Monday, December 05, 2011

Ranking Baroque Opera Performances

I am including only fully staged operas seen either live or in HD from the Met since I started the blog in 2005.  This leaves out The Fairy Queen from Glyndebourne.  I am leaving out Monteverdi, since his operas are really their own genre.  This leaves in chronological order:

Giulio Cesare in Egitto at the Zurich Opera on 4/9/2005.
Semele at the City Opera on 9/14/2006.
Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno at the Zurich Opera on 1/19/2007.
Semele at the Zurich Opera on 2/15/2007.
Ariodante at the San Francisco Opera on 6/25/2008.
Rinaldo at the Zurich Opera on 7/3/2008.
Orlando at the Sacramento Opera on 11/20/2010.
Griselda at the Santa Fe Opera on 8/6/2011.
Dido and Aeneas at Cal Performances on 9/19/2011.
Xerxes at the San Francisco Opera on 11/17/2011.
Rodelinda in HD from the Metropolitan Opera on 12/3/2011.

Much as I love Dido and Aeneas, I have to disqualify it on grounds that it was staged as a ballet.  This leaves a very nice set of 10 operas.

Placed at the bottom must come (9) Griselda, Vivaldi's only entry, because I absolutely hated both the opera and the staging, and (10) Orlando, because the overall quality of the entire performance was inferior to the others.

Next higher in the rankings come the two productions from the San Francisco Opera which are saved solely by the presence of the magnificent Susan Graham.  The productions were unimaginative, and Xerxes is just not that great an opera.  So that's (7) Ariodante and (8) Xerxes.

All six of the remaining performances are worthy.

Is the opera any goodGiulio Cesare is a Baroque opera that has actually stayed in the repertoire since the 1920's and is Handel's most popular opera.  Semele and Il Trionfo are not operas at all. Rinaldo includes the wonderful villainess Armida to keep things exciting.  Rodelinda is simply sweet beyond belief, a surprisingly sentimental plot for Baroque opera.  Ranked for libretto from first to last:  Giulio, Rodelinda, Semele, Rinaldo, Trionfo.  Ranked for music:  Giulio, Il Trionfo, Semele, Rodelinda, Rinaldo.  You may feel free to rearrange this one.

Tops for creativity in staging must come Semele at the City Opera, Rodelinda in New York and Il Trionfo in Zurich.  A special award for making a Theatrical Silk Purse out of Sow's Ear of completely static oratorio must go to Il Trionfo.  Turning the oratorio Semele into an opera about American icons was shocking but fascinatingly believable.  It would have been nice to see this preserved on video.

A special award for making the movements of the actors during the performance of da capo arias seem completely natural must go to Rodelinda.  I also enjoyed the Eurotrash transformation of Rinaldo into modern corporate rivalry.

Ranked for staging: Rodelinda, Il Trionfo, City Semele, Rinaldo, Zurich Semele, Giulio.

And how is the singing?  Two of these performances are ranked basically because they include the ever astounding Cecilia Bartoli.  Would I have been happy to see Giulio Cesare without Cecilia?  And Semele in Zurich simply belonged to her.

The presence of Anna Bonitatibus also raises Il Trionfo and Giulio Cesare.  The Zurich singing ensemble is simply incredible.  Malin Hartelius is marvelous in Il Trionfo and Rinaldo, and I love Liliana Nikiteanu in Semele and Rinaldo. If I missed anyone, apologies.

The most emotional countertenor award has to go to Andreas Scholl for Rodelinda.

Ranked for singing: Giulio, Rodelinda, Il Trionfo, Zurich Semele, Rinaldo, City Semele.
Ranked for acting:  Rodelinda, Giulio, Zurich Semele, City Semele, Rinaldo, Il Trionfo, 

Je ne sais qua points go to Rodelinda and both versions of Semele.

So here's what I ended up with, based on a numeric scoring system:

(1) Rodelinda.  Everything was simply perfect.
(2) Giulio Cesare
(3) Semele in Zurich.  Cecilia at her funniest.
(4) Semele at City.
(5) Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno. This was some of the most spectacular singing I've ever heard, but lost on other issues.
(6) Rinaldo.  This ended up at the bottom because of the competition.

It is clear to me that I thoroughly enjoyed all six of these, and could rearrange this ranking a dozen different ways.  Biggest surprise from the numeric scoring system:  Griselda moved ahead of Ariodante and Xerxes.

I think Baroque opera, particularly Handel opera, requires an enthusiasm for singing to overcome its limitations.  Probably the greatest limitation is the presence of countertenors.  A lot of people just don't like them.  Notable in my list is that Trionfo and Rinaldo had no countertenors.

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