2008 was a particularly strong year for opera in the West End, so it’s a close fought battle for both awards.

Mezzos Christine Rice and Patricia Bardon rival each other in the achievement award, the former for her work in Harrison Birtwistle’s The Minotaur and Handel’s Partenope and Bardon for Riders to the Sea, The Rake’s Progress and Partenope.

The Handel opera was staged by ENO during October and both women played men (well, Bardon’s role was actually one of a woman playing a woman playing a man). Such is the lot of the lower-register women in opera that Bardon was bearded in the Royal Opera’s Rake’s Progress (as the grotesque Baba the Turk) in July, although she was back in female garb for Vaughan Williams’ Riders at the Coliseum in the autumn.

Rice also alternated genders for her nominated roles, with her assertive but highly feminine Ariadne in the Birtwistle work surely making her the frontrunner of the two. They are joined in the category by ENO’s Edward Gardner, whose musical direction of Punch and Judy (what a great year it was for Birtwistle) and a list of other operas is recognised.  The final nominee is the Italian bass-baritone Ferruccio Furlanetto for his performance as Philip II in the RO’s Don Carlo.

The four productions nominated as best of the year were the Royal Opera’s Don Carlo and The Minotaur and ENO’s Partenope and I Pagliacci and it’s good to see the two companies equally represented.

Last year saw a surprise result (to many) with the Royal Opera’s bizarre Pelleas et Melisande winning Best Production, despite being derided by the critics. With a stronger line-up this year, there’s unlikely to be a similar upset.

The ceremony takes place on Sunday 8 March.

Photograph: The Minotaur (Bill Cooper)

- Simon Thomas