost Sonata. Photo © Prudence Upton
Opera Australia’s performances in the Scenery Workshop have proved a boon to new music lovers, and this smart new production of Aribert Reimann’s bristling 1984 chamber opera The Ghost Sonata, based on the Swedish playwright’s 1907 play of the same name, didn’t disappoint. With a clever set by Emma Kingsbury that harnessed the strengths of the unusual venue, this was a performance both musically and dramatically satisfying, with Shanul Sharma’s performance as The Student a particular highlight.
Jessica Aszodi and Brenton Spiteri in Sydney Chamber Opera’s Oscar and Lucinda. Photo © Zan Wimberley
In fact, it was something of a bumper year for contemporary opera, and another highlight was the world premiere of composer Elliott Gyger and librettist Pierce Wilcox’s operatic treatment of Peter Carey’s novel Oscar and Lucinda. The piece was given a fascinating performance by Jack Symonds’ Sydney Chamber Opera, who handled the work’s complexity with typical aplomb. As Justine Nguyen put it in her review, Gyger’s score “has an intricacy and fastidiousness that demands repeat listening. While working with the precision of a miniaturist, the composer nevertheless uses his ensemble of 16 musicians with a symphonist’s scope. The score is one of perpetual variety, awash with pungent harmonies and displaying a command of colour that’s to be marvelled at.”
Aaron Blake, Ashley Milanese, Karolina Gumos, Nadine Weissman and Joan Martín-Royo in The Magic Flute. Photo © Toni Wilkinson
Berlin-based Australian director Barrie Kosky’s latest production to come to Australia, Mozart’s The Magic Flute – in a wild production he co-directed with British theatre company 1927’s Suzanne Andrade – appeared at both the Perth Festival and the Adelaide Festival (where I saw it) this year. With live action and interactive animation (created by 1927’s Paul Barritt), this rollicking ride of a Magic Flute was inspired by silent films. “All in all, the production is a charming, giddy flight of fancy that enchants with its visual aesthetic and witty storytelling,” said Jo Litson. “While still acknowledging the opera’s darker themes, it leaves you feeling as intoxicated as if you had been drinking an elephant-inducing pink cocktail with Papageno.”
JUSTINE NGUYEN – STAFF WRITER
Stuart Skelton and Joshua Scott. Photo © Jess Gleeson
One of the undeniable highlights of the 2019 opera calendar was the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s concert presentation of Britten’s Peter Grimes. Under the baton of outgoing Chief Conductor David Robertson, the SSO and a stellar cast brought this tale of an individual pitted against a close-minded society to vivid, terrifying life. As the titular Grimes, tenor Stuart Skelton demonstrated just why the persecuted fisherman has become a calling card role – singing with acute musical sensitivity, he swung between awful bursts of rage and wounded vulnerability, never overplaying his hand. Soprano Nicole Car brought her sumptuous instrument and fine dramatic instincts to Ellen Orford in a promising role debut, while American bass-baritone Alan Held was an ideal Balstrode. The supporting roles were all ideally filled, while the Sydney Philharmonia Choir were on brilliant form as the savage village folk.
Lise Lindstrom in Opera Australia’s Salome. Photo © Prudence Upton
Put simply, American soprano Lise Lindstrom is a superb Salome. Few other working sopranos today bring what she does to the role – an innate musicality, a magisterial way with the text, and an unflinching dramatic commitment. With a voice that can cut like a blade, Strauss’ monstrous vocal writing and orchestrations hold few challenges for her, and she commands the audience’s attention even in moments of stillness, as she demonstrated in March for Opera Australia. The supporting cast was none too shabby either – the stentorian Alexander Krasnov made a promising company debut as Jokanaan, while Andreas Conrad and Jacqueline Dark chewed the scenery as Herod and Herodias.
Ludovic Tézier, Pinchas Steinberg, Eva-Maria Westbroek and Jonas Kaufmann in Opera Australia’s Andrea Chénier. Photo © Keith Saunders
Opera Australia managed to lure superstar Jonas Kaufmann Down Under once again in August for a concert presentation of Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, this time with fellow leading lights Eva-Maria Westbroek and Ludovic Tézier in tow. What’s to be said? All three offered up the kind of sensational, old-school singing you crave in such verismo potboilers, making for an evening of pure sonic bliss. Perhaps the greatest discovery for Australian audiences was Tézier, his glamorous baritone wielded with great dramatic insight, but Westbroek and Kaufmann were fairly unbeatable in their final duet before the guillotine too. Bravi!
