Well not so much “best of” as the good stuff that really made my year. It was a pretty good year overall. On the opera front there was much to like from the COC as well as notable contributions from the many smaller ensembles and opera programs. The one that will stick longest with me was Peter Sellars’ searing staging of Handel’s Hercules at the COC. It wasn’t a popular favourite and (predictably) upset the traditionalists but it was real theatre and proof that 250 year old works can seem frighteningly modern and relevant. Two other COC productions featured notable bass-baritone COC debuts and really rather good looking casts. Atom Egoyan’s slightly disturbing Cosí fan tutte not only brought Tom Allen to town but featured a gorgeous set of lovers, with Wallis Giunta and Layla Claire almost identical twins, as well as a welcome return for Tracy Dahl. Later in the year Gerry Finley made his company debut in the title role of Verdi’s Falstaff in an incredibly detailed Robert Carsen production. I saw it three times and I’m still pretty sure I missed stuff.
Beyond the COC there was a notable abundance of contemporary Canadian opera from Soundstreams and Tapestry in particular. Brian Current’s Airline Icarus was the work that most stuck with me and I’m really looking forward to listening to the CD. In the burgeoning world of “transladaptations”, we got the much awaited Uncle John from Against the Grain, which lived up to the expectations created by the previous year’s Figaro’s Wedding. There were also LooseTEA’s versions of Mozart and Stravinsky for the smart phone age. Finally, there was a bravura concert performance of Guglielmo Tell by the Turin Royal Theatre on tour. Not sure I was converted to the piece but the sheer enthusiasm of everyone involved will stick with me for a long time.
In the “concert” world there were more forays into mixing art song with staging and dance. The Kramer/Cesaroni/Nicholls collaboration at the Extension Room was an interesting experiment that one hopes will be developed further but the stand out for me was Tim Albery’s staging of WW1 themed pieces in the Music Room of Hart House. Last Days was a fantastic show, especially for a student production, and it’s a shame so few people saw it. In more conventional recitals, Tom Allen’s lunchtime concert in the RBA was a masterpiece of entertainment (so was the basically private and even more intimate gig at Hart House) but the most moving recital of the year came from Chris Maltman and Graham Johnson who brought another WW1 themed show; From Severn to Somme to Walter Hall. This was pretty much a master class in how to sing English art song.
Moving from live performance to recordings I saw a lot of really good DVDs and not too many clunkers. Oddly, for me, my top four disks feature three Wagner performances and one of a Verdi work. Two very fine Parsifals came my way. The François Girard production from the Metropolitan opera with the starriest of starry casts was as good as i remembered from the cinema. It’s definitely tone of the best recordings to come out of the MetHD enterprise. The other was Romeo Castellucci’s really weird Brussels production. I was well baffled by this on first watching but it really begins to make sense after a while. In so far as Parsifal makes sense at all anyway. The third Wagner disk was an older one; Daniel Barenboim’s 1995 Bayreuth Tristan und Isolde. Despite sound and picture not quite up to best modern standards it was deeply satisfying. Besides Barenboim’s exemplary conducting there were hard to match performances by the utterly believable pair of Siegfried Jerusalem and Waltraud Meier in the title roles. Very fine! The final disk was a La Traviata of all things. Sometimes I worry that Traviata has lost the power to shock, except in the sense that any production with ideas offends the patrons who have come for a fashion show in a furniture showroom. François Sivadier’s production is a searing portrayal of a woman being destroyed by male, bourgeois privilege and it’s anchored by a stunning performance by Natalie Dessay as Violetta Valéry. Is she perhaps the greatest singing actress of the age?
Here’s hoping 2015 is as rich.