I’ve probably miscounted somewhere, but it looks like I saw 38 plays and 44 operas in Europe this past season. As you might guess, I have some favorites. So without further ado, let’s begin with operas:
The Unexpected but Awesome Colors Award for surprisingly successful production aesthetics is split between David Bösch’s dark L’elisir d’amore and Peter Konwitschny’s (initially) cheerful cruise-ship Tristan und Isolde.
The Totally Regie Award goes to Antú Romero Nunes’ bold and striking William Tell, where everyone was a terrible person and the overture was not where I expected it. A close runner-up is the gritty Traviata I saw in Stockholm, where Kasper Holten managed to make strippers and homelessness part of this usually sparkly tragedy. (Note: many more productions were totally Regie; these are just the ones that were most successful at it.)
The Are They Even Human? Award for absurdly good singing is a three-way tie between Evelyn Herlitzius (Brünnhilde), Anja Kampe (Sieglinde), and Javier Camarena (Don Ramiro) in Die Walküre and La Cenerentola.
The Went Back for Seconds Award is reserved for the only opera I went to see twice: Hans Neuenfels’ Manon Lescaut starring Jonas Kaufmann and Kristine Opolais. It was even better the second time, even if I never quite grasped the logic behind the Oompa Loompas. Oh, and did I mention that I got to meet Jonas Kaufmann?
The I Guess Modern Opera is Actually Pretty Good Award has three winners: Andreas Kriegenburg’s staging of Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten, Dmitri Tcherniakov’s staging of Berg’s Lulu, and Peter Konwitschny’s staging of Rihm’s Die Eroberung von Mexico. None of these shows was particularly fun to watch (mostly because of the dark subject matter), but they were all breathtakingly well-directed and well-acted. Great conducting brought out the lyricism in atonal scores and prevented the music from just sounding like noise.
That’s enough operas. How about theater?
The Perfectly Perfect Award for a show that could not possibly get any better goes to Andrea Breth’s Prince Friedrich of Homburg at the Burgtheater in Vienna, with its sharply drawn characters, minimalistic set, and surprise ending. In very close second place is the Residenztheater’s Peer Gynt in a dreamy staging by David Bösch. Shenja Lacher’s spot-on portrayal of Peer was incredible, and Andrea Wenzl’s presence was the only wrong note in an otherwise-magical evening.
The Fun with Gender Award finds its first-place winner in the existentialist music video / drag show / multimedia experience / funhouse of mirrors that was Caligula at the Volkstheater. Credit is due in equal parts to Anne Ehrlich for the staging and Max Wagner for his wonderful portrayal of the disturbed title character. Second place goes to Philipp Preuss’s Torquato Tasso, where Tasso was transgender and had a whole chorus singing his/her thoughts. The confusing production had way too much going on between the video projections and meta-theater and eliminated character, but it also provided tons of fascinating material for thought.
The Kitsch! Award needs no further introduction and inevitably goes to the pop musical sensation Elisabeth.
The Shakespeare Done Right Award is for the first excellent show I saw in Munich, which also happens to be the best Shakespeare I saw all year. Amelie Niermeyer’s Twelfth Night for the Residenztheater was funny and charming and irreverent and just a little bit absurd—one hundred percent true to the spirit of Shakespeare’s comedy, changes to the script notwithstanding.
The Super Sexy Award finds its winner, predictably enough, in Katrine Wiedemann’s Dangerous Liaisons for the Residenztheater. The script was witty, the leads were charismatic, the sexual tension was palpable, and the ending was crushing. And what better setting for it all than a tower of mattresses?
The Tear-Jerker Award for making me cry (and earning a second visit) goes the The Sorrows of Young Werther, as staged by Jan Gehler for the Volkstheater. It somehow managed to be hipster but unironic and deeply touching. My fellow audience members lose points for not commenting on my ridiculously a propos attire, though.
(I’d like to point out that two directors made these lists twice: Konwitschny for two operas and David Bösch for one opera and one play. They’re definitely ones to keep an eye out for. The director whose work I saw the most of, Christian Stückl, did not even make this list once. His productions are usually medicore and sometimes awful. Now can the Volkstheater please phase them out of their repertoire?)
What might be even more fun than listing favorites is calling out the worst shows I saw all year. But where do I start? Il turco in Italia and Nathan the Wise for blatant racism? Go down, Moses and Rigoletto for sheer mind-numbing boredom? Clavigo and The Winter’s Tale and Cyrano for butchery of classics? Mother Courage and her Children for failing in so many ways I had blocked it from my memory until I went to write this post? There are so many more I could call out, but let’s just leave it there.
I once told a friend that I’d much rather a play I directed receive half one- and two-star reviews and half four- and five-star reviews than receive a bunch of three- and four-star reviews. My season as an audience member in Europe has included plenty of shows at both ends of the spectrum, and I wouldn’t have it any other way!