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WOS Reviews the Opera Year 2009

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More than any other art-form (except perhaps comedy), opera is sure to divide people. It’s not just those who love opera and those who hate it that are likely to find themselves at loggerheads but you'd be hard put to find two people within the opera community who consistently agree.

Modern productions are perhaps the biggest cause of division and 2009 provided plenty of opportunities for disunity.

Controversy and Triumph

Possibly the most controversial production of my 35 years of operagoing was Christoph Loy’s Covent Garden Tristan und Isolde, the first night of which witnessed the loudest and most prolonged booing I’ve ever heard. As the subsequent controversy raged, it became clear it wasn’t just reactionary Wagnerians who objected to Loy’s minimalist approach, which set the normally ship-bound first act (and subsequent castles in Cornwall and Brittany) in a stark ball-room with not a whiff of salt-air or ship’s sail.

One thing that came clear to me during all this was that there are plenty of people prepared to cast assumptions about why somebody else has disliked something that they have liked (and vice versa). For anyone who cared to listen to other people’s points of view, there were all sorts of reasons for people hating Loy’s work. Personally, I felt Tristan was one of two productions this year that showed 21st Century opera production at its very best.

The other probably pipped Tristan at the post as the best production of the year. It was David Alden’s Peter Grimes for ENO, every bit as radical as Loy’s Wagner, defying every expectation and preconception you might have of the opera (and the art-form in general). What both had, and few would deny, was superb musical values, without which no opera production could be deemed successful. For many, Nina Stemme’s Isolde was a defining performance and Grimes catapulted its lead, Stuart Skelton, into many people’s awareness.

The Critics vs the Public (and Each Other)

There were productions that split opinion between public and critics, among them the Royal Opera’s The Tsarina’s Slippers, an unearthing of a rare Tchaikovsky fantasy. It is (still) proving a crowd-pleaser at the Royal Opera House, although the reviews damned Francesca Zambello’s production, with very faint praise, as being dull and superficial.

A minor spat arose between opera critics and their counterparts in theatre, with the ENO’s new Turandot, directed by theatre’s flavour of the moment, the puppyish Rupert Gould, who set Puccini’s late work in a Chinese restaurant. Michael Billington, the Guardian’s highly respected but, here, way off the mark theatre guru, implied that opera critics panned it because it was controversial and innovative (another huge assumption about other people’s motives).

In reality, had Mr Billington visited the opera more often, he’d know that his opera colleagues see far more radical work on a day-to-day basis than he does and the problem lay in an imaginative but messy bundle of ideas, with absolutely no direction of the singers. If you’d gone with the preconception that opera singers can’t act, you would have had your prejudice confirmed but if, as a more regular opera attender, you know that this is a far-outdated concept, then Goold’s floundering out of his depth would have been shown up for the nonsense it was.

But who’s to say who’s right and wrong here? The new audience that ENO is desperate to get through the doors (a quest in which it is undoubtedly succeeding) were for the most part far more pleased by Goold’s antics than the critics.

New and Contemporary Work

It wasn’t a vintage year for new opera, although Harrison Birtwistle’s chamber piece The Corridor impressed, both in Aldeburgh and London. Staying with contemporary, if not brand new, work, there were some great revivals. Birtwistle’s 1986 The Mask of Orpheus suffered from having only the second act mounted and then as a concert performance, but this prom was a knock-out event, reminding us of the power of this great work. The composer’s early work Down By the Greenwood Side was toured by The Opera Group in a hugely enjoyable double bill with George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill, which received its London premiere.

Ligeti’s wonderful Le Grand Macabre returned to the Coliseum in a fancy new production that I found less enjoyable than the 1982 version but which was superbly conducted by Baldur Brönnimann. Schnittke’s late opera The History of Dr Johann Faustus was presented in all its garish glory as a concert at the Royal Festival Hall and John Adams’ Doctor Atomic was superbly mounted by ENO.

L’Amour de loin, also at the Coliseum was less thrilling, the work itself rather static and derivative (although a salute to the company for putting it on). The Enchanted Pig, surely one of the most performed new “operas” of recent times, is currently packing them in at the Linbury and catering for the all-important younger audience.

New Pleasures

Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt made it to the UK after more than 80 years in Willy Decker’s superb production and the Royal Opera House also resurrected Thomas Arne’s even older (1762) Artaxerxes in another tremendous staging (full marks to both Martin Duncan and Ian Page of Classical Opera Company for their work on that). Both proved that opera doesn’t have to have been written yesterday to be new and exciting.

Something for the Traditionalists

Of some 60 operas I saw this year, only half a dozen or so could have been called “traditional” (take note Mr Billington). Those looking for cosy, safe representations were served with revivals of I Capuleti e i Montecchi, La bohème, Il trovatore, Carmen and Tosca at the ROH.

ENO didn’t play as safe but also didn’t always succeed so well, with new productions of La bohème and Così fan tutte which were hardly universally praised. Personally, I enjoyed Jonathan Miller’s approach to the Puccini, but found the Mozart, by film director Abbas Kiarostami, horribly dull and conservative.

Away from the Main Houses

One of the joys of living in London is some of the work done away from the main houses. This year, I particularly enjoyed Transition Opera’s sparkling video-based production by Netia Jones of John Blow’s Venus and Adonis at Wilton’s Music Hall. English Touring Opera had a bumper season with their five-opera Handelfest and OperaUpClose did what is says on the tin with La bohème at the Cock Tavern, Kilburn.

Opera Holland Park continues to do sterling work over the quiet Summer months. This year, of the two operas I saw there, I had a preference for the “West Wing” inspired Un ballo in maschera. I have to make special mention of Blackheath Hall’s community opera Orpheus and Eurydice because it was, well, rather special.

The Turkeys

No round-up would be complete without a look at the dismal failures of the year. Fortunately, there weren’t too many of them but the Royal Opera’s double bill of Dido and Aeneas and Acis and Galatea was one. At the same venue (but not the same management), the Mariinsky’s Ring under Valery Gergiev was a disgrace but the all-out Most Excruciating Evening For a Very Long Time was The Beggar’s Opera in the Linbury Studio. I still shudder at the thought of it.


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