Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Top of the (OWA) Pops

December 22, 2008

from Die Soldaten
Photo: Lincoln Center Festival 2008

Perhaps the most interesting thing (to me at least) about this year’s musical top 10 list is that with one exception, all the music on it was composed in the 20th (or 21st) century. Of course, the outlier is Tristan, which might as well be a 20th century opera anyway. As usual, this list is based on things I saw myself first hand and are not restricted by geography. I chose from 233 live performances I attended in person last year including 66 operas, 86 “classical” musical concerts, and 12 other musical performances. There were another 58 theatrical performances of which 15 could be considered “musicals.” The remaining 11 shows were comedy, dance or something else. The envelope please:

1. Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten at the 2008 Lincoln Center Festival, 7/08. The scale of this production where the audience was moved about on rolling bleachers around the action taking place at the Park Avenue Armory is still somewhat mind-boggling. A chilling, brilliant performance that nearly perfectly achieved the impossible score Zimmermann had created in the first place. A true landmark performance and my top choice.

Marino Formenti, Salonen and the LA Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2008

2. Messiaen's Des canyons aux étoiles with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Marino Formenti, 1/08. In a year filled with great Messiaen performances including a very good St. François d’Assise in Amsterdam, Salonen’s take on Messiaen’s tribute to America, and the American West was searing in it’s beauty and intensity. Another testament to the remarkable relationship this conductor has had with this orchestra.

Renée Fleming in Capriccio
Photo: Wiener Staatsoper GmbH / Axel Zeininger 2008

3. Strauss' Capriccio with Renée Fleming at the Vienna State Opera, 6/08. Say what you will about opera’s reigning soprano, but this is a role in which she is unassailable. If there is any doubt why she is where she is, this is exhibit A. A brilliant production from Marco Arturo Marelli and music direction from Philippe Jordan made this an unforgettable performance with an all-star cast. Strauss at its finest.

4. Phillip Glass’ Satyagraha at the Metropolitan Opera, 5/08. No big HD broadcast, but easily the best thing the Met put on stage this year. This was arguably Gelb’s shot-across-the-bow in terms of programming for a house that has been plagued with artistic necrophilia for decades when he announced its placement on the schedule. A huge success by nearly every measure and a wonder to watch.

Jeroen Willems in La Commedia
Photo: Hans van den Bogaard 2008

5. Louis Andreissen's La Commedia, 6/08. Wild and wonderful, Andreissen’s latest opera, a collaboration with American independent filmmaker Hal Hartley was funny and equally hard to describe. With the remarkable Claron McFadden, Cristina Zavalloni and Dutch actor Jeroen Willems, the work made hay with a romp through musical genres and a hell that was more sublime than scary.

6. The Music of Helmut Lachenmann at Monday Evening Concerts, 4/08. The new music concert-series-that-could brought out the composer himself for an evening of fleeting and mysterious sound. A reminder of a syntax that the composer himself helped place into the vocabulary of contemporary composition. Brilliant from beginning to end.

Waltraud Meier as Isolde
Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera 2008

7. Waltraud Meter's surprise appearance in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, at the Metropolitan Opera, 12/08. I know this is not news to most people around the world, but Meier’s surprise last-minute substitution for an ailing Katarina Dalayman for her first and perhaps only appearance in this signature role in the U.S. was a big early Christmas present for those lucky enough to be in attendance. An Isolde for the ages.

Marlis Petersen and William Burden in Lulu
Photo: Dan Rest/LOC 2007

8. Berg’s Lulu at the Chicago Lyric Opera, in 11/08. Marlis Petersen, Sir Andrew Davis and a magnificent cast created a surprisingly attractive, likable, and musically first-rate Lulu this Fall. A 20th-century masterpiece gets its due in the Midwest with the help of smart direction from Paul Curran. Not a bad year for Chicago on the whole.

9. Kurtág’s Kafka-Fragmente with Dawn Upshaw and Geoff Nuttall in Los Angeles, 11/08. Peter Sellars brought the latest incarnation of his cooking and cleaning take on the beauty and tragedy of the everyday in this important late 20th-century masterpiece. Profound and moving.

Monica Groop as Adriana Mater
Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2008

10. Kaija Saariaho’s Adriana Mater at the Santa Fe Opera 11/08. Saariaho’s second great opera arrived in Santa Fe with a series of phenomenal performances from Monica Groop and Joseph Kaiser in this bleak but ultimately hopeful piece that is darkly beautiful and musically miraculous.

Honorable mentions: James Conlon's leading great performances of Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg and Puccini’s Il Trittico at the Los Angeles Opera. Thomas Adés’ many fine performances of his own music as well as that of Couperin, Gerald Barry, and Berlioz in Los Angeles and New York. Great performances of Radamisto both at Santa Fe Opera, and by Musica Angelica here in Los Angeles. The Gambler, La Fille du Régiment, Adams’ Doctor Atomic, and Anthony Dean Griffey in Peter Grimes all at the Metropolitan Opera.

Most overrated: Gustavo Dudamel continues to blow away all competition in this category so much so it seems unfair to not share the wealth with anyone else. How about some serious competition from the illness-plagued Ben Heppner who gave two troubled and over-hyped performances in New York this year, which I guess is something since he at least showed up for those gigs.

Most underrated: Adam’s Doctor Atomic at the Metropolitan Opera. See above.

Well that’s it for another year. The theater list should be up here in about a week. Happy Holidays from Out West Arts.


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