The Very Best of the Fall Opera Season

On a cool night in the middle of November, the soprano Aprile Millo gave a recital at Rose Hall in the TimeWarner Center, celebrating her 25th anniversary with Opera Orchestra of New York. It was a strange, intensely moving evening, an effect amplified by my fever and the Dayquil I was freebasing to combat it. There were ballroom dancers. There was an accordion. The program for the second half was just a list with a heading: “Mme. Millo will choose from among these arias and duets.” There were confessions of weight loss from the stage. For God’s sake, the woman wore a snood!

The recital was, like Ms. Millo herself, simultaneously contemporary and a throwback to another era: Her gestures, noble and slow, are classic, but she also blogs and tweets. Her banter from the stage is informal, but she is deadly serious about singing, which she views as a sacred calling.

There were things in the recital that were good, and things that were very good. And then there was her performance of “L’altra notte in fondo al mare,” the big aria from Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele. She announced it from the stage like a rock star announces a hit: “This is ‘L’altra notte’.” The aria is the kind of thing that people make fun of opera for–a delirious heroine imagines she’s killed her mother and child–but Ms. Millo was truthful and passionate, and her voice, still big and sure in this repertoire, gleamed up to a dazzling high B. I’d never seen a standing ovation interrupt a recital before. People were literally screaming. Aprile Millo stood, a bit shocked, tears streaming down her face, as if she hadn’t known she had it in her.

If that “L’altra notte” was my favorite operatic moment this fall, it had some competition from another soprano, one who has never touched the standard Italian roles. In two recitals, one at Carnegie Hall and one at the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, Emma Kirkby created worlds of stillness in songs of the 17th century. I can’t get out of my head her encore at both recitals, Purcell’s “Evening Hymn,” which seems to go on forever and then ends much too quickly. Accompanied by the great lutenist Jakob Lindberg, Ms. Kirkby, with her pristine voice, perfect diction, and graceful phrasing, reminded us that the primary role of vocal music is to communicate.

It’s true that these performances, the best of the fall, were by two established singers. But there were several notable debuts, including three memorable ones at the Met. Lise Lindstrom made a surprise debut in the title role at the season premiere of Turandot, and she met the role’s many challenges with ease and even glamour. The young German bass Georg Zeppenfeld was a noble Sarastro in Die Zauberflöte in September, and the newest programs list him among the (very few) Met artists who have donated their fees back to the company due to the economy, a gesture especially impressive coming from a new singer. And the British soprano Emma Bell played the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro, silencing the huge house with gorgeous soft singing in “Dove sono.”

It’s hard to pinpoint a favorite debut among six(!), but Stefania Dovhan was especially good as Donna Anna in New York City Opera’s Don Giovanni, the best opera of the fall. Christopher Alden’s production, set in an eerily neutral space that evoked both 19th-century Spain and 1930s Southern gothic, was as macabre, erotic, elegant, funny, and ultimately riveting as Mozart’s opera itself. A thought-provoking, beautiful production; young and excellent singers; a polished orchestra: great evenings at City Opera are still very much possible.

There were other great things. Manhattan School of Music presented an beautifully stylized production of a rarity, Fauré’s Pénélope, featuring two talented students at the school, Lori Guilbeau and Cooper Nolan. John Adams conducted his gorgeous Christmas oratorio, El Niño, with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s at Carnegie Hall, and I just couldn’t keep it together when the kiddie chorus started at the end. Two great mezzos released gorgeous albums: Vivica Genaux doing Vivaldi arias and Joyce DiDonato with Rossini. And a concert performance at BAM of Philip Glass’ new opera, the thoughtful, mesmerizing Kepler, was a reminder that Mr. Glass’ operas don’t get done nearly enough in New York.

But what I will be left with when recalling this fall are two sopranos-neither one young, neither one flashy-who made clear, as great singing always does, how and why all this stuff can and should matter.

  The Very Best of the Fall Opera Season