2020 in review

Sesterce_temple_janusWhat a truly strange year!  Going back over my writing looking for highlights just made it seem stranger!  I see now that it fell into three chunks.  The first started perfectly normally with the usual run of operas and concerts and that all ended abruptly on March 13th.  UoT Opera’s Mansfield Park was the last live show I saw in 2020.  Leaving the theatre that night we knew there was going to be a hiatus but I don’t think at that point anybody thought we would be going into 2021 with no end in sight.

So began the second phase.  It seemed like every day brought more cancellations but in a curiously timid (or, if you like, optimistic) way.  The COC cancelled the remainder of the 2019/20 but at that point we were still wondering if there would be a fall season.  It was the same across the board.  As spring turned to summer there was much talk of designing hybrid seasons where shows would be put on for a smaller than usual audience augmented by live streaming.  I don’t think a single one of those “hybrids” actually happened with an audience; at least not in Toronto.  Some people were still planning to use this approach as late as November though I think by then most people had pivoted to an on-line only strategy.

It’s been interesting to see how the on-line strategies have played out.  There seem to be three distinct kinds of content being created.  There are on-line versions of fairly conventional concerts or stage shows adapted for social distancing but that’s about it.  It works fine for things like recitals with a handful of performers.  It’s less effective for more ambitious stage shows.  Then there are performances that have been created from the get go as a film; whether the source material is new or adapted from a stage source.  This works much better in my opinion.  What I’m not sure about is the effort to get a live “buzz” around the first showing.  I find I’m just as content to watch the show at a time that suits me.  Finally there have been all kind of interview and chat show type content.  Some of this is quite good but it’s pretty uneven.

So what were my picks for 2020?  As usual I’ll look at in categories.

Live opera

Slim pickings of course but I was struck by two shows.  The COC’s remount of Rossini’s Barber of Seville was given a new lease of life by the extraordinarily fast tempi chosen by conductor Speranza Scappucci. and the brilliant execution of those tempi by he cast.  I was fortunate to have a chance to discuss it with her a week or so later; one of very few in depth opera conversations of the year!  The other striking show was Tapestry’s mounting of Jacqueline; an opera about Jacqueline du Pré.  That was a very intense evening.  I reviewed it for Opera Canada‘s Summer 2020 print issue.  And that was about it…

Live concerts

The stand out was the visit of the LA Master Chorale with Peter Sellars to Koerner Hall where they presented a staged version of Orlando di Lasso’s Lagrime di San Pietro.  It was a stunning display of musical intensity and virtuosity.

Streamed concerts

The single concert highlight for me was the recital by Ema Nikolovska and Steven Philcox that was part of the Toronto Summer music festival.  I really wish I had seen this live!  There was also a lovely “keep the lights on” concert from the ROH compered by Antonio Pappano (still up on Youtube I think).  The Confluence gang also pivoted to an on-line format that produced some fun results. (Also on Youtube).  Finally a word of praise for London’s Wigmore Hall that just keeps churning out high quality free content on their Youtube channel.

Made for “TV”

I’ve split this into three sections; long(ish) shows by (relatively) large or, at least, arts council funded, sources, shorter works from the same sources and “amateur” efforts.

Two of the longer shows came from Tapestry; the moving and beautiful Love Songs: A Saxophony and the utterly mad SOS: Sketch Opera Singers.  I really enjoyed both.  Two Messiah projects also worked for me.  Against the Grain’s Messiah/Complex was a hugely ambitious coast to coast reworking of Handel with some stunning visuals while Soundstreams’ Electric Messiah took iits Drake Underground roots to various locations in Toronto to great effect.  A special mention too for a show that’s hard to characterise as it lies somewhere between a filmed stage show of an opera and an original work.  I’m talking about Finnish National Opera’s Covid fan tutte that pivots from a rehearsal of Die Walküre to a satire about Covid and our responses to it.

In the shorter films category I would single out Essential Opera’s Snow White adaptation; Mirror, Mirror and LA based Carson Gilmore’s Morte.  The Kingston Symphony’s film of Dean Burry’s Nijmegen Bridge 1944 which came out for Remembrance day is also very moving.  (Kingston Symphony Youtube channel).

In the “amateur” category (and I mean amateur in a nice way!) I want to mention some folks who have just kept on producing high quality stuff.  So many efforts started strong and rather fizzled but not these.  So thanks to Alexander Hajek, Dani and Claire at Opera Revue and the indescribable Keith Klassen for keeping me entertained.  You can find their stuff on Youtube.

Video and audio recordings continued to be released in 2020 though things seem to be slowing down now.  I guess labels had plenty of goodies in the can pre Covid.  Here are my picks:

Video recordings

First has got to be Robert Carsen’s brilliant production of Mozart’s Idomeneo recorded at Madrid’s Teatro Real.  When I talk about reinterpreting the inherited repertoire for today’s audience this is what I mean.  It’s not flashy or designed to shock but t takes an old, old story and makes it live anew.  Terrific stuff.  Andreas Kriegenburg’s production of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra for the Salzburg Festival is similar in intent but the real reason to get your hands on this one is the glorious singing.  Finally it’s really rare to see a Purcell semi-opera done well so the new recording of King Arthur from the Staatsoper Berlin is very welcome.

Audio recordings

It’s tough to pick winners here as I listened to a lot of really interesting, but often uneven, recordings of contemporary music that didn’t quite make the cut along with some splendid recordings of more standard rep.  In that latter category two disks stood out.  One isn’t new.  It’s a 1995 recording of Britten’s Peter Grimes with Philip Langridge as Grimes.  I’ve seen every video recording of this piece and listened to pretty much every CD.  Musically this is the best of the lot and does justice to Langridge in the way the ENO DVD doesn’t.  I was also much impressed by the Chicago Symphony’s recording of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13.  It’s as intense as ever but here Riccardo Muti draws an unusually lyricism from his forces.  There may be no memorial at Babi Yar but this will serve.

Two contemporary disks stood out for me.  The first is Linda Buckley’s From Ocean’s Floor which combined contemporary classical writing with traditional Irish séan nos singing in a really interesting way.  And, finally, a shout out for Tapestry’s excellent new recording of Gareth William’s and Anna Chatterton’s Rocking Horse Winner.

And that’s it for 2020.  And good riddance!

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