As 2014 comes to an end, we reflect on some of the best (and worst!) operatic experiences of the year, as voted for by some of our critics…..

Outstanding new production


Steve Silverman: Terry Gilliam‘s Benvenuto Cellini for ENO just edges it over Richard Jones‘ elegiac Fanciulla del West at the same house. Frenetic, mad and unapologetically Pythonesque, Gilliam’s production complements perfectly the craziness of the libretto and the youthful effervescence of Berlioz’s score.

Nicola Lischi:  Turandot at Torre del Lago. In his very first stage production, the painter and sculptor Angelo Bertini created a visually stunning art deco Turandot; rich and luxurious, where the actors did not get lost in the usual “chinoiserie”.

Stephen Jay-Taylor: Terry Gilliam’s riotously horror-vacui staging of Benvenuto Cellini at the Coliseum

Sebastian Petit: Going out on a limb here, but I loved Jonathan Kent‘s ROH Manon Lescaut. Add to that Pappano‘s superb conducting and a top notch cast and this gets my vote. Runner up – Claus Guth‘s riveting re-imagining of Die Frau ohne Schatten at the ROH.

Faye Courtney: Covent Garden’s exciting Ballo in maschera?  Only joking!!!  No, it has to be ENO’s larger than life Benvenuto Cellini, directed by the wonderfully wacky Terry Gilliam – probably the most impressive piece of theatre I’ve ever seen at the Coli, with a fantastic cast led by Michael Spyres & Corinne Winters

Best operatic revival


Stephen Jay-Taylor: Haven’t seen one. But Il barbiere di Siviglia at the ROH, despite a tiresome, vulgar staging and quite the most leaden, unidiomatic conducting from Mark Elder – who evidently thought he’d been employed to lead The Dream of Gerontius – benefitted enormously from its brand new cast in the principal roles, especially the rich-voiced, sparky Serena Malfi, and the sui generis Heldenleggiero revelation that was Michele Angelini, both of whom can return as often as they like.

Faye Courtney: David McVicar‘s tremendously entertaining Faust – Joseph Calleja the only weak link in an otherwise stellar cast including Bryn Terfel, Simon Keenlyside and Sonya Yoncheva

Sebastian Petit: A long overdue revival of Graham Vick‘s definitive production of Eugene Onegin at Glyndebourne. Cast from strength and introducing us to the hugely talented Omar Meir Weber as a perfect conductor for Russian repertoire – this was as good as Glyndebourne gets

Steve Silverman: Jonathan Miller‘s cleverly evocative staging of La bohème at ENO ticks all the boxes. With a uniformly excellent cast and tremendous work from the pit, it is hard to imagine a more satisfying production of Puccini’s tear-jerker.

Best male performance

Manon Lescaut

Sebastian Petit: Jonas Kaufmann as Werther, Des Grieux and the Young Man in Winterreise (yes, I know this is cheating but his ROH performance of Schubert’s shattering Journey Cycle contained more drama than many operatic portrayals)

Stephen Jay-Taylor: Vittorio Grigolo for Rodolfo and Nemorino at the ROH, continuing his ascent to Pavarotti-dom, whose sound he increasingly reminds me of, as well as his habit of bouncing off the Italian words: though happily not his appearance

Nicola Lischi: Tenor Max Jota in the title role of Les contes d’Hoffmann at the Teatro Verdi, Pisa. Jota’s easy, attractive, evenly produced tenor dominated the role’s difficult tessitura with an iron-clad technique, while displaying every aspect of this multi-facted character.

Steve Silverman: David Butt Philip‘s gloriously-sung Rodolfo in the aforementioned ENO La bohème was a revelation. A beautiful, free-flowing tenor voice that is surely on the way to stardom.

Faye CourtneyStuart Skelton‘s very moving Otello at ENO; an astonishing performance which remained undiminished by the drab and dreary production.

Best female performance


Nicola Lischi: Maria Luigia Borsi as Madama Butterfly in Genoa.  One of the very best Butterflies I have ever heard; she completely inhabits the role and the transition from young girl to wounded woman was utterly believable and devastating. Also soprano Silvia dalla Benetta as Donna Anna at the Teatro Verdi in Pisa who demonstrated truly flawless singing.

Steve Silverman: Ailyn Pérez‘s devastating portrayal of Liù in the ROH’s Turandot was the sort of performance that confers legendary status on a singer once his or (in this case) her career is over. She could break your heart by just standing there.

Faye Courtney: Nina Stemme‘s Isolde and Leah Crocetto‘s Desdemona were the two outstanding soprano performers for me this year – with Sarah Connolly‘s exquisite Ariodante in Aix-en-Provence winning in the mezzo category.

Stephen Jay-Taylor: Susanne Phillips for Fiordiligi and Netrebko’s Lady M, both at the Met and perfectly realised assumptions the pair.

Sebastian Petit: Up until a couple of weeks ago last it would have been Evelyn Herlitzius as Elektra in Dresden but now she has to share with Nina Stemme‘s astonishing London Isolde.

Biggest disappointment


Faye Courtney: Without a shadow of a doubt it has to be Kasper Holten‘s tediously misogynistic new take on Don Giovanni, which portrays the female characters as liars instead of victims and ends with a pretentious Hell-free anticlimax where the Don merely stands against a white wall for 10 minutes with a slight headache.  Bring back Zambello and the flaming inferno in the sauna – all is forgiven!

Steve Silverman: L’elisir d’amore at the ROH by a considerable margin. Donizetti’s masterpiece is usually bomb-proof, but Lucy Crowe (a charmless and vocally precarious Adina) and Bryn Terfel (thuggish, disengaged and surprisingly small-scale as Dulcamara) contrived, despite Vittorio Grigolo‘s heroic attempts at redressing the balance, to suck the joy out of this perfect little comedy.

Nicola Lischi: The new production of Madama Butterfly that inaugurated the Festival Pucciniano in Torre del Lago, particularly because of a sluggish conductor and a subpar primadonna.

Sebastian Petit: Martin Kusej’s ROH production of Idomeneo is the runaway winner in this category. Ill-conceived, badly executed, and not even that well sung (Sophie Bevan and Malin Byström apart). A horrible evening.

Stephen Jay-Taylor: Virtually anything staged new by the ROH this year, where Kasper Holten’s avowed agenda of inflicting his EuroFriends’ stagings – not to mention an ever-expanding roster of his own – upon us is now being fully felt in one pitiable, impertinent travesty after another, with more, much more, of like ilk doubtless to come. (Just how prophetic this turns out to be is exemplified by the “new” Un ballo in maschera which I only caught up with after writing the above, and which sets new standards of pitifulness on all fronts, with a tatty and cheap AmDram staging which would have looked passé sixty years ago at the old Sadler’s Wells – where it might have been excusable as post-war no-budget austerity – and easily the worst conducting I’ve heard in a Verdi opera in over forty years, together with a clutch of soloists not one of whom rises to the level of acceptable mediocrity, variously afflicted by goat-bleat, wobble, blowsy tone, inadequate technique and asthmatic-seizure breathing,)  And since no category exists in which to nominate “Best opera performance” – shome mishtake, shurely – I’ll invent my own, and promptly nominate the recent Pelléas et Mélisande given at the RFH by the Philharmonia.

****** Photo credits: 1) Benvenuto Cellini – by Hubert Smith 2) Manon Lescaut – by Bill Cooper 3) Nina Stemme as Isolde – by Bill Cooper 4) Idomeneo – by Catherine Ashmore