CLIVE PAGET – EDITOR AT LARGE, NEW YORK
Julia Bullock in Zauberland. Photo © Stephanie Berger
British director Katie Mitchell and playwright Martin Crimp’s Zauberland combined Schumann’s Dichterliebe with new songs by Bernard Foccroulle in a deep dive into what a 19th-century song cycle has to say to us in today’s world. Unsettling, sometimes Kafkaesque, and frequently leaving you gasping for air, it was also a meditation on the current refugee crisis and the power of the subconscious, employing the extraordinary talents of soprano Julia Bullock and pianist Cédric Tiberghien in an immersive experience that married a controlled musical integrity with boundless theatricality. Bullock’s dramatic and vocal performance was transcendent, creating a richly rewarding narrative that worked its way under the skin.
Denis & Katya (Opera Philadelphia)
Theo Hoffman and Siena Licht Miller in Denis & Katya. Photo © Dominic Mercier
British composer Philip Venables’ new work at Opera Philadelphia’s O19 Festival was the most brilliantly original operatic work I’ve seen in a decade. A sensitive, subtle, and deeply questioning meditation on youth, voyeurism and our age of social media, it explores events surrounding the real life tragedy of a pair of Russian 15 year olds who holed up in an abandoned cabin following a family argument and died three days later after a shoot-out with police. The entire drama was live streamed on the video app Periscope by the boy, Denis, and his girlfriend Katya. Played out as a series of interviews with a journalist, Denis’s best friend, a neighbor, a teenager, a teacher, and a medic, musical scenes are punctuated by spoken narrations describing the video stream as well as excerpts from email exchanges between the creators as they wrestled with how to turn it all into an opera. Theo Hoffman and Siena Licht Miller proved consummate, committed actors in a work that points the way forward for the entire art form.
Larissa Diadkova as the Countess and Yusif Eyvazov as Hermann. Photo © Ken Howard / Met Opera
Elijah Moshinsky’s deftly observed, chocolate box of a production offered a pair of additional drawcards in the form of the house debuts of conductor Vasily Petrenko and rising star soprano Lise Davidsen. Petrenko’s experience as a Tchaikovsky conductor showed in his ability to handle the almost symphonic undercurrents that drive the nuts and bolts of the musical drama. Davidsen had triggered almost feverish anticipation in the lead up to opening night and certainly justified her reputation to date, her silvery and supple instrument opening up to a steely, clarion top reminiscent of her compatriot Kirsten Flagstad. Yusif Eyvazov’s bright, edgy tenor was perfect for the febrile Hermann in what was far and away the best I’ve heard him sing.
From our critics around the country…
The cast of Il Viaggio a Reims. Photograph © Jeff Busby
“With a production that amazed and delighted, this was a memorable Australian premiere for Rossini’s long-lost wonder.” – Patricia Maunder
“Under the baton of Victorian Opera’s Artistic Director, Richard Mills, the Australian Youth Orchestra rises to the challenge of this lengthy score’s intricate textures and varied moods. With the curtain down and in dim light, the long overture showcases the excellence of these musicians, all under 25.” – Patricia Maunder
“A specialist in bel canto, which means ‘beautiful singing’, Melbourne-born [Helena] Dix certainly delivered that on opening night. She has a powerful, expressive soprano, soaring up to then floating around the top of her considerable range with beautiful tone and considered, controlled dynamics, as well as plunging down to remarkably dark, low notes on occasion.” – Patricia Maunder
“Voice, gesture, facial expression: all spinning fearlessly out from a still centre into maelstroms of feeling analogous to the way Strauss, in Salome, spins out from a tonal centre into an obscene, psycho-sexual dance.” – Will Yeoman
“Artistic Director Stuart Maunder has ingeniously updated this perennial favourite to the age of Britney Spears and Taylor Swift complete with pink hair, chunky shoes and stylised athletic gear whilst keeping the often barbed criticism of W.S. Gilbert – for there is as much for contemporary society to learn from him as from his witty protégé, the master of the epigram and perhaps the first ‘pop star’, Oscar Wilde (lampooned by Gilbert in Patience).” – Brett Allen-Bayes
“What melodies! Martin Wesley-Smith, former composer of ABC children’s radio songs, member of The Wesley Three, and one-time potential full-time banjo-player, is the consummate tune-smith, a melody-man who can turn his hand with the best of them, from Gershwin to Stephen Sondheim, and back again.” – Vincent Plush
“Stemme’s presence was so commanding that it was impossible to wander into distraction as she sang.” – Stephanie Eslake
“This is an evocative and persuasive production of a contemporary opera that is rarely seen in Australia, and a powerfully moving one to boot.” – Paul Ballam-Cross