Opera needs new work or it’s just a museum not an art form. The trouble is the opera world (often for entirely understandable financial reasons) is very conservative and so one gets relatively few opportunities to see new works. There’s also a distinct geographic divide. The chance of seeing a new German opera in North America is very small and I don’t see a lot of American work (John Adams and Philip Glass aside) being performed in Europe. But at least we can see what’s going on on recordings. So here are some recordings of 21st century operas that I think are worth a look.
Adams, El Niño, Paris, 2000. This isn’t my favourite Adams piece, unfortunately they date back to the previous century, and there are issues with this recording, as a recording. That said it’s a really good piece and well worth listening to even if the film is a bit rough.
Henze, L’Upupa und der Triumph der Sohnesliebe, Salzburg, 2003. The grand old man of European opera creates a rather beautiful fairy tale opera. It’s a bit of a mystery to me why Henze works aren’t performed more in North America. Many of them like L’Upupa and Boulevard Solitude are very accessible.
Saariaho, L’Amour de Loin, Helsinki, 2004. This is a truly great piece. The DVD is the original Peter Sellars production with the original, brilliant, cast. Unfortunately Peter Sellars is also the video director so this might be best watched on a 12″ monitor rather than a large screen!
Adams, Doctor Atomic, Amsterdam, 2007. More Adams. Perhaps he’s the only truly globally popular contemporary composer . Certainly he’s a very distinctive voice.
Mosca, Signor Goldoni, Venice, 2007. This is an oddity but new Italian operas (even if this libretto is in what passes for English) are so rare it had to be included. It’s dramatically quirky and musically pretty tough. Check it out and see what you think!
Birtwistle, Minotaur, ROH, 2008. This is an uncompromising modern grand opera. It takes a classical theme and gives it a thoroughly modern musical and dramatic treatment. John Tomlinson’s portrayal of the half human title character is extraordinary. This is tough, thought provoking, compelling music theatre. It’s also a state of the art recording.
Reimann, Medea, Vienna, 2010. See above! Another uncompromising modernist take on a classical theme brilliantly executed. This sold out in Vienna and I can see why though the Toronto critics would probably run and hide. Another state of the art recording too.
Heggie, Moby Dick, San Francisco, 2012. Very much the modern American opera. The subject matter is quintessentially American and the music steers that fine line between The Academy and Broadway. It’s a very fine production too, based on video projections, which are surprisingly well filmed.
Benjamin, Written on Skin, ROH, 2013. I’ve now seen two recordings and a semi staged live version of this piece and I’m convinced it’s a masterpiece. It’s certainly much better fully staged and this disk presents the tricky to film staging very well. Brilliant performances too from the original production cast led by Bejun Mehta, Chris Purves and the incomparable Barbara Hannigan.
Dean, Hamlet, Glyndebourne, 2017. This is really imaginative reworking of Shakespeare in which Dean and librettist Matthew Jocelyn have rearranged and reassigned Shakespeare’s text. Dean creates a 3D soundscape incorporating the stage, the pit, musicians under the roof and electronics for the piece that is really interesting and atmospheric. Throw in a fantastic cast with Allan Clayton, Barbara Hannigan, John Tomlinson and Sarah Connolly among others and what’s not to like?
Casablancas, L’enigma di Lea, Barcelona, 2018.. This is a “mythical” opera in a modernistic style. It’s about a women who is outside time and explores ideas of “freedom” and “love” in intriguing ways. The staging and recording are excellent.
Abrahamsen, The Snow Queen, Munich, 2019. No link for this I’m afraid as the review is to appear in Opera Canada. This is a compelling psychological take on the Andersen story with gorgeous orchestral writing and a wonderful performance by Barbara Hannigan.
In compiling this list I realised how few contemporary operas are available on DVD. There are three or four that I’ve not listed here because I don’t much care for them but the list of those that have not been filmed and should be would be much longer. There’s time I guess. Look how long it took for Adams’ Nixon in China or Reimann’s Lear to make it to DVD.
Next up Odds and Sods; a rather random collection of disks I like that didn’t fit elsewhere, weird oddities, flawed but interesting offerings and anything else I think is worthy of note.
This made me realize there is no DVD/Blu-Ray of Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, surely the most successful new U.S. opera in terms of number of productions since its 2000 premiere.
Absolutely! I nearly included a list of recent operas that haven’t been video recorded and that was pretty much top of the list. Cold Sassy Tree is another odd omission.