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Top 10 Live "At-Large" Performances of 2010

We list our favorite performances in chronological order, because you can’t really rank live performances. (The 2009 list here.)Because it has a good ring to it, we limit ourselves to ten stand-out performances, which in this case means leaving out Gatti’s Mahler 5th in Amsterdam (which had its wacky merits), Julian Rachlin’s performance of the Kancheli Concerto for Violin and Viola (with a stupendous Eroica of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields under Ryan McAdams), Andris Nelson’s excellent ‘courtship concert’ with the BRSO, and the event of Christian Thielemann conducting Mahler’s Eighth Symphony with the ‘original band’ , 100 years after its premiere.

February 7th, Munich, Philharmonie @ Gasteig

Thielemann & Elektra

“This is goose-bumps music already… But Thielemann conducted it just like that, too, making for the most shattering, devastating, frenetic climaxes full of relentless, rapturously violent music. And yet it was played with such loving abandon that it sounded like there was more Rosenkavalier in Elektra than ever before. Thielemann, who owns the secret to the invisible fast-forward button (no longueurs with him), celebrated the many big moments in this opera with such unbridled grandeur that the experience became nothing short of entrancing. Hearing an incredible wealth of details and colors thanks to the orchestra being on stage—not muffled by a pit—further added to that experience, even if the singers might have been less happy about it… [full review]

March 16th, Würzburg, Cathedral

Wilfried Hiller’s “Sohn des Zimmermanns”

As I wrote in the review of this world premiere: “the combination of moment, location, and performance, the hope, serenity, and beauty… made for a very rare, wholly moving musical—even spiritual—experience.” It’s on rare enough occasions that that can be said about a concert; the inclusion here is a given.

“Thirty-three violas and a viola d’amore in a church. Not the beginning of a bad music-joke, but the center of Wilfried Hiller’s “Scenes based on the New Testament” that the Abbé-Vogler Music Foundation commissioned composed for the 65th anniversary of the total destruction of Würzburg. The result is Der Sohn des Zimmermanns – “The Son of the Carpenter”, a work of disarming simplicity and shocking beauty, which was premiered in the reconstructed cathedral of the town, on March 16th… [full review]

May 27th, Munich, Philharmonie @ Gasteig

Detlev Glanert’s Insomnium under Thielemann

In this case, a most impressive world premiere of a modern romantic orchestral work pushed a perfectly enjoyable, reasonably good concert—Radu Lupu in Mozart, Mendelssohn’s Third Symphony—into the “Best of the Year” realm:

“A world premiere performance under Christian Thielemann—and it’s not some thought-to-be-lost Bruckner or Schumann fragment? The controversial maestro, admittedly not the hardest working in the business, gets a bad rap about his limited repertoire seemingly confined to Bruckner, Schumann, Strauss, Pfitzner, Wagner, Brahms, Bruckner, Pfitzner, Bruckner, Strauss, Strauss, Schumann, and occasionally Beethoven. That’s doing injustice to his excellent French touch (when he whips it out on rare occasion) and his incredibly sensitive way with contemporary fare. If (a big if), it is contemporary music that rubs him the right way. Like Henze. Or, as it turns out, Detlev Glanert, who wrote “Insomnium” for the Munich Philharmonic, an Adagio for large orchestra…” [continue reading]

July 23rd, Munich, Prinzregententheater

Die Schweigsame Frau & Damrau

Brilliant. Ingenious! Marvelous. If I ever needed a reason why I continue to go see operas (and frankly, sometimes I do), this was one of those reasons that could last for years, if necessary. Take a ‘problematic’ opera, an odd, not to say mediocre one—and Richard Strauss’ comedic opera “Die Schweigsame Frau” with its fogy, hoary knee-slapper moments of contrived funniness is all that—and turn it into a masterpiece of musical theater, an operatic moment of glory: that’s what great opera direction is all about, and that’s precisely what the Australian director Barrie Kosky, dramaturg Olaf Schmitt, and conductor Kent Nagano did. They cut, incised, restored music and text to highlight its beauty and downplay all corny aspects. They went all-out, over-the-top where that helped the play (and in a strange way: the believability of it… or at least the willing suspension of disbelieve) and they toned it down where toning down was necessary to keep the hooey aspects at bay.

