Last night marked the last performance I plan on seeing before the holidays so it’s time for the annual “best of” posting. So what did your scribe enjoy or admire the most in 2019? Let’s look at it by categories.
Fully staged opera with orchestra
The COC had a decent year but two of their shows stood out for me. David McVicar’s production of Rusalka in October was perhaps all round the best thing the COC have done in years. The production was clever in that interrogated the material enough to ask lots of questions for those willing to think about them without doing anything to upset those not so interested. Musically one really can’t imagine hearing Rusalka sung or played better anywhere in the world. The other winner was Elektra in January. The orchestra and the singing was the winner here, especially Christine Goerke, but the production was better than average and we don’t see enough of the great modern classics in the Four Seasons stage.
Terezín/Theresienstadt is a CD of music composed in the concentration camp at Terezín in what was then Czechoslovakia. Virtually the entire Czech intelligentsia; certainly those of Jewish or Communist persuasion, were imprisoned in a kind of “show camp” to demonstrate to the world that the Nazis weren’t as bad as made out. Nine of the ten composers featured on the disc ended up on a “Polentransport”; a one way ticket to Auschwitz. No story is more poignant than that of Ilse Weber, a nurse in the hospital. She chose to accompany the sick children of the camp on their final journey and reportedly sang to them in the gas chamber.
Christian Gerhaher’s recording of Mahler Lieder with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal under Kent Nagano is his first recording of the great Mahler cycles with orchestra. The disc contains Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, the Kindertotenlieder and the Rückert Lieder. This is singing of the highest class with great beauty, no lack of power and intense attention to the text. It’s hard to imagine a singer being more in this music than Gerhaher. Being Gerhaher, it’s quite individual and quite restrained (much less exuberant than Fischer-Dieskau) but without sounding unduly mannered. It sounds exactly right and yet no-one else would sing these songs quite the same way. The accompaniment from the Montreal orchestra is also very fine with great clarity of texture and lovely playing of the important woodwind solos.
The recording quality is excellent with a judicious balance between voice and orchestra and a limpidity that does justice to the clarity of the orchestral playing. Full texts and translations are provided.
Wozzeck is a tricky piece for a director. There seem to be two possible approaches. One can find a character for Wozzeck himself that resonates with contemporary audiences and treat the piece more or less realistically. That’s the approach taken by both Bieito and Tcherniakov. Alternatively one can run with the overtly expressionist aspects of the piece and present it in a more abstract way as Peter Mussbach did. Andreas Homoki’s 2015 Zürich production takes the second route. The piece is presented as if the characters are puppets in a puppet theatre in a sort of ultra-grim version of Punch and Judy. It’s visually quite arresting and there are some very well composed scenes. To give just one example, immediately after Wozzeck has decapitated Marie the chorus appear as nightmarish Maries while Wozzeck sits nursing the severed head. That said, the concept does pall and maybe hasn’t really got the legs, absent any other real directorial ideas, to carry the piece for two hours.
The imminent death of the art song recital is perhaps an even more prevalent trope than “opera is dying” doomandgloomery. It reached something of a crescendo in Toronto when the Aldeburgh Connection shut up shop after thirty years. Oddly enough there still seem to be plenty of recitals of various kinds but unquestionably there has been something of a shift away from “two dudes in tails with a piano”.
It’s hard to think of a more appropriate work for Toronto this February than A Winter Journey although one could make a good case for A Winter Stay at Home with a Hot Water Bottle and a Bottle of Whisky. Unfortunately Schubert didn’t set the latter so it was Winterreise we got from German baritone and pianist Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber at Koerner Hall last night. It was completely classical. Two men in tails walked out and performed the 24 songs of this most demanding cycle. There were no histrionics. There was no interpretive dance. There were no video projections. Indeed so unhistrionic was it that I don’t believe Herr Gerhaher’s right hand left the piano the entire time.
There’s a 15% off offer for Christian Gerhaher’s 26th February recital at Koerner Hall. Use Code CHRISTIAN15 on line or at the box office.
March 2nd at 2pm Barbara Hannigan is doing a workshop at UoT focussed on Hans Abrahamsen’s new work Let me tell you. It’s at Walter Hall and it’s free. The work itself will get its North American premier on March 4th with Barbara and the TSO at Roy Thomson Hall.