Pride of place this year must go to the version of Wagner’s Ring operas from the Royal Danish Opera, Copenhagen (reviewed on May 2). It succeeded despite all the hurdles it set up for itself to surmount — major changes to the plot, comic characters in the audience, and giving in to the “Eurotrash” tendency to present mythic heroes as pitiful individuals doing the washing-up in a modern, Ikea-style kitchen. It succeeded because the commitment of the lead singers was so outstanding, the playing of the orchestra so intense and so breathtakingly recorded, and because the production consistently rose above its own absurdities at the work’s greatest moments, invariably at the end of each of the four operas.
Conductor Michael Schonwandt, the Brunhilde of Irene Theorin, and the Sigmund and Siegfried of Stig Andersen were all beyond praise, and there were many other outstanding soloists too. This is a production to treasure, even if its eccentricities mean that any enthusiast ought to possess at least one other DVD version as well.
The best CD of the year to come my way was the San Francisco Symphony’s stupendous recording of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (reviewed on Oct. 10). Michael Tilson Thomas has been struggling to get this over-reaching work right for some time, but here he succeeds spectacularly.
Two other remarkable DVDs reviewed this year, though released at an earlier date, were the haunting rendition of Puccini’s Turandot with Franco Corelli as Calaf (reviewed on Aug. 1) and Mozart’s Don Giovanni with Bryn Terfel in the title role (reviewed on Feb. 7).
The black-and-white filming of Turandot had an opiated feel to it, as if the Beijing of old was something more than simply nightmarish. Combined with Corelli’s restrained performance, the treatment showed this brilliant opera in a new light. Even Ping, Pang and Pong no longer appeared ridiculous, and the most basic dance and mime ideas in this made-for-TV production all had a strangeness about them that, together with Corelli’s fine but unusual interpretation, made the whole experience unforgettable.
Bryn Terfel’s take on Giovanni won me over to this artist and simultaneously confirmed my feeling that the character must be displayed in a somber light for any production to be really successful. Terfel decisively conveyed a cynical brutality, and when this combined with James Levine’s masterly conducting of his Metropolitan Opera forces, the result seemed hard indeed to improve on.