Cast as Aminta, the (not so) silent woman of the title, was Diana Damrau—in her third trimester. One small ingenious touch adopted her happy state (further exaggerated by her Brünnhilde costume in act one) into a delicious addition to the plot. Feigning timidity (as her character does, anyway) she takes Sir Morosus’ glasses away—and until the very end Franz Hawlata (substituting a sound bottom with dramatic presence) potters about the stage thus visually impaired. When Arminta is accused of ‘adultery’ in the last act, there’s now no longer that moment of sticky awkwardness—Arminta/Damrau's pregnancythe being the fully visible sign of her perfectly irreproachable relations with her husband Henry (played with youthful spunk and charm by Toby Spence). Nagano’s magnificent, very straight conducting kept the music from becoming a tangled mess… and superlative singing and acting further ensured tears and laughter—sometimes simultaneous—and for The Silent Woman to be the hit of the Bavarian State Opera Festival.

August 4th, Salzburg, Felsenreitschule

Lulu & Berg’s Seductions under Marc Albrecht

The direction of Lulu was good—certainly good enough—but it was the combination of the singers and the direction of the Vienna Philharmonic by Marc Albrecht that made the event so special.

“That’s in a nutshell the story of this production: Not without offering points of criticism, but never getting in the way of the cast of assembled stage animals (especially Paticia Petibon, Michael Volle, Franz Grundheber, Andreas Conrad, Thomas Johannes Mayer, Pavol Breslik, Cora Burggraaf). Better yet, the direction actively helped them to shape their characters most vividly…” [full review]

August 15th, Salzburg, House for Mozart

Guth, Nézet-Séguin, & Maltman with Don Giovanni

Perhaps the “perfect conservative” staging of Mozart (never mind that Don Giovanni gets shot during the overture) combined with superlative acting and excellent musical accomplishments; this was the stuff life altering performances are made of.

“There are different ways of taking the “giocoso” out of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Think of Peter Sellars’ruthlessly raping New Yorker protagonist. Claus Guth’s Don Giovanni, seamlessly embodied by a stupendous Christopher Matlman, doesn’t need to rape. He’s too good looking, too strapping, too suave, too vulnerable, too convincing to stoop to that level. But he is still a liar, a crook, constantly deceiving, ruthlessly manipulating, in short: a real jackass to the ladies. You feel for the women; Donna Elvira’s pain is made physically tangible by Dorothea Röschmann who exceeds at these roles of embittered, slightly trampy, strangely alluring women. Flighty, flirty Zerlina’s turn from being enamored to being cross (a willing, eager, perfect-for-the-thankful-part Anna Prohaska) becomes believable. Somewhere along the way, Donna Anna (Aleksandra Kurzak) is wronged, too… [continue reading]

August 27th, Salzburg, Grosses Festspielhaus

The Concertgebouw & Its Firebird

The Concertgebouw Orchestra’s Firebird in Salzburg meant show-time for the players and Mariss Jansons, and was a spectacular festival of colors:

“…The strings’ cinematic, shimmering playing, detailed but not clinical or even ‘nouvelle cuisine’ style, was enchanting, stirring, lulling; just like it ought to be, given the sujet of the ballet. The work seems made for that band, with its wealth of shades and nuance all coming out… and even if a subtle haze surrounds the orchestra, the shrieks and orchestral clashes were as harrowing as could be; the frenzy perfectly believable, the performers on the edge of their seats. The whole last scene of the Firebird was a celebration of organic beauty and the audience virtually erupted after the finale notes…” [full review]

September 24th, London, Royal Opera House at Covent Garden

A Cosí fan tutte as Few Do It

When the curtain rose over the seventh (or eighth?) revival of Jonathan Miller’s Covent Garden Cosí fan tutte, and I saw the sparse, cream colored set, for a second I feared that I had by accident landed in the middle of another Dieter Dorn production. Quel horreur. Such fears—intensified by my intense dislike for all Cosí stagings I had seen previously—turned out unwarranted. This re-touching of the Miller’s production, aided and abetted by a stupendously acting cast (Ferrando – Pavol Breslik, Guglielmo – Stéphane Degout, Don Alfonso – William Shimell, Fiordiligi – Maria Bengtsson, Dorabella – Jurgita Adamonyte, Despina – Rebecca Evans), was perfect entertainment. It was the first successful Cosí I have seen on stage, because the immorality of the plot—the same that Beethoven and Wagner sneered at—was done away with. Not by changing anything about the story, but by taking the psychology of the female protagonists seriously. Rather than making them look like dumb harlots, fooled by a fake mustache to renege on love sworn eternal, they were self-absorbed teens on a path of transition from being in love with the idea of being in love to taking their (new) partners and their feelings toward them seriously. By not taking their initial, professed love seriously (the girls may believe it, we are shown, but they don’t, frankly, know what they’re singing) about), he allows their hesitant reckoning of true—Albanian—love to become a struggle with coming to terms with what love means. Not a struggle with whether or not to cheat on their betrothed, some 35 minutes after they have gone off to presumed war.

