Sleepers of 2011

I love fireworks and (nice) surprises. (c) Susan Brodie 2010
By Susan Brodie

The expectations we carry into a performance inevitably influence our response to that event. In 2011 I spent many wonderful evenings in concert halls and theaters, but sometimes the show felt perhaps not as special as I wanted, simply because I expected so much. However, I had a number of happy surprises, when I dragged into a concert or opera almost reluctantly and the evening turned out to be quite special. So instead of a Top 10, here in chronological order are ten “sleepers”: performances that I attended with little or no expectations that proved unexpectedly rewarding.

The year’s first pleasant surprise came in late January: Ô mon bel inconnu at Paris’s Opéra-Comique, with music by Renaldo Hahn, book by Sasha Guitry. Part of the Poulenc Festival around Les Mamelles de Teresias, it was a charming and effervescent French musical comedy from 1933, showing another side to a composer I knew for his perfumed parlor melodies. A brisk, sophisticated comedy worthy of Frank Capra is leavened with ingratiating melodies and sprightly ensemble music. Here’s a synthesizer performance of the entire score. The sound is gratingly ugly but the transparent sonorities make it easy to appreciate how deftly the music is constructed. And here is a clip of the title song recorded in the early 30s by the delicious Leïa ben Sédira; her style and impeccable diction suggest the meticulous training undergone by these young performers (though the Paris Conservatory’s musical comedy class was discontinued sometime in the 1960s or 70s).

In March I bought a last minute ticket to Katya Kabanova at Opera de Paris (Garnier), with Angela Denoke, production by Christoph Marthaler. I remain on the fence about this singer, but she sang beautifully and was a luminous and heartwrenching Katia, in one of Marthaler’s more effective realizations of his dystopic world view.

Wozzeck at the Met: always a stunning show; Alan Held must be one of the finest off-the-radar baritones around, and Waltraud Meier invariably lends luster and intensity to an evening. What I didn’t know at the time was that this may have been my last chance to see James Levine at the podium.

In May, Jon Gillock’s inaugural recital on the Manton Memorial Organ at NYC’s Church of the Ascension reminded me of the visceral pleasure of French organ music in general, and of Messaien in particular. The church building is a bit too small to realize the full sonic potential of this magnificent instrument, especially in the repertoire meant for the grand Cavaillé-Coll instruments found in the luckiest French churches, but Gillock’s choice of registration made the most of the music and the instrument (I heard only the big organ; builder Pascal Quoirin also constructed a small baroque-style organ as part of the commission).

September’s sleeper was Le Jardin de Monsieur Lully, a concert by the participants in Les Arts Florissants‘s 2011 training academy for young singers, who also participated in the touring revival of Lully’s Atys at Brooklyn Academy of Music. I had seen the opera in May at the Opéra-Comique, and it was nearly as splendid at BAM, but that was no surprise. This delightful showcase for William Christie’s hand-picked talents presented the young singers in a wide range of baroque styles in a concert pasticcio. The evening was unexpectedly moving: at the end, Christie’s tender and paternal gaze at his brood, whom we had come to know musically, seemed to foreshadow his own retirement from active concert life. After launching the French baroque revival 40 years ago he won’t be around forever.

Barbiere di Siviglia. In early October I dragged myself to yet another  to hear the young Mexican tenor Javier Camarena in his first Met role, and was rewarded by an unexpectedly delightful evening, conducted by Maurizio Benini with supple energy. The chemistry and comic timing were magical; new to me was Maurizio Muraro, an expert Italian buffo bass. How did they achieve such synergy on the minimal rehearsal time normally allotted to revivals?

Camarena, whom I first heard sing Rossini in Zurich in 2009, was very well received; to my ear this is not a tenor di grazia but I look forward to hearing him sing Verdi in a few years. Here’s a YouTube clip of his final aria that evening, posted by Camarena; the cabaletta begins around 5’30”.

Oedipe (George Enescu) at La Monnaie: I had other plans for the last Sunday afternoon in October: a pair of architectural tours during the Brussels Art Nouveau Biennial. But when I spotted the poster I instead raced to La Monnaie to catch the second performance of this rarity. Enescu’s retelling of the Greek tragedy can be ponderous in the manner of a 1960s Hollywood epic (Enescu’s music would have done well in the film industry) but the Alex Ollé (La Fura dels Baus) production combined enough, pageantry, showmanship, and coherence to make the music sound better than it was. I shouldn’t have been surprised: La Monnaie was named Europe’s best opera company 2011 by Opernwelt, and I’ve been very impressed with the half-dozen productions I’ve seen there.

Turandot: Wiesbaden, just 45 minutes from Frankfurt, was unknown to me, but the prospect of a new production by Cesare Lievi, the director of an interestingly surreal Cenerentola at the Met, was intriguing. The payoff was a chance to experience Puccini as modern music, performed in a jewel box theater by an ensemble with musical values that would do a much larger company proud. (more on this in a separate note to come)

Satyagraha at the Met. Last year’s sell-out of the production by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch of the Philip Glass bio of Ghandi’s early years wasn’t as popular in revival, but the show was just as powerful as on first viewing. Creative use of projections and puppets conjured from found objects created visual magic and made three and a half hours fly. I was surprised that this was even more mesmerizing on second view. An unexpected bonus was exiting the theater to encounter an Occupy demonstration on the sidewalk just beyond Lincoln Center. Glass himself addressed the crowd, reading an excerpt from the libretto, and broadcast via the so-called People’s Mike, with the message delivered in short phrases and then repeated in unison by everyone close enough to hear. It’s a way around restrictions on sound equipment.

Edited to add: I had stopped here, but remembered that one of the most thrilling performances of October was Opera Orchestra of New York’s Adriana Lecouvreur, with a starry cast that included Angela Gheorghiu, Jonas Kaufmann, and Anita Rachiashvilli. Anticipation was high, but the excitement generated onstage exceeded expectations. It was one of those nights when everyone was “on” and inspired one another to a very high level. A real night to remember.

Happy New Year!