Rhinegold Photo credit: Parlophone Records Ltd
A stellar cast records Handel's Agrippina for Erato

Francis Muzzu

Best opera recordings of 2020

3:36, 18th December 2020

Francis Muzzu rounds up the ten best (and a couple of the worst…) opera CDs and DVDs released in 2020

Best Newcomer
Mélodies: Dussaut & Covatti
Ińaki Encina Oyón & Adriana González
Audax ADX13722

Pianist Ińaki Encina Oyón stumbled across the forgotten songs of Robert Dussaut and Hélène Covatti and paired up with soprano Adriana González to record them. They are a formidable team and obviously adore these exquisite songs, composed between the Wars and showing skill and charm. González’s elegant voice spins effortlessly over Encina Oyón’s keyboard colours and textures. Delicious.

Best CD (Full opera)
Handel: Agrippina
Erato 0190295336585

Please do judge this CD by the cover. A smirking Joyce DiDonato’s manipulative bitch-from-hell Agrippina runs rings around everybody in Handel’s opera. Maxim Emelyanychev conducts a stellar cast that jumps through the dramatic and vocal hoops – it’s a great sign when the recitative is as engaging as the arias. Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!

Best DVD (Full opera)
Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin
BelAir BAC246

Maybe this should have been in the Awards in 2008, when it was filmed in Paris; but it’s never too late for a re-release, and this performance is electric. Director Dmitri Tcherniakov spices his Tchaikovsky perfectly with Chekovian melancholy. It is already a historical document: I can’t find any trace of the charismatic Tatyana, Tatiana Monogarova, and the Onegin, Mariusz Kwiecień, has just retired from performing. So, sadly the film also wins Farewell of the Year.

Best Recital Album
Anima Rara
Ermonela Jaho
Opera Rara ORR253

Jaho uses her considerable art to explore the career of soprano Rosina Storchio, who famously created Butterfly for Puccini in 1904. The singing is passionate yet with delicious touches of delicacy. The moving final scene from Mascagni’s Lodoletta, another role Storchio created, is an instant classic. A complete recording of that opera, please!

Most Fascinating Programming
Immortal Beloved: Beethoven Arias
Chen Reiss
Onyx ONYX4218

Standard opinion is that Beethoven composed badly for the voice and needs a lot of volume. ‘Says who!?’ challenges soprano Chen Reiss. She researched and chose her repertoire, and deploys her silvery voice to reveal that Beethoven wrote some incredibly singable music, and developed his skills as he matured. A timely eye-opener for Beethoven’s 250th anniversary year.

Curiosity of the Year
Zemlinsky: Der Traumgörge
Capriccio C5395

Zemlinsky is definitely not my thing, but this mad opera is fascinating. Admittedly it’s too long, it’s a mess, and the story is absolutely bonkers. But it has sweep and style, and Gerd Albrecht’s conducting reveals the dazzling score in its glory, plus the singers make the most of their chances. Productions recently took place in both Nancy and Dijon and another in Frankfurt has been postponed. Is George the Dreamer having an opera fashion moment?

Weep of the Year
Traviata – vous méritez un avenir meilleur
BelAir BAC156

A classic gets a makeover in this bold reworking filmed at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord. Actress Judith Chemla’s Violetta fades away in this hallucinatory and shadowy world, her slender soprano accurate, her acting mesmerizing. The music is fragmentary and impressionistic. The whole performance makes a huge impact. Put the wretched popcorn down – this calls for absinthe.

Gift for a Non-Believer
Offenbach: Orphée aux enfers
Unitel 803008

If you are trying to tempt someone into giving opera a go, Barrie Kosky’s high octane production of Offenbach’s comic masterpiece will do the trick. Tireless actor Max Hopp not only provides all the spoken voices (mimed by the cast) but many of the sound effects, and the excellent singers throw themselves into the maelstrom with glee. It is hysterical and deranged, yet sharp and potent. As George Santayana said, ‘Sanity is a madness put to good uses’.

Most Woke Production
Massenet: Don Quichotte
C major 754008

The controversial 2019 Gillette advert ‘The Best A Man Can Get’ meets Massenet in Mariame Clément’s production. Effective and thought-provoking, it will also infuriate as many viewers as it attracts. Later that year, Gillette posted a $5.24 billion loss. And thus far the video has 1.6 million dislikes on YouTube. But look on the bright side – we’re still talking about it. If you are given this for Christmas then maybe take a moment to ask yourself why.

Dysfunctional Family of the Year Award
Isabel Bayrakdarian: The Other Cleopatra
Delos DE3591

Cleopatra of Pontus was Queen of Armenia in the first century BC. Her parents were siblings; great-granny had married three of her own brothers in succession; her sons were executed by her husband; her husband later committed suicide. If you find a family Christmas stressful or think that Eastenders is lurid, Cleopatra’s story is one fabulous slo-mo chariot crash. Isabel Bayrakdarian fleshes out the bones of the woman and steams with huge confidence through challenging arias by Vivaldi, Hasse and Gluck.

And for the rest…

Cliffhanger of the Year
The State Opera
Naxos NBD0110V

I just can’t stop worrying about the violist interviewed in Toni Schmid’s film about Munich’s Bavarian State Opera. She said she wouldn’t kiss a brass player in case she hurt their lips; likewise, I fret about the brass player who reassured us it was a myth? He looked awfully shy, but it’s Christmas, so can we get them under the mistletoe? What did they ask Santa for? Did they jingle all the way? What DID happen next? If anyone knows, please divulge all!

Christmas Turkey
Auber: Le Cheval de Bronze
Orfeo ORF-C986192

If you find this ghastly recording in your Christmas stocking then someone really, REALLY doesn’t like you. From a performance in 1953, the sound is appalling, the singing in German kills any Gallic charm, and the performances are rough and ready. Ponder awhile. Why did they buy this for you? Don’t catch their eye. Make sure you are not left alone with them. Be afraid, be very afraid.

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