All Miller needs for this is a full length mirror centre stage. After everlasting love had been sworn, and incurable heartbreak affirmed over the parting of their boys, the girls go off stage to change. They come back clad in black. The official color of mourning. And gee, don’t black look on those girls! They check themselves out in the mirror with coy delight. If we hadn’t noticed already, we do now: just as dressing in black was little more than two young fashionistas accessorizing, all that alleged love—of which the girls have only observed the ritual but not felt the real thing—had been a wonderful game. Exciting, though curiously missing something not yet known to be missing. All the overt touches in the rest of the production—the pictures (salacious proof of infidelity) taken on cell phones, the laptop for the fake marriage contract, the recitative announced by the Nokia ringtone banged out on the fortepiano in the pit—serve to entertain, to amuse, and make the time fly by. But they, too, are mere accessories to the core of having treated the personalities with thoughtfulness. The acting does the rest, in any case. When the newly found couples are finally about to talk to each other, the uncomfortable pauses (between their lines) among these four nervous kids are stretched to painfully hilarious eternity. William Shimell, jumping in at short notice for Sir Thomas Allen, topped it off with an underplayed, nonchalant, poignant performance that felt at every moment as though it could not be bettered. The music, under Thomas Hengelbrock, sounded awkward at first—as if a historically performed attitude clashed uncomfortably with a different orchestral reality. Over time, it my ears perceived it as an effective, integral part of the performance.

Miller's suspended ambiguity for the ending—the four protagonists don’t line up in the form of the newfound couples but scurry out the four corners of the stage—might be considered cynical. Perhaps he tries to strike a note between the two versions usually given in the end: The implausibly reconstituted Guglielmo-Fiordiligi and Ferrando-Dorabella coupling or the other, ‘new’, musically and dramatically sensible tenor-soprano / baritone-mezzo coupling. Perhaps he is leaving it to us to figure out the obvious, namely that if the couples actually learn during the course of these three-plus hours (the men never to test women again, the women what it means to truly love another person), then we don't even need to follow the clues in the music and the text to realize that the couples cannot go back to the original configuration. Marrying the person they have found to actually cherish means 'putting it right at the end'. If take in the traditional mold, the entire opera would be nothing but cynical, an immorality play. In Miller's hands it became a fable, almost a morality play.

October 14th, Munich, Herkulessaal

Chailly & Mahler

This is easily the least well played performance in this list, which goes to show that interpretation can overcome imperfection and technical deficiencies much in the same way good service can rescue a bad meal in a restaurant, but the best food never salvage crummy customer treatment. And not only was Mahler’s First Symphony darkly magnificent under Riccardo Chailly’s leadership, the programming was inspired, too.

“…Mahler’s First Symphony, in such short succession to the performance across town, afforded inevitable, direct comparison to Zubin Mehta and the Munich Philharmonic. It is an interesting comparison, too, [showing how] Chailly gets more audacious and harder [with age]—at least in Mahler. Where Mehta’s pseudo-Titan, despite several endearing qualities, was just ‘nice’, Chailly wielded a surprising iron fist.

The opening—the famous Rheingoldian, and Beethoven Ninth-ishUr­-sound (“A” throughout the entire register of the orchestra)—was held in the must hushed tones, forever clinging to pianissimowith fascinating, compelling tenacity. Even the second theme remained moored in the domain of chamber music-like delicacy. With the ever present prospect of a rip-roaring explosion looming (and without ever calling on it), he made for one of those lapel-grabbing stretches of time where will-power seems to manifest itself in music. He steered the orchestra through the first movement like walking a dog on a rubber band, rubato-wise…” [continue reading]

November 30th, Munich, National Theater

Nagano’s Bruckner From Outer Space

Another great piece of programming coupled with a superb and intrepid performance came from Kent Nagano who placed Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony next to Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Stille & Umkehr (“Silence and Return”). Ferocious silence and “Outer Space Music”—as a fellow critic, similarly enthralled, said afterwards—are an apt description of the finest, most intriguing of the “Academy Concerts” I have heard under Nagano. [full review]

Picture of Christian Thielemann © Astrid Ackermann
Picture from the rehearsal of Hiller's Zimmermann in the Würzburg Cathedral (the composer is highlighted) © Markus Hauck
Pictures of Kent Nagano and the production of Die Schweigsame Frau courtesy Bavarian State Opera, © Wilfried Hösl
Pictures from Don Giovanni and Lulu courtesy Salzburger Festspiele, © Monika Rittershaus
Picture of the Concertgebouw under M.Jansons courtesy Salzburger Festspiele, © Wolfgang Lienbacher
Picture of Maria Bengtson in Cosí fan tutte courtesy of the Royal Opera, © Mike Hoban
Picture of Riccardo Chailly courtesy Bavarian Radio

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