“Best of 2017” Highlights
Semiramide: Royal Opera House
Grand opera in grand style, with the grandest of divas, Joyce DiDonato.
Great performances: The real reasons we care about any of this are the performances that enrich our lives — such as Joyce DiDonato’s outing in “Ariodante;” Opera Philadelphia’s brand-new blanket-the-zone opera festival; Barbara Hannigan’s luminous song recital; and the great Martha Argerich, illuminating Prokofiev’s third piano concerto.
Berlioz: “Les Troyens”; soloists, choruses, Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra, John Nelsons (Erato): At last, a modern digital recording of Berlioz’s epic French opera worthy of comparison to the two Colin Davis sets (1970 and 2001), and in some respects their superior. Taken from concert performances given in Strasbourg, France, in April 2017, the set boasts vividly dramatic conducting from Nelsons and compelling performances from Joyce DiDonato as Dido, Michael Spyres as Aeneas and Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Cassandra. Included is an 85-minute DVD of video highlights from the concerts. A magnificent achievement.
A year that started with one of today’s finest violinists injecting vigorous new life into two of the most recorded concertos, the Sibelius and Tchaikovsky, and ended with an astounding recording of one of the Everests of the operatic repertoire, Berlioz’s Les Troyens is a good one by any reckoning. Lisa Batiashvili and Daniel Barenboim prove that every generation of classical musicians has something new to say about the great works of the musical literature, just as John Nelson and a hand-picked, and magnificent, cast gave us a recording that it is hard to imagine being bettered.
BERLIOZ: ‘Les Troyens’ Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg; John Nelson, conductor (Erato). Berlioz’s epic opera has rarely been given such luxury treatment as in this magnificent live recording from France. Mr. Nelson, a “Troyens” veteran many times over, expertly handles the unwieldy score with help from starry singers like Joyce DiDonato, in her role debut as Didon, and Michael Spyres as Enée. J.B.
Audio-only releases are now significantly outnumbered by DVDs of fully staged productions, too, even if those are sometimes of dubious quality. That made Erato’s Strasbourg-sourced version of Berlioz’s Les Troyens particularly noteworthy this year; new versions of repertory operas rarely seem to rival let alone supplant the established classic versions, but this Trojans, taken from concert performances by about as a good cast as could be assembled today and conducted by John Nelson, really has done that.
9. Strasbourg Philharmonic, John Nelson, et al. / Berlioz: Les Troyens
Grand opera doesn’t get much grander than Les Troyens (The Trojans), Hector Berlioz‘s musically audacious, dramatically majestic, four-hour, five-act, distillation of the fall of Troy and the Trojans fated journey to Italy. Needless to say, the opera rarely gets documented; it demands singers and players of extraordinary stamina and eloquence — and a ton of money. For this new recording, taken from live performances in Strasbourg, France, conductor and Berlioz specialist John Nelson helped arrange much of financing himself. His interpretation is taut, capturing the epic sweep of the narrative beautifully. His cast is terrific. From the frenzied warning cries of contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux as the Trojan prophetess Cassandra in the opening act, to the tenderness and fury of Joyce DiDonato as Queen Dido in the final chapters, the singing is both emotionally poignant and sumptuous. As Aeneas, the Trojan hero, tenor Michael Spyres shines with plenty of muscle, yet without the self-consciousness of the great Jon Vickers, who stared in the celebrated first complete Troyens recording in 1970 conducted by Colin Davis. Good as that one is, Nelson’s new performance might just top it.