Review of the Year 2009: Opera

The ups and downs of the opera world in the last twelve months

23 December 2009

Renee Fleming as Violetta at the Royal OperaThe financial crisis has dominated every aspect of life in 2009, and the opera world is no exception.

Slashed budgets have led to the cancellation of new productions and even the closure of several opera companies in America; touring companies have reduced their number of performances; and star singers have had to accept lower fees than normal in order to maintain a full calendar.

Thankfully, both of London's companies have maintained standards over the last twelve months, and even if strain has begun to show through at times, it's not as if art is ever easy.

Back in January, we enjoyed the umpteenth revival of Nick Hytner's Magic Flute at ENO – a production that was meant to have been retired the previous time around but sold so well that they had to keep it. Sarah-Jane Davies excelled as Pamina, while Robert Murray, Robert Lloyd and Roderick Williams filled up a front-line homespun cast. Over at Covent Garden things were less rosy for The Beggar's Opera in the Linbury Studio Theatre – generally thought to be pretty dreadful – but things picked up again with the mini-festival presented by the Mariinsky Theatre at the Barbican.

Our international coverage for the year began with a review of Der Rosenkavalier in Baden-Baden, where Renee Fleming and Christian Thielemann outshone a dreary staging of Strauss's most popular opera (now available on Decca DVD). Auber's marvellous Fra Diavolo featured Sumi Jo in a staging in Paris that was more elegant than challenging, but satisfying nonetheless.

Opinions were divided on Korngold's Die tote Stadt, which received its first ROH production in late January. Personally, I've rarely been so bored by a night at the opera – the work is inspissatedly Wagnerian without having any of the master's sense of theatre or direction – but some of the critics in the national press thought it was great. A more solid bet was a revival of Rigoletto with the veteran baritone Leo Nucci, whom I had the pleasure of interviewing at the time.

At the Wigmore Hall we visited a day-long Handel event, where Paul McCreesh conducted both Aci, Galatea and Polifemo and Acis and Galatea over two concerts. As a counterpoint, I enjoyed experiencing Stephen Sondheim's Saturday Night at the Jermyn Street Theatre – a rare opportunity to see the late-twentieth-century's seminal Broadway composer's first completed work on the London stage. Also of enormous interest was Gershwin's Let 'Em Eat Cake performed by Opera North; in spite of presenting a hugely entertaining and thought-provoking experience, the production unfortunately failed to draw audiences.

Die tote Stadt at the Royal OperaIt was also a joy to see Nelly Miricioiu excelling several times this year, firstly with 'her' Chelsea Opera Group in Adriana Lecouvreur, in which she was joined by Rosalind Plowright, and later in both an excellent recital at St John's Smith Square and in Tosca at Covent Garden – an unexpected but well-deserved return to the House.
That Tosca co-starred Bryn Terfel, whose first Covent Garden Flying Dutchman in February disappointed our critic; more satisfying was WNO's Salome in Cardiff. Over at the Coliseum, John Adams' Doctor Atomic provided thrills in late February and yet another hit for ENO.

March brought Anna Netrbebko and Elina Garanca to Covent Garden for I Capuleti e I Montecchi; I rather enjoyed their vocal expressivity, even if they're not bel canto singers in the classic mould. An unexpected pleasure was brought by Haydn's La fedelta premiata at the Royal Academy: in spite of a dodgy production, the beauty of the music won through, proving once again that the composer's stage output should be more thoroughly explored.

A bumper month was completed by Renee Fleming's ravishing Rusalka at the Met, Rebecca Evans's outstanding first Mozart Countess with WNO, Rossini's Ermione with Opera Rara at the Festival Hall, Amanda Roocroft's brilliant Jenufa at ENO and a varied week of opera in Budapest.

The Royal Opera's slightly peculiar-looking baroque double bill in early April was notable at least for the triumphant debut of Sarah Connolly as Dido, followed a couple of weeks later by ENO's After Dido at the Young Vic. Handel's Resurrezione was successful at the Barbican with Emanuelle Haim, and I for one loved Roberto Alagna's performance in Il trovatore at Covent Garden despite the dull production and bland conducting.

My May highlight was probably Götterdämmerung at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester: Mark Elder showed just how far he's brought the Halle in his decade with them. I was much less enchanted by Lohengrin at Covent Garden than I'd hoped to be, and the revival of L'elisir d'amore was no more impressive, in spite of Diana Damrau's superb Adina. Evidently I was marginally less enthralled by ENO's new Peter Grimes than some critics were, though it was a great company occasion; Giulio Cesare came back in its Bollywood version at Glyndebourne and once again knocked everyone out.

Il trovatore at the Royal OperaThere seemed little of merit in the Classical Opera Company's Mitridate at Sadler's Wells, which was a shame: the spirited little company deserves more success than this. On the other hand, I loved Opera North's revival of Don Carlos, which has since enjoyed an excellent recording on Chandos highlighting Julian Gavin's mesmerising Carlos and Janice Watson's touching Elisabeth.

Opera Holland Park had another good year, especially with their opening production of Hansel and Gretel and their Kat'a Kabanova. It was also a great coup to get Richard Bonynge to conduct Donizetti to inaugurate the season – a sign of star casting that continues with several of next year's productions. Over at Grange Park, Cavalli's Eliogabalo was perhaps less impressive than was hoped, but nevertheless a welcome opportunity to experience a little-known masterpiece.

Mozart's Cosi fan tutte received an insipid new production by ENO, but I rather enjoyed the arena spectacle of The King and I at the Royal Albert Hall. Weill's Lost in the Stars also went down well at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, as did the classic Broadway show Damn Yankees at the Guildhall (what a treat to hear a work of that era played with the full orchestration!). I adored the Northern Sinfonia's presentation of My Fair Lady with the unbeatable Anthony Andrews in the role of Henry Higgins, while Oklahoma! was a very mixed affair at the Chichester Festival.

Still, I can't deny that the highlight of the year for me was first of all interviewing Renée Fleming and then seeing her in four performances of La traviata at Covent Garden. Though there are parts of the opera where she's not ideally suited to the music, the overall level of detail she brought to this production was unprecedented in my experience and impressed on my memory forever. This revival also brought perhaps the finest performance I've ever heard from Antonio Pappano, and the production was only let down by the un-nuanced Alfredo of Joseph Calleja. The month's other Verdi production, Un ballo in maschera, was distinguished only by Ramon Vargas' Riccardo; in nearly all other respects this was a disappointment. Far better was the musically excellent Il barbiere di Siviglia with an injured Joyce DiDonato continuing through advertisty.

Saariaho's L'amour de loin brought ENO's season to a close extremely well, indicating again that the company really knows how to do contemporary repertoire at the moment. New productions of Rusalka and Falstaff also proved how consistently good Glyndebourne has become, regardless of repertoire, while The Cunning Little Vixen at Grange Park featured ex-ROH Young Artist Ailish Tynan at her best. Iford's Coronation of Poppea and Eugene Onegin were also great occasions, while a mini-festival of early-twentieth-century German operas brought us mixed reviews from Munich of Ariadne auf Naxos, Palestrina, Wozzeck and Lohengrin.

Peter Grimes at EnoInternational coverage continued over the summer with Anna Netrebko's Iolanta in Baden-Baden, which was originally meant to involve Rolando Villazon until he went under surgery on his vocal cords. Glimmerglass Opera's Traviata and Cenerentola provided diverse fare, while a number of opera performances at the BBC Proms took us into the autumn season.

Jonas Kaufmann's Don Carlo at Covent Garden lifted an otherwise disappointing revival of Nick Hytner's dreary production, leadenly conducted by Semyon Bychkov, but over in San Francisco Stephanie Blythe and Dmitri Hvorostovsky excelled in Il trovatore. One of the most special performances of recent times came from Ewa Podles in San Francisco's Suor Angelica, a success she repeated soon after in Boston Opera's Tancredi.

Ligeti's Le grand macabre made for a strong season-opener at ENO, but the subsequent productions of Turandot, Bluebeard's Castle and Messiah have been mixed affairs at best. Surely it's an indication of how things should be done than a world-class conductor (Charles Mackerras) and cast (Rebecca Evans, Ann Murray, Cheryl Barker) did so well in The Turn of the Screw? Perhaps understandably, The Royal Opera has tried to play things safe in recent times with revivals of La boheme, Carmen, Der Rosenkavalier and the Gianni Schicchi double bill. These experiences have been reliable rather than riveting, so perhaps the economy really is catching up with the capital's opera companies. Still, Roberto Alagna's Don Jose and Thomas Allen's Schicchi meant that vocal standards were high, though ETO's Handelfest shows how well you can succeed on a budget.

Finally, we've enjoyed broadcasts of Turandot, Aida and Tosca from the Met, The Abduction from the Seraglio and La fille du regiment from San Francisco and The Rake's Progress in Brussels, and we'll be reporting from all these cities again in January and February 2010.

Overall, the year has had just as many downs as ups, as far as the UK opera scene goes, and for me it hasn't been quite as stimulating as previous seasons. Ed Gardner's English National Opera is a huge commercial success, which I'm naturally pleased about, but the emphasis tends to be less on the repertoire that particularly interests me and I'm less inclined to be thrilled by some of the productions by directors from non-operatic backgrounds (Cosi and Turandot, for instance). Meanwhile, there's a growing predictability about some aspects of the Covent Garden season, with too many revivals of productions we've seen very recently and some alarmingly provincial casting of core Italian operas. On the other hand, we're lucky to have so many excellent opera companies in the country as a whole, and it's easy to become complacent about such riches. As London prepares for the Olympics, too, the potential of having Les troyens and the Ring back at Covent Garden suggests the future's bright.

By Dominic McHugh

Best performances: Renee Fleming in La traviata and Stuart Skelton as Peter Grimes

Biggest disappointments: Die tote Stadt and The Tsarina's Slippers at Covent Garden



RosenkavalierRelated articles:

Review Rosenkavalier from Baden-Baden
Review Tchaikovsky's Onegin on DVD with Fleming from the Met
Review Iolanta in Baden-Baden
Review Onegin on DVD from Salzburg


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