The Best (And Worst) of 2018 (with video clips as evidence!)

Oh what the hell. These lists are cheesy but everyone (including the NYTimes) does them, so why not? So here, in no particular rhyme or reason, were some of the highlights and lowlights of 2018:

Best Overall Performance - I went to see Parsifal this year and basically cried for five hours. The first time I saw this opera in 2013 I was turned off by the opera's overtly religious themes, length, and the preachy monologues. But a lot of, well, life happened between 2013 and 2018. This time the themes of healing, compassion and redemption made me cry. And cry some more. And some more. Maybe to the point where I wasn't absorbing all the music? But anything that can activate so many tear ducts without involving sad puppies must be great. I also realized that apples, juice, power bars, ipads, and comfortable shoes make for a good balance between staying hydrated/full and not needing to use the bathroom for the very long first act. The cast for the revival was at a very high standard and still anchored by the amazing Gurmenanz of Rene Pape and Amfortas of Peter Mattei. Mattei sang with such beauty that he made Amfortas' agony like one long bel canto mad scene. Klaus Florian Vogt's voice didn't have the burnished quality of Jonas Kaufmann but his odd, clear boy soprano sound was somehow appropriate for the "pure fool."

And just for shits and giggles, I had so much fun with all the vaginal imagery of the Girard production. So that was an experience too. Looking through the bloody vagina through a haze of tears.

All the bitchfaces Anna made in one short HD interview
Best Superdiva Performance(s) - Anna Netrebko and Anita Rachvelishvili duking it out in an Aida/Amneris pairing for the ages. Aida in order to work as an opera needs two divas ready to fight to the death, gladiator style, and Netrebko and Rachvelishvili were both so fierce and unyielding that you got the feeling if they weren't duking it out about Radames, the two princesses no doubt would have found another reason to hate each other.

And the two divas apparently engaged in some Method acting. Look at some of the the bitchface and side-eye Anna made during their interview together during the HD broadcast.

Honorable mention goes to Jessica Pratt who gave  a performance of Lucia that was the best-sung I've ever experienced. I was sitting in a balcony box and after the first half of the mad scene I could see the prompter loudly clapping along with the audience.

Best Superdivo Performance - After an absence from NY for over three years Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez returned in a big way. He was a stylish and elegant Alfredo in the Met's new production of La Traviata but his most memorable performance was a joyous, raucous Carnegie Hall recital where he sang a mish-mash of songs and arias and audience members shouted encore requests at him, waved Peruvian flags, and Flórez responded in kind with seven encores, the most memorable of which was when during "Ah mes amis" he banged the piano and pumped the audience for more applause before launching in his 9th high C. There are many tenors with bigger, more powerful voices than Floréz. I'd be hard-pressed to think of another who had such charm.

Honorable mentions go to Jonas Kaufmann's Dick Johnson in La Fanciulla del West. Voice is a bit diminished in scope but still compelling. Also Piotr Beczala's passionate, sensitively sung Rodolfo in Luisa Miller. And I mentioned this earlier, but Peter Mattei amazing as ever in Parsifal. Blood poisoning was never so beautiful.

Best Theater - No contest on this one. Three Tall Women was hands-down one of the best things I've ever seen in the theater, period. Glenda Jackson, Laurie Metcalf, and Alison Pill were so different yet all embodied Edwin Albee's difficult mother to perfection.  The octogenarian Glenda Jackson was so funny, feisty, and compelling that she perfectly encapsulated Albee's own observation about his real-life mother and her vis-a-vis in Three Tall Women: "I've never during my lifetime met anyone who liked her. I've never met anyone who saw the play who disliked her. What have I done?"

Honorable mention goes to me finally seeing Hamilton after three years and endless failed Ticketmaster queues and finding that it really is as fantastic as everyone says, and finally taking my mom to see Carousel. It wasn't a perfect performance but it's been my mom's dream to see this musical in forever. We even got to meet Renée Fleming backstage!

Best of Dance - New York City Ballet started off the year with the forced retirement of its long-time artistic director Peter Martins amid accusations of abusive behavior and the turmoil continued as three male principals were fired over the summer for the now-infamous nudie photo-sharing scandal. Thankfully the company's quality of dancing has not declined. Interim leader Jonathan Stafford has brought in past stars like Edward VillelaMikhail Baryshnikov and Patricia McBride to coach roles, and as a result ballets like Coppelia are looking better than ever. The company is still loaded with talent. A year after Martins was suspended in the middle of the busy Nutcracker season I returned to check out their Nut this season. I've seen four Nutcrackers this December with four different Sugarplums, Cavaliers, and Dewdrops and every time I go I'm amazed at the consistency of the company as they perform this war-horse night after night.

Here is the ever-exquisite Sterling Hyltin and Gonzalo Garcia in the Nutcracker pas. Sterling Hyltin is the BEST SPF I've ever seen. I can feel the dopamine reward center of my brain being activated just seeing her in the pink dress and wand.

The highlight of NYCB's year was the retirement of long-time principal Joaquin de Luz. All year long he brought down the house with impressive performances of Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, RubiesFancy Free, Four Seasons, Dances at a Gathering, and La Sylphide. His farewell showed a dancer still at the height of his technique: how many dancers can leave dancing Theme and Variations? Talk about leaving the stage before the stage leaves you.

Honorable mentions go to Alexei Ratmansky's wonderful reconstruction of Harlequinade, and Anne Rose O'Sullivan and Marcellino Sambé of the Royal Ballet dancing some of the most idiomatic, musical Balanchine by a non-Balanchine-based company I've ever seen in the otherwise rather mixed International Festival of Balanchine. And most of all, the dance that happens in NYC every day. by people who dance just for fun. On any subway ride you'll often see a few young men using subway poles as props as they dance the rhythm of the streets. Next time you walk down a NYC street or take a subway ride look around. Dance is everywhere.

Best Scene Stealer - Stephanie Blythe (multiple operas). Sharing a stage with Stephanie Blythe is a dangerous thing. In Cendrillon her over the top delivery as the step-mother made it impossible for anyone to compete. The mezzo dominated as Zia Principessa in Suor Angelica, but really stole the show as Zita in Gianni Schicchi. Her constant crocodile tears and pattering about the stage made it impossible for you to take your eyes off her even if her role was technically small.

Honorable mention goes to Alec Knight who has stolen the show as Mother Ginger in Nutcracker by adding in all sorts of stage business that might have been self-indulgent, but sure was fun. I didn't know it was possible to do so much on stilts. He pretended to talk on his cell-phone. He choked on a nut. He even twerked. In the two performances I saw where he was Mother Ginger I barely looked at the polichinelles.

Watch how much Stephanie Blythe does during this scene which is supposed to be Schicchi's big moment:

Best Fall Down the Rabbit Hole - attending an okayish performance of Boito's Mefistofele made me think that I hadn't even scratched the surface of what this opera has to offer. So that prompted me to listen to every historical and contemporary recording or video I could get my hands on. There is a wonderful video from a few years ago that featured the fabulously sexy Angel Blue as Helen of Troy. I now will fight anyone who denies that the oldest recording with Nazzareno de Angelis, Antonio Melandri, Mafalda Favero, and Giannina Arangi-Lombardi isn't also the best recording, or that Luciano Pavarotti wasn't capable of artistry as his recorded Faust (with Nicolai Ghiaurov, Mirella Freni and Montserrat Caballe) is sublime. I've now compared the whistles of countless different Mefistofeles and tried to figure out which ones were actual whistles and which ones were spliced in after-effects. I've listened to more versions of "La altra notte" than I care to name (one gem: Frances Alda's rendition with her beautiful trills), and spent hours in the Met archives reading old reviews. I was surprised to find out that this opera served as the Met debuts for both Fedor Chaliapin and Beniamino Gigli. In fact in 1923 you could have heard Chaliapin as Mefistofele, Gigli as Faust and Alda as Margherita. Not a bad cast.

Here is an excerpt from a review of Chaliapin's debut. Can you imagine a bass getting an encore today?
Chaliapin, who appeared for the first time in America last night in the Metropolitan Opera House, won a triumph. Indeed, the greeting given to the Russian basso not only by the musical masses, but by critically experienced listeners, surpassed anything New Yorkers had experienced since they were introduced to the art of Caruso. Of course a tenor is a tenor, and no bass can expect to cope with the high tonal throbs of the favored one of the gods. But, allowing for the natural disadvantages in the popular ear of a low voice, the Russian singer accomplished wonders. One was reminded of Caruso nights, so boisterous were the demonstrations of approval in the standing room down stairs and the spaces near the dome. Little doubt those noisy enthusiasts were compatriots of Chaliapin, not children of Italy; and, judging from the ear-splitting cries that sometimes interrupted the performance, Chaliapinites are capable of holding their own against any force of Carusomaniacs, at least in lung power. So loud at times were the calls for repetitions that it seemed megaphones must have been employed. After the first number, the sardonic "Ave Signor," there was a demonstration that threatened to halt the performance. The "Son lo Spirito" aria with the shrieking whistle at the end brought down the house. It was repeated in part. That was sufficient to show what Chaliapin was capable. There was in his interpretation a temperamental vigor, an intensity of feeling and a suggestion of reserve power that could not be resisted.

Best Reason to be Grateful for Livestreams - There are a great many artists who do not sing or dance in New York, and without the means to travel to see them I live for livestreams. This way I was able to see Lisette Oropesa's Lucia di Lammermoor at Madrid, and the Bayreuth Lohengrin with Piotr Beczala and Anja Harteros (another wonderful artist who only sings in Europe). WHY HAS IT BEEN TWELVE YEARS SINCE THERE WAS A LOHENGRIN IN NEW YORK? I just saw Calixto Bieito's Simon Boccanegra from Paris. After Jessica Pratt's Lucia di Lammermoor I sought out several of her European performances which were livestreamed including a wonderful I Puritani. The Royal Ballet is another company that rarely tours abroad but whose HD cinemacasts make it possible for me to catch their performances on occasion. My favorite this year: their Mayerling, which they haven't toured to the United States since 1983.

Best Pop Diva - Ten years after The Fame Monster catapulted her to superstardom Lady Gaga's screen debut in the latest iteration of A Star is Born firmly established her as a rarity: a pop star who is also a serious artist. Lady Gaga's screen portrayal of Ally Maine showcased her strong pipes, her skill at song-writing, and the down-to-earth likability that has made her beloved among her fans. She's no longer the singer who wrote the big station-filling anthems like "Bad Romance" and "Born This Way" but she still has instincts for catchy melodies and can pull off the neat trick of being highly packaged yet authentic at the same time.


Best Way to Turn Back Time - Hulu now has all seasons of ER. I binge-watched the first six seasons and all the memories of me watching this TV show obsessively in high school and college came flooding back. George Clooney might be the world's biggest movie star but to me he'll always be Doug, the bad-boy pediatrician. And I don't care how much Julianna Marguiles may or may not have feuded with Archie Panjabi during The Good Wife, she'll always be Nurse Carol Hathaway. There was nothing as wonderful as firing up Hulu and fuming over Mark's annoying wife Jen all over again.

Hulu also has all seasons of LOST. In truth LOST hasn't held up that well as a TV series, but Michael Giacchino's score sure has! Imagine this scene without that great tinkly piano music. Would it be the same? In other news, Suliet forever.

And the worst ... Thankfully performances or works that are total trash are rather rare, but they do happen and they happened this year. In no particular order: Kristine Opolais croaking her way through Suor Angelica, Aleksandr Antonenko's wretched Radames in the otherwise stellar Aida revival, the self-indulgent waste of time that was Farinelli and the King, the Mariinsky Ballet's horror show of an Apollo in which Xander Parish turned the Greek god into a fashion model. The upshot to all this: sometimes these horrid performances made me seek out better ones when I went home. It was after the awful Suor Angelica that I ordered the video of Il Trittico with Renata Scotto in all three operas. No explanation needed for this final clip:


  1. I admire this so much. It's not just that I agree with most of what you have to say about the past season. It reminds me of what I used to do in the early sixties when, while allegedly a college student, I would go to over fifty performances a season at the old Met, discover the City Ballet and Balanchine at City Center, get standing room on Broadway, and get my real education in theaters and museums while dutifully attending classes. At the end of the season, I would make up a list of bests in my mind and now, almost sixty years later, I'm trying to remember them.

    Among tenors, Bergonzi's Gustavo in Ballo took the tenor title twice. Price's Aida, Simionato's Santuzza, Nilsson's Isolde, the magical pairing of London and Rysanek in Dutchman, MacNeil's last-minute debut in Rigoletto, discovering Sherrill Milnes making his debut in the Faust that was also Caballe's debut and giving the performance of the night, Inge Borkh's Elektra, Irene Dalis as Amneris, Kundry, and -- above all -- as Lady Macbeth. Tozzi as Zaccaria in Nabucco (a performance so brilliant that the chorus cheered as soon as the curtain came down after his third act aria. On stage, you could hear his voice echoing off the walls of the old house.) Hermann Uhde's unbelievably sexy Orest and his remarkable Wozzeck.Steber in Wozzeck and Vanessa. Turandot with Nilsson and Price, Corelli only doing the first act, watching the emergence of Stratas, Elias, and Dunn from comprimario roles, McCracken's Otello.

    I never made up a list of horrors but there were many. Kurt Baum at the end of his career and Randy Symonette trying to sing Wotan in the last act of Walkure while dead drunk surely stand out.

    Are you too young to have seen Stratas as Suor Angelica?

    1. Yes I am too young to have seen Stratas. I do have several Stratas videos including the Pag from the Met which might also be Domingo's finest performance. She's one I wish I could have seen. My biggest "missed chance" though was that ill-fated run of T&I in 2008 in which for one performance Waltraud Meier flew in. I was actually able to see that performance. Just felt tired or pissed off or whatever. Still kicking myself so many years later for missing it.

    2. I'm not too old not to have seen Stratas. A totally committed artist. One of the best things I saw was the Bartered Bride (in English), with Stratas, Vickers, and Gedda. there's a youtube video capturing about 39 minutes of that wonderful experience:

  2. The cry that she let out upon learning that her son had died was so heartbreaking that, decades later, I remember my physical reaction to it as much, perhaps more, than I remember the actual sound. She was great all night. The odd thing is that I remember her physically more than anything else. She was incredibly sexual in Tabarro (I kept on thinking of her in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.) and she was adolescent in Schicchi. I can't find the words to describe the Angelica. It was one of those complete performances, a total immersion in the character and a perfect merger of theater and music that was completely transcendent. I'm sitting here trying to think of comparisons. Maybe Rysanek's Senta. Stratas was incapable of giving a mediocre performance and that might explain the frequent cancellations. People used to joke that her Annina frequently stole the last act of Traviata from the Violetta. It wasn't really a joke. When she was on stage, you couldn't take your eyes off of her and it was never from hamming it up or overacting.

    1. I was thinking when I saw her Mimi that people always talked about that gaunt glow that women dying of TB had that was considered attractive, but until I saw Stratas enter the garret, I didn't understand what that glow really meant.

  3. I was here. Talk about the BEST

    And then there are Siepi ans Ilder

  4. My Liege: You obviously skipped the Newark version of Mefistofele with Olivero which was hot, hot, hot. Her L'altra notte was sublime like no other. Check it out.
    I loved your Parsifal descriptions. Pure poesy as you are so often wont to do. Brava.

    1. I didnt listen to that one. I did listen to one with Siepi, Olivero, Labo, etc. Hot